The Has-been

If Not Now, Then

Is politics better off than it was 10 years ago?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday, June 23, 2006

Then and Now:Slate has always been about far more than politics. But the 10th anniversary of what has become the nation’s best-read political magazine is an excuse to reflect on the less impressive fate of the political world it covers.

Slate arrived on the political scene at a propitious moment. Today, we look back on the decade of the 1990s as a period of great economic and social progress—especially compared to the domestic paralysis and ineptitude of the Bush years. But at the time, the 1990s didn’t actually begin to feel like glory days until the summer of 1996.

Politically, the first half of that decade was as volatile as any in memory. In 1990, the first Bush’s decision to raise taxes and the House bank scandal savaged both parties in Washington. Clinton and Perot together won 62 percent of the vote for their respective reform agendas in 1992, then Gingrich and his fellow Republicans swept Congress with a radically different reform agenda in 1994. Those political tectonic plates collided in the winter of 1995-96, and by the following summer the magma was just starting to cool.

Economically, the long boom was well under way by 1996, but Americans hadn’t noticed yet. Anxiety lingered from the deep recession of the early ‘90s, and the Dow was only halfway to 10,000. Not until the end of that summer, after Clinton signed a landmark bipartisan welfare reform bill, would a majority of Americans concede what they believed with increasing conviction throughout the rest of the decade—that America was on the right track.

Slate’s first issue appeared on June 24, 1996. That same day, a front-page story in the Washington Post declared, “Democrats’ Agenda Aims for the Middle.” The Post reported that House and Senate Democrats had unveiled a 21-point congressional campaign agenda designed “to move the party to the political center and appeal to swing middle-class voters in an effort to regain control of Congress in this fall’s election.”

A few weeks earlier, the Post’s congressional correspondent wrote a story under the headline, “Democrats Credit GOP ‘Extremism’ for Their Newfound Bonding.” The article declared, “President Clinton and congressional Democrats have made peace—and Democrats give Republicans most of the credit.” The story quoted DLC chair Joe Lieberman (“Their excesses have reminded us there is more that unites us than divides us”) alongside a supportive Rep. Barney Frank (“The Republicans freed Clinton to make a sensible defense of Democratic principles without having to worry about the Democratic left”).

This week, as Slate celebrates its 10th anniversary, the only story on Democratic ideas ran on the Post’s federal page. As the Post reported, the bigger news—despite five long years of GOP extremism that could have brought Democrats together—was the attempt by “lefty bloggers” to “knock off Joe Lieberman.” Apparently unaware of the irony, a Democratic strategist was quoted in the same paper the next day declaring, “The old centrist-liberal debate in the party is to some extent dead. I think people have lost interest in that.” Advantage: Then.

In June 1996, in a bitter slap to the Republican Senate majority leader’s presidential ambitions, a rebellious faction of House conservatives forced their leadership to drop its ideological demand for poison pills that would doom welfare reform and instead work with the White House to negotiate a bill that President Clinton could sign into law.

This week, in a bitter slap to the Republican Senate majority leader’s presidential ambitions, a rebellious faction of House conservatives forced their leadership to accept their ideological demand for poison pills that will doom immigration reform and refused to work with the White House to negotiate a bill that President Bush can sign.  Advantage: Then.

A few days before Slate’s launch in 1996, the lead story in the New York Times was, “Clinton’s Surprising Strength Forces Dole to Court South.” A New York Times/CBS News poll that month showed Clinton leading Dole in the South by 47 percent to 41 percent.

Ten years later, after elections in 2000 and 2004 in which Democrats failed to carry a single Southern state, The New Yorker reported that DNC chair Howard Dean remains confident that hiring a few organizers will one day make the party competitive again in the region.  Advantage: Then.

In the first issue of Slate, Jodie Allen wrote a piece (complete with charts and graphs) titled, “The Temptation of Bob Dole,” warning him not to fall into the supply-side trap by endorsing a tax cut the country couldn’t afford. The archived version of her article offers this charming stage direction: “[NOTE: JODIE HAS SUPPLIED this graph].”

Ten years later, the supply-side temptation remains—but there aren’t any taxes for the wealthy left to cut. [NOTE: GEORGE HAS SUPPLIED this graph ].  Advantage: Then.

So, while Slate is even better than it was 10 years ago, American politics cannot make the same claim. But the news isn’t all bad: The country once again seems to be growing restless for the kind of progress it made a decade ago, when both parties were forced to work together for awhile against their wills. The tectonic plates may not be finished with each other yet, but they look pretty spent.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Prison Break: After five years of taking orders from a fellow inmate who rewarded obedience with cigarettes and punished rebellion with solitary confinement, House Republicans have finally decided to make a run for it. Yesterday, they told Speaker Dennis Hastert they’ve seen enough of the Justice Department and he should forget about reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Earlier this week, they persuaded their leadership to bury immigration reform by holding field hearings on what’s wrong with the president’s approach.

Over the last year, House conservative frustration has been building. Their first instinct was to throw the bums out. On reflection, they realized, “Wait—we’re the bums.” Now they’ve decided to let the bums fall where they may.

Since Republicans took over Congress in 1994, the House has gone through a few of these binge-purge cycles. Gingrich lost control of his troops after Clinton signed the balanced budget agreement in 1997. That rebellion was about attitude, not ideology: House conservatives decided they hadn’t come to Washington to let a Democrat balance the budget. This week’s rebellion is a similar lament: The right wing didn’t come here to help a Republican welcome immigrants.

Hammer Time: Tom DeLay lost the House rank and file by getting indicted, which brought the corruption hounds a little too close for comfort. Hastert seems to have held on to the gavel primarily by making clear that he will leave after one more term.

For years, DeLay played the Happy Villain, brandishing his WWF reputation as “The Hammer” to suggest that fear kept the masses in line. But House discipline has been as much about carrots as about sticks. For the privileged (and perhaps soon-to-be-booked) few, that meant lavish furloughs at the world’s finest golf courses. For most, it meant a steady diet of earmarks, and all the supposed benefits they bring.

Today’s Washington Post shows why earmarks make members look bad, no matter what their motivations. The Post says Hastert intervened to secure $8 million in funding for a highway project 5 and a half miles from investment property that he later sold for a $2 million profit. Rep. Ken Calvert obtained a similar $8 million earmark for his district in California and also made a deal that doubled his investment.

More than likely, Hastert and Calvert would have turned handsome profits without the earmarks and sought the funding to feather their constituents’ nest, not their own. But were the $8 million freeway interchanges they purchased with federal money anywhere near as shrewd an investment for the taxpayers as the land they bought and sold with their own money for themselves? Not likely.

Cold Turkey: What can we do to help Congress break its expensive, addictive earmarking habit? For months, reformers have pleaded in vain for the Republican majority to stop worrying about the narrow political benefit of bringing home the bacon—which front-page stories like the one in today’s Post render a mixed blessing—and consider the collective political benefit of banning earmarks altogether.

If Congress refuses to ban the practice outright, the administration could actually save money by bribing members to stop earmarking. To be sure, the U.S. government can’t just march right into the Capitol and put a million dollars in every congressman’s freezer. Most would reject it on principle. A few don’t have the room. And then there would be those who consider it unconstitutional for the executive branch to show up unannounced with either a search warrant or a satchel of cash.

The Bush Justice Department and OMB could get around those problems by launching a new service that would serve as a kind of Congressional Peapod. Like its namesake, the online grocery company, Congressional Peapod could issue every member an outdoor cooler for each week’s delivery—solving the earmarks problem and the separation of powers issue in one fell swoop.

If that approach is too blatant, Congress could still save the taxpayers a fortune by giving every member a modest earmark voucher. Instead of buying all 435 House members an $8 million freeway interchange, the House leadership could give each member a $1 million annual pork allowance to invest in projects in their district as they see fit. Legalized bribery—or a quick way to shave the deficit by $3 billion? You make the call.

Then again, perhaps members could just own up to the fact that earmarks aren’t really worth the trouble. The great irony of the explosion in earmarks is that House members are working so much harder to secure pork for their districts at the same time that redistricting has made it nearly impossible for those members to lose, whether or not they deliver the goods.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

There Goes the Neighborhood: Several months ago, my office mates and I weren’t sure how to react to news that Tom Ridge had rented space in our building. At first, we took comfort: That must mean our location is safe! Never mind that we’re only a few blocks from the Capitol—the former secretary of Homeland Security wouldn’t pick an office building unless he was confident it would withstand terrorist attack. If nothing else, we figured he might put a color-coded sign in the lobby with our building’s threat level for the day.

Before long, however, peace of mind gave way to anxiety. We remembered Ridge’s obsession with duct tape and plastic sheeting and wondered whether when it comes to security, he might be one of those do-it-yourself types. Isn’t that the quality that landed him a seat on the board of Home Depot? Obviously, he viewed our building as a fixer-upper—a security nightmare that could only be avoided with the right tools.

In time, we had an even worse thought. It didn’t matter whether or not Ridge thought our building was safe—his very presence in the building placed us all in grave danger. What could be a more tempting target for al-Qaida than to go after its longtime adversary—who was no longer protected by a posse of bodyguards in the DHS fortress, but just parking his Mercedes in our garage and riding up and down the elevator with us. If there was even a 1 percent chance that Ridge was a terrorist target, we knew we were innocent bystanders just waiting to happen.

By that point, we were in full panic. But last month, the Ridge sightings stopped. We told ourselves he must have moved his office to another building, and we breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief.

Then it hit us—he must have left our building for a reason. Around the office, a new consensus emerged: We’re doomed! An attack is imminent, and our building is ground zero.

Movin’ On Up: After Sunday’s New York Times exposé on the revolving door at DHS, we can breathe easier: Tom Ridge got too rich to have an office above a Sizzler’s Express.

The Times series is a hacks-to-riches story of high-ranking officials who’ve left to cash in on their DHS ties. The revolving door is hardly a new problem in Washington—even in the midst of the Abramoff-Buckham scandals, Congress can’t even seem to bother itself to increase the cooling off period between governing and lobbying from one year to two—when it ought to be five years or more.

But the Homeland Security revolving door stands out in two ways. First, Homeland Security is the first Cabinet department to be created in the modern era of high-stakes lobbying. It opened its doors in 2003, at the peak of the K Street Project and at the beginning of a gold rush in homeland security contracts. The same people who created the agency got to cash in on the boomlet. Former Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, now running for governor of Arkansas, holds $1.2 million in stock options from Fortress America Acquisition, which owes its very existence to his former department.

DHS is more than just another bloated agency. It’s the first federal IPO.

Second, it may well have been a fraudulent one at that. When Bush created the mammoth bureaucracy, with its 170,000 employees, the administration insisted that success in the war on terror depended on combining dozens of federal functions under one roof. That decision hobbled previously successful agencies like FEMA. Meanwhile, DHS—too big to succeed, too big to let fail—has been in a constant state of reorganization ever since.

But now it turns out that the same people who brought us this monstrous conglomerate had no faith in the value of putting everything under one roof, either. At other departments, revolving-door restrictions prohibit former employees from lobbying the agency they just left. But senior DHS officials persuaded the Office of Government Ethics to rule that for revolving-door purposes, DHS was actually seven different departments. That way, ex-DHS officials could immediately lobby former colleagues from a different branch of the same agency.

As a result, the country gets the worst of both worlds: an unwieldy, one-size-fits-all bureaucracy that fails in a crisis, and a bonanza for lobbyists who are all the more necessary because the department is impossible to navigate without their services. FEMA lost its independence, but Michael Brown can lobby the other six-sevenths of the agency at will.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Up the Down Staircase: By the short-term political calculus of Washington, George Bush has had a banner week—watching the military blow up an evil madman in Iraq and the special prosecutor decide not to blow up Karl Rove. With the usual exquisite timing, the Democratic Party waited for the first good news out of Iraq in a year to slap a giant bumper sticker on its forehead that says, “Ask Me About the War.”

But in the arc of political history, this week may well be remembered as the end of Bushism, not a new beginning. Rove, the adviser most responsible for making the Bush years a shallow political exercise doomed to political and substantive failure, won the right to keep it up. Michael Gerson, the adviser who most wanted his boss to serve a higher purpose, is throwing in the towel.

Compassionate conservatism has been dead for some time. It will not be revived. The last true believer has left the building.

Michael Gerson didn’t invent compassionate conservatism. That credit belongs to Newt Gingrich and the Republican class of 1994, who carried antigovernment conservatism to its logical and highly unpopular conclusion—thereby making it impossible for any Republican to win the presidency without a kinder, gentler version.

At that point, Gerson was working with Indiana Sen. Dan Coats on ways to make two great institutions in American life—faith and government—attack common problems like poverty. After our bitter struggle to stop Republicans from shutting down the government, Bill Clinton and the rest of us at the White House had high hopes that this new strain of conservatism would prove to be a more constructive influence. Clinton met with Coats, and Gerson gave me a copy of their agenda.

Masters of Disillusion: Alas, the Republican spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Rove and others saw the political promise of compassionate conservatism and brought Gerson on to the Bush campaign to write the soundtrack.

But Gerson’s flourishes turned out to be just grace notes in an otherwise conventional composition. Far from a brave new doctrine, Bushism became merely the second coming of Reaganism—tax cuts for the wealthy, photo ops for the poor, favors for narrow interests, and deficits for the rest of us.

That’s Rove’s fault—and Bush’s. I’ve never looked in Bush’s heart, but judging from the way he talks about education or immigration—even without Gerson at the teleprompter—there’s enough compassion to have led the country down a different course. The hollowing of compassionate conservatism was a conscious choice—wrong on the merits and even on the politics. Ultimately, Bush decided that the lesson the country tried to teach Republicans in 1995 (do the right thing) paled alongside the lesson he learned from his father’s defeat in 1992 (do the right’s bidding).

Of course, in some ways, it’s Gerson’s fault, too. He made the conscious choice to move to Austin, Texas, in 1999 to put his faith in Bush as compassionate conservatism’s spiritual leader. By then, Bush’s hollow center was already apparent, and it was clear that John McCain, not George Bush, was the one interested in a genuine, heartfelt transformation of the Republican Party.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Artful Dodger: Karl Rove needed five grand jury appearances and one slick lawyer to avoid losing his job over the dirt he gave Matt Cooper. Yet chances are that Rove’s job will be safe even if a lot of Republican congressmen lose theirs this November because of the bad advice he has given President Bush.

The West Wing—or at least most of it—is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief that the Libby affair will now be primarily a vice-presidential trial. But considering how much damage Rove managed to do to Republican fortunes this past year in his spare time, Josh Bolten must be wondering whether regaining Rove’s full attention is such a bonanza, after all.

Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” For those in power, the corollary is also true: No state is more dangerous than exhilaration.

In a speech to the New Hampshire GOP last night, Rove jubilantly urged Republicans to get over Bush’s unpopularity and run on the economy and the war. “They’re for more spending. We’re for less spending,” he said, proving that in fact, the cover-up is easier than the crime.

If Bolten wants to prove that the White House has turned over a new leaf, he will have to find a way to quiet his exuberant colleague. That seems unlikely. When Bolten took his old friend down a notch, Rove phoned reporters to spin his own demotion.

Swan Song: More likely, the White House will gamble that Rovism can win one last campaign, even though the country has soured on its results. With its nostalgic Kerry-bashing, Rove’s stump speech sounds more and more like yesterday’s strategy. The swing looks familiar, but it just doesn’t travel as well without the steroids.

Rove will probably stay at the White House through November, in the hope that avoiding a midterm debacle, like dodging an indictment, will be a form of vindication. But even if Democrats don’t win in 2006, the Rove era is already over. The Republican Party of Mark Hanna and William McKinley is dead. Either they turn to Teddy Roosevelt, or they will be stuck in their own tub, like William Howard Taft.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but not necessarily wiser. In his New Hampshire speech, Rove made a curious historical allusion to Warren Harding, who escaped indictment the hard way, by dying in office. “This damn job will kill you,” he quoted Harding as saying. “But it will not this man”—namely, Bush.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006

That ‘00s Show: Last month, former advisers to former rivals Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford announced plans to use the Internet to launch a third party as an antidote to hyper-partisanship. The group, called Unity08, hopes to nominate a fusion ticket in 2008. As might be expected of a movement that spans the ‘70s and the ‘00s, its founders are disproportionately grandparents and college students.

This past week, bloggers gathered in Las Vegas for the YearlyKos convention. (Disclosure: Kos is not a big fan of my work.) The bloggers share a different goal: to use the Internet to make Democrats more aggressively partisan. Their leader stressed that the average age of the bloggers was 45. The MSM—obsessed with Baby Boomers—found bloggers in their 60s, perhaps in a mischievous attempt to suggest that a movement which spans the ‘60s and the ‘00s is disproportionately grandparents and college students.

Cry If I Want To: If bloggers are angry about being out of power, six years of being in charge has left conservatives downright despondent. On Friday, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay left Congress so he can spend more time with the criminal justice system. DeLay said his only regret was that his ruthless, partisan bloodlust didn’t go far enough.

His ruthless, partisan followers agree. Richard Viguerie has launched a Web site called to complain that Bush—the most partisan and conservative president in history, with the most partisan and conservative Congress—has destroyed the Republican Party by not being partisan and conservative enough.

Politics is more polarized, and both parties are more partisan, than anyone can remember. Yet on both sides, partisans are more frustrated than ever with their own parties, and non-partisans are most frustrated of all.

Across the spectrum, American politics has produced a remarkable paradox: Everyone on both sides hates the opposing party, but most are nearly as unhappy with their own.

Soul Searching: Can these parties be saved? Republicans have the more fundamental problem: Their base is demanding ever deeper fealty to a philosophy that everyone else in America can see just doesn’t work. As if we needed further proof, the FBI announced today that the crime rate is going up for the first time since the previous Bush administration. Republicans’ only hope is to build a better conservatism that doesn’t indenture the country to ideological interest groups and borrowing from the Chinese.

Democrats, who have a working philosophy for how to govern, have the seemingly simpler challenge of remembering how to win. But as Michael Grunwald and Dan Balz pointed out in yesterday’s Washington Post, becoming obsessed with victory doesn’t necessarily make it more likely.

In fact, the price of losing is that Democrats have squandered much of the last six years in a circular debate over campaign strategy. As Grunwald observes, the never-ending intra-party struggle over electoral tactics has had the perverse effect of making everyone involved seem less principled than they actually are.

A party in opposition can paper over its differences and unite against the other side. But in the long run, this is less a blessing than a curse. In order to govern, a party has to sort out its principled differences in a way that serves the country’s interests as well as its own.

For conservatives, Bush has done the opposite—siding with the conservatives where they’re wrong (for example, on big tax cuts for the wealthy), and breaking with them in the name of expedience on the rare occasions when they’re right (for example, their fear that the Medicare drug bill would turn out to be an expensive boondoggle).

Democrats would be a lot happier with ourselves and our party if we spent more time debating how we would make use of power, and less time debating how we regain it. Since 2000, Democrats have pretended that we largely agree on all the issues, and that we settled our philosophical differences during the Clinton years. But solving the challenges we face—forging a new social contract so Americans can get ahead again; making America safe; cleaning up the culture of corruption we campaign against—will require working through those differences all over again.