February 01, 2004

Bush's Drawbacks: Reckless Incompetence, Media Spinners Running Policy, Nihilism on a Grand Scale

Mark Schmitt takes on the Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein, who is either a out-and-out troll saying things he doesn't believe or is remarkably uninformed about both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush:

The Decembrist: Back to Nixon-loving, Bush-hating: David Bernstein, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy, combines two ideas that are both wrong: First, that Bush is like Nixon (a point I've written about before, and, second, that Bush-hating is an irrational response, given Bush's Nixonian spending on health and education, which liberals would applaud if they weren't so blinded by Bush-hatred. Here's Bernstein's main post, and there are some follow-ups later.

Bernstein claims that those who disagree with him take one of three positions: (1) deny that the increases occurred or argue that they weren't enough, (2) argue that spending on these and other domestic needs will be horribly constrained by the revenue shortfalls in future years or (3) complain that they money goes to purposes they don't agree with, such as school vouchers. I won't take the first position, the second is true even under Bush's own budget assumptions, and as for the third: well, different people have their own views, but I favor experimentation with school vouchers, so for me, that's not the point.

I've done this topic to death, so I should try to respond briefly and calmly.

First, there were plenty of reasons to hate Nixon, and social spending isn't the only thing that even liberals measure a president by. It's not for no reason that Nixon resigned under imminent threat of impeachment, after a group of Republican leaders decided they had had enough of a lawless presidency. It's true that only the hindsight of history has fully revealed the degree to which Nixon's domestic presidency was a continuation of, rather than a break with, the generally expansive trend of government in the Kennedy and Johnson years, and had liberals understood that, they might have looked at Nixon in a slightly different light, though he's no less guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. But the difference between Nixon and Bush is simply this: Nixon's initiatives, except for wage and price controls, were good, serious efforts. They were relatively clear-cut, well-designed, and the resources were appropriate to the task. The EPA and SSI (the Social Security benefit for people who can't work because of disabilities), to take two examples of Nixonian liberalism, are generally popular, sound programs that no one questions. The Bush initiatives, on the other hand, are a mess: complicated, intrusive, and ineffective.

Second, liberalism is not about throwing money at problems. It's about trying to solve public problems by public means. As a liberal, do I celebrate the news that the Medicare bill will cost more than $500 billion, rather than $400 billion -- a 25% cost overrun in just two months? Of course not. In fact the news gives me a pain in the pit of my stomach. It doesn't mean we're doing 25% better at solving the health care problems of seniors. It just means we're doing whatever it is the bill does even less efficiently. The bill doesn't do the job, at any cost, and so every dollar spent on it is a dollar that's taken away from what could be a more effective program, or from long-term fiscal stability. The same is true in education, where No Child Left Behind is a mess, and makes so many more promises and demands than can possibly be met with the funding available, and thus invites deceit.

The shorter version of Paul O'Neill's complaint inThe Price of Loyalty, after all, is "I thought this would be the Nixon or Ford administration, but it wasn't." What liberals dislike about Bush is the very same thing that O'Neill disliked: reckless incompetence, Karl Rove running policy, nihilism on a grand scale.

Here's the difference between Nixon and Bush: When Nixon left, his successor could proclaim that "our long national nightmare is over." With Bush, we'll be feeling the consequences for generations.

Posted by DeLong at February 1, 2004 01:02 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

A modest proposal: rather than arguing if Bush is a liberal or not lets get together with fiscally conservative Republicans and kick him out. A catchphrase for this election: "We will not let Bush bankrupt America".

Posted by: Leopold on February 1, 2004 01:23 PM


Can't we just use the opposition argument of the 2000 election (kind of like political judo...)?

If you want a liberal governing you, elect a real liberal.

Posted by: troll_not on February 1, 2004 01:58 PM


The description of SSI as a Social Security benefit for disabled people is incomplete. SSI was actually meant to supplement the income of very low income of elderly and/or disabled Americans. In fact, anyone who has worked and earned a set number of quarters of coverage (fewer quarters required for people under 31) and becomes disabled by SSA's standards, is entitled to receive a Social Security disability insurance monthly cash benefit and after, 24 months of receiving benefits, becomes eligible for Medicare coverage. Such a person might also receive SSI if his/her SSDI monthly benefit was quite low and he/she did not have other "countable" income and resources. If you are entitled to SSI benefits you are (usually) entitled to Medicaid coverage as well. SSI was a "Great Society" program I believe, not a Nixon program.

Posted by: sh on February 1, 2004 02:30 PM


A quibble on No Child Left Behind from a 3d generation educator: it would still be a mess if it were fully, even excessively, funded.

Posted by: rjrjr on February 1, 2004 02:57 PM


no, Schmitt is right. SSI was passed in 1972, in reaction to Nixon's FAP ('Family Assistance Plan') proposal. I usually double-check my own memory before I call Schmitt on political history or our own host here on economic history. the experts are usually better than my own slipshod memory.

on Nixon, my wife, who'd be a New Deal Democrat if they still existed, calls him the last liberal US president. granted, this says as much about her focus on actual domestic policy to the exclusion of all else as it does about Nixon and his successors. still, if you judged him only on all actual domestic policies enacted during his presidency, the statement is almost certainly true.

I dislike Nixon (and Kissinger! ugh!) as much as the next fellow, but you have to recognize that some potentially fine policies resulted from his administration.

Posted by: wcw on February 1, 2004 02:58 PM


The confusion may stem from Mr. Bush being the antithesis of a FISCAL conservative. It is also an attempt to obsure how much revenue has decreased (no one talks about that). All the focus is on spending. Spending increases are dwarfed by revenue loss. If we had Clinton revenue as % of GDP today, we would be close to balance.

Maybe they think of Bush as liberal because he would rather be re-elected than to cut all the social programs on the conservatives list.

Posted by: bakho on February 1, 2004 03:03 PM


"Liberalism is not about throwing money at problems. It's about trying to solve public problems by public means. As a liberal, do I celebrate the news that the Medicare bill will cost more than $500 billion, rather than $400 billion -- a 25% cost overrun in just two months? Of course not."

Do I ever agree.

Posted by: anne on February 1, 2004 03:32 PM


anne, as usual, is right on the money: this was a great piece by the decembrist, just great.

thanks for bringing it to our attention, brad.

Posted by: howard on February 1, 2004 05:03 PM



You got it dead right. The administration exemplifies nihilism. I don't think anyone could have expected this in the United States. Where are the honest Republicans?

Posted by: Knut Wicksell on February 1, 2004 07:16 PM


I don't know if W is a nihilist. Sounds like too fancy a word for someone who is just a no nothing greed head doing the bidding of other greed heads.

Posted by: tstreet on February 1, 2004 07:57 PM


W heard the Allmighty tell him to send American troops in Iraq. Maybe He also told him that deficits don't matter if he has enough faith? I think the guy is just a deluded brat surrounded by the worst kind of greedy cynics. I also think that after 9-11, they all got so drunk on the manna of political capital with which the American people entrusted them, they started to believe that even gravitation was a red herring only taught anymore by communist professors in atheist gay-agenda-supporting universities.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on February 1, 2004 08:29 PM


These people are no idiots. They know what they are doing. They are committing highway robbery on a mega scale. They are robbing Americans and the rest of the world of wealth, freedom, dignity, and opportunity -- for at least a decade, if not two. And I think they are still not happy and getting less happy by the day because they are becoming more and more aware of the the futility of what they are doing. I hope their desparation will not lead them to madness.

Posted by: bulent on February 1, 2004 10:05 PM


Bernstein's logic is pathetic. When I first read his post, I thought he must be making a little joke. What sophistry.

He basically writes:

Liberals like (bigger government1)
Bush has given (bigger government)
Therefore Liberals should like Bush.

But, of course 1. there are many things other than the size of government that are important to liberals, and 2. the "bigger government1" should be replaced with "a particular type of expanded government programs, working for particular goals, funded in a particular manner, completely inconsistent with the goals and actions of the bush administration" And this goes far beyond vouchers.

Posted by: mrkmyr on February 1, 2004 10:50 PM


Hear, hear, Brad.

I have long wondered now why Volokh keeps Bernstein on. Most of the posts there are clever, at least, and even when I disagree with them they stretch my thinking.

Bernstein, on the other hand, clearly prefer red-meat conservatism, and above all to declare himself a victim. He's well on his way to becoming David Horowitz.

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Posted by: オンラインカジノ on February 2, 2004 11:05 PM


'Here's the difference between Nixon and Bush: When Nixon left, his successor could proclaim that "our long national nightmare is over." With Bush, we'll be feeling the consequences for generations.'

Or is it that we have left a financial world that we thought we understood... and mastered... and now the boat is starting to list (Badly?)?
It would be nice to know that the captain knows what he's doing but so far the evidence is thin. Mighty thin.
IMO, the world has become a more complicated place. The security ( esp financial) that we used to take for granted, now eludes us ( I mean me of course).
The Nixon era financial landscape was as barren and bald as the moon compared to the present day's. What was the notional amount of derivatives in Nixon's day?
Not $41 Trillion.
The debate, for instance, of whether AG will raise the prime or not illustrates ( I mean for me of course) this complexity. It is not a domestic issue ( is it?) but an international one. Sure, Tanaka is not a member of the board but the interests of Japan are paid some attention. And in Nixon's era?
Ah... that cute cozy Tricky Dicky period.

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Posted by: Online Casinos review on February 4, 2004 11:50 AM


"reckless incompetence, Karl Rove running policy, nihilism on a grand scale."

These are alleged to be why Bush is hated. Let's take them in reverse order:

1. Nihilism means "Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value." Bush is usually criticized for the opposite reason -- being guided too much by religious values.

2. Good policy is important, not whether Karl Rove is running it. If one liked Bush's policies, one wouldn't mind if they came from someone other than Bush.

3. Reckless incompetence. This is the nub of the complaint. I think another way to phrase this complaint is that Bush has set out to do big things, and actually accomplished quite a few: Tax cuts. No Child Left Behind. War on Terror. Overthrow of the Taliban. Democracy in Afghanistan. Overthrow of Saddam. Democracy in Iraq. Homeland Security Dept. Partial Birth Abortion ban. Prescription drug coverge for seniors. Patriot Act.

I think a lot of critics would rather see the government spin its wheels. They're interested in never making errors. Real world actions are imperfect, so they'd rather see a President not do too much.

Some critics say they oppose Bush's actions because he won fewer votes than Gore. However, if they agreed with Bush's programs, I don't think they'd care how many votes he won.

Posted by: David on May 19, 2004 09:04 AM


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