Special Section: Hunt Watch (Series 2)
What and Why
Everybody has a least favorite columnist. Mine (despite stiff competition from many quarters) is Al Hunt, whose smirking, inaccurate, idea-free, ad hominem insinuations have appeared in every Thursday's Wall Street Journal for more years that I care to look up. The purpose of this section is to subject Mr. Hunt's effusions to what I hope will be rational analysis. I shall do my best to be fair and, in particular, to give the target credit for any wisdom that he imparts. I'm not anticipating, however, that I will face that task very often.
Headline dates are those on which the column appeared. I don't expect to respond on the same day but will try to be more or less timely.
January 16, 2003
Al Hunt was, let us remember, opposed to invading Iraq unless President Bush “made the case” that Saddam Hussein could be deposed without the slightest risk or inconvenience (8/1/02), and he urged Democratic candidates before the last election to campaign against the impending war (9/5/02). Today he casts all that aside to complain that the President isn’t moving fast enough. “Initially, American commanders were told to be ready for a late January invasion; now the inside word is not before March. . . .” That, we are told, is a “success” for Saddam.
Moreover, the White House isn’t nearly bellicose enough on the Korean peninsula. “North Korea has made a mockery of Bush resolve”, primarily because the President has disclaimed any intention of launching a war against a nuclear-armed foe. Mr. Hunt thinks that softness toward Pyongyang is a mistake, just as he once derided the Administration’s hard line toward Baghdad.
The headline “More Confusion Than Clarity” [link of Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is a better description of Mr. Hunt’s state of mind than of President Bush’s policies. What is responsible for the columnist’s conversion from timid dove to rampaging super-hawk?
Hunt the Hawk would be welcome if he finally acknowledged that the President has “made the case”, but his flip-flop seems more typically Huntian: Whatever George W. Bush is doing must be wrong.
In Korea, he blames the President for having in some fashion caused Kim Jong Il’s intransigence and for not being sufficiently intransigent in return:
A linchpin of the Bush administration's national security approach was ABC – Anything But Clinton. Thus the 1994 pact with Koreans was denigrated, the South Koreans were chastised for promoting more engagement and North Korea, in a bow to affirmative action, was the one non-Islamic member of the Axis of Evil.
After the North Koreans acknowledged they were further developing nuclear capacities and would throw out international inspectors, abrogating the 1994 pact, the White House drew a hard line: no talks with this despicable regime until it capitulates. As the crisis grew and distracted the focus from Iraq, the administration sought to downplay it. Then, last weekend, in a scene out of Saturday Night Live, Bill Richardson, the former Clinton diplomat and newly elected Democratic governor of New Mexico, held talks with North Korean officials in Santa Fe, with the administration's blessing.
In the midst of this confusion, the White House took the military option off the table. Now a war on the Korean peninsula would be a cataclysm – in a riveting piece, experts on Ted Koppel's Nightline estimated casualties of more than a million – but declaring that under no circumstances would we use force didn't enhance our leverage with the North Koreans or with the Chinese or Russians. Image [sic] the outcry if Bill Clinton had done this.
What a careless mix of fact and fantasy. The Bush Administration did not “denigrate” the 1994 agreement with Pyongyang. It continued to adhere to the American side of the bargain, but at the same time it utilized intelligence resources to check whether North Korea had really shut down its nuclear program. It then confronted the North privately with evidence of violations, at which point Northern officials proclaimed that the pact was dead.
Since then the Administration has indeed taken a hard line, but not an irrational one. For the benefit of nervous South Koreans, we have engaged in talks, which we refuse to label “negotiations”, and have disclaimed any intention of all-out war against the North. At the same time, enemy leaders have little reason to feel reassured. In the midst of the crisis, Don Rumsfeld abruptly resurrected the “two war doctrine”, stating that the U.S. is capable of engaging in simultaneous regional conflicts in two theaters. As a generalization, that may be optimistic, but Pyongyang knows the state of its own armed forces: a conscript army delapidated by low morale, obsolete equipment, nugatory air power and shortages of petrol. The North can wreak a great deal of destruction, particularly if it possesses a few nuclear weapons, but it cannot hope to win, or even stalemate, a second Korean War. Kim Jong Il, if he has a shred of rational self-interest left, knows that all that preserves his kingdom are a minuscule nuclear deterrent and, far more importantly, South Korea’s reluctance to assume the burden of revitalizing a country devastated by the world’s worst totalitarian misrule.
Thanks to Bill Clinton’s disastrous failure to wipe out the North’s nuclear capability when that could have been done swiftly and with virtually no risk, Korea cannot be left on hold indefinitely. Nonetheless, the situation is less urgent than Iraq, where the overthrow of Saddam’s tyranny is the essential next step toward victory over organized terrorism. North Korea is less central, an ally of enemies but a peripheral one.
Bearing in mind the differences between Saddam and Kim, the Administration is following different strategies. Against North Korea, it treads the path of patient multilateralism that people like Al Hunt demanded against Iraq. As a backup, it has also begun laying the groundwork for the least messy solution to the problem by offering renewed aid in exchange for effective, verifiable disarmament, not limited only to atomic bombs. Kim and his cronies refuse to discuss that offer, and I doubt that anyone in Washington expected that they would. Its purpose is to tantalize members of the regime’s outer circle, to whom trading an expensive military for desperately needed food and fuel may sound attractive – and who are in the best position to arrange for the Beloved Leader to fall victim to some mysterious illness.
It is not a perfect strategy, but it is the best available for gaining American objectives while minimizing the danger of a holocaust in Seoul or Tokyo. Tossing in an explicit but non-credible threat of war, which is all that Mr. Hunt asks, would add nothing.
The “retreat” that Mr. Hunt detects in Korea is supposedly a source of consolation to Saddam Hussein, one of three reasons why “the Butcher of Baghdad”, as our neo-hawk now calls him, “probably feels better this week”. The other two:
• Success in his delaying tactics. Initially, American commanders were told to be ready for a late January invasion; now the inside word is not before March, and the British foreign minister pegs the odds of war at less than 50/50. Based on experience, the Iraqi dictator views time as an ally.
• American clarity has dissolved back into chaos and conflict. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld keeps steadily amassing American troops in the region, but Secretary of State Colin Powell's diplomatic front is moving just as inexorably.
Are we to take it that Mr. Hunt now scorns liberal demands that the United States accumulate allies and U.N. approval before moving against Baghdad? If so, it looks more and more like he has gotten his desire. The gathering of American forces in the Persian Gulf has go on, heedless of “the U.N. weapons inspectors, with their predictable inability to find any smoking gun [who] have prolonged closure in Iraq”. Mr. Hunt seems willing to concede what the President has been saying almost daily, that Iraq has displayed only bad faith and practiced only obfuscation since the inspections began.
The key point that Al Hunt misses, as does Kenneth Pollack, whom he quotes as saying, "If it's war, he [President Bush] has to lay out the case much more than he has to the American people and the world and then proceed,” is that the President no longer has to persuade anybody. He presented the rationale for regime change months ago (assisted, it is proper to note, by books like Mr. Pollack’s The Threatening Storm). He has Congressional authorization to wage war, will soon have an overwhelming force in place and has arranged for such allied logistical support as will be needed. Saddam’s last coterie of Arab allies is now trying to induce the tyrant to give up the contest in exchange for his life and a modicum of freedom. To label Iraq’s “delaying tactics” a “success” shows an odd incomprehension of what failure looks like.
What about “chaos and conflict”? Any contradiction between the Administration’s military and diplomatic moves is hard to discern, but its ill wishers continue to take solace in alleged internecine conflicts.
. . . insiders say testy relations between Colin Powell and Vice President Cheney have worsened recently, as the Cheney camp blames the secretary of state for what it sees as the U.N. quagmire.
So where's George W. Bush.? The post Sept. 11 zeitgeist [sic] was "George Bush may not know all that much but he has all these great advisers who steer him on the right course." But what happens when these smart advisers disagree?
Well, the “smart advisors” disagreed on a lot: on the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks, on how to proceed against the Taliban, on whether to bind the U.S. to act only in concert with the U.N., on when and whether to ask for the equivalent of a declaration of war, on whether to build up our forces on the scene without waiting for reports from Hans Blix’s cadre of Clouseaus. Smart advisors frequently disagree, and a set that didn’t would not be worth very much. It has been up to the President to decide among alternatives, and he has done a rather good job. Predictably, Mr. Hunt thinks that the choices were easy:
Actually George Bush's post-Sept. 11 performance, while winning deserved plaudits, wouldn't have been much different with any other president. On North Korea, the Middle East or Iraq, he has to earn his pay.
There is a thesis that has been put to the test. Bill Clinton also had to “earn his pay”, and how did he do it? By missing the chance to strangle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in its cradle; by browbeating Israel into accepting the unworkable Oslo accords; and by leaving his successor a steadily unraveling “containment” of Iraq.
The war is still, alas, young, with plenty of tough decisions ahead. The President could lose his touch and muddle the next phase of the war. If he had listened to Al Hunt, he would already have muddled the last one.
Additional thought, 1/22/03: Mr. Hunt makes much of divisions within the ranks of the President's advisors. Here's a different perspective, from former Bush speechwriter David Frum:
Presidents often like to have opposing pairs of advisers around them: think of Reagan with James Baker and Ed Meese. Bush is no exception to this rule. And in fact you could say that administrations that succeed in stamping out internal debate are the ones headed for trouble: look at what happened to Bush 41 after John Sununu and Richard Darman succeeded in stamping out all internal dissent. I bet that Bush feels he benefits from the contrasting advice he gets from Rumsfeld and Powell. And who is to say he’s wrong? When Powell publicly – or semi-publicly – opposes the administration’s Iraq policy for months and months, and then (as he is doing this week) suddenly swings around and declares that he too is now convinced that military action is the only workable policy, does that not have the effect of dramatically strengthening the case for war?
January 9, 2003
The headline “This Senate Won’t Be Any ‘Saucer’ in 2003" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] may sound a trifle esoteric. Has Al Hunt been watching reruns of X-Files? No, his referent is George Washington’s prediction that the Senate would be "the saucer that cools" the hot liquid sent over by the House of Representatives.
Our first President meant that the House members, constantly nervous about reelection, would pass momentarily popular measures that the more aristocratic Senators would then subject to thoughtful scrutiny. It was not one of his better prophecies.
Mr. Hunt takes the words in a different sense: that the Senate was expected to be more placid than the House. He thinks it a revelation that it isn’t:
The Senate, even before the new session began this week, had a remarkable two-month roller coaster; it's not going to get much smoother.
Most of what follows is devoted to the question of how effective Bill Frist will be as Majority Leader. It is really too pedestrian for comment. The only interesting thing about the column is what it leaves out, namely, the early signs that what will make the Senate most exciting this year will be the shrill intransigence of the minority party. One expects the opposition to oppose, but this year it is leading off with heavy rhetorical artillery. Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, says of President Bush’s judicial nominees, “For years, the federal courts served as the shield protecting basic civil rights in this country. This administration wants the courts to become the sword that destroys those rights.” (Vide Byron York, “Schumer on the Attack”.) For sheer hysteria, that statement is on a level with claims that Democrats want to abolish private property. If Senator Schumer believes that the White House is plotting to eliminate “basic civil rights”, he is seriously delusional. If he doesn’t believe it but wants others to, he is merely despicable.
Meanwhile, Tom Daschle, now the Minority Leader, can think of no better term for President Bush’s tax cut proposals than “obscene”. The centerpiece of that “obscenity” is eliminating double taxation of corporate earnings, an idea once advocated by Jimmy Carter (Bruce Bartlett, "Jimmy Liked It, Too"). Perhaps it is mistaken or ill-timed or otherwise flawed – but “obscene”?
Mr. Hunt can hardly be expected to notice such vituperative excesses, because they are in the same league as his own. From his TV perch on The Capitol Gang, he has, Punditwatch reports, compared the proposed dividend exclusion to the Teapot Dome scandal, which must be a strong contender for least rational analogy of the decade.
Words like these are melancholy evidence of the increasing resemblance, which I’ve noted elsewhere, between contemporary America and the later Roman Republic, but deeds matter more – and are just as discouraging.
Senator Daschle’s first action of the new legislative session has been to delay the adoption of a Senate organizational resolution, ostensibly because Republicans decline to accept his novel principle that the customary division of staff resources (two-to-one in favor of the majority party) shouldn’t be followed when that majority is only 51 to 49. He threatens to filibuster if the GOP won’t give in, thus partially nullifying the outcome of the last election by leaving the minority Democrats in control of all committees. (Update, 1/15/03: As I should have known would happen, the Republicans did give in. Maybe it was not worthwhile to resist Senator Daschle's extortion, but does anybody imagine that he will be similarly acquiescent if the Dems gain a 51-49 edge following the 2004 elections?)
The filibuster is the closest approximation to a nuclear weapon in a Senator’s arsenal. It is, in my view, a weapon that ought to exist. There are measures so consequential and so deeply opposed by portions of the country that it is reasonable to demand that their proponents muster a supermajority. The civil rights acts of the 1950's and 1960's fell into that category. Their passage was delayed a few years by the need to gather the votes to overcome Dixiecrat filibusters, but building a strong consensus in favor of equal rights did the country more good than would an earlier bill enacted by a slender margin.
Whether Senate funds should be split two-to-one or 55-45 is not in the same league. Nor are appointments to district and circuit courts, which Senator Schumer has been threatening to talk to death. A normal political party in normal times would not contemplate deploying means so disproportionate to their ends.
But the 21st Century Democrats look less and less like a normal political party and more like a perpetual vendetta. That, not Bill Frist’s alleged failure to understand the “enormity” (a Freudian slip on Al’s part?) of his position, is what will keep the Senate bubbling for the next two years.
January 2, 2002
Happy New Year! Al Hunt starts out 2003 with a surprise: "Bringing Accountability to New York City Schools" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], a piece that could just as easily have been written by, say, the New York Post's Robert A. George. Mr. Hunt has three children, so perhaps his opinions about public education have been mugged by reality.
The column's subject is Joel Klein, Mayor Bloomberg's surprise choice as chancellor of the New York City school system. Mr. Klein is most famous for leading the Justice Department's "Get Microsoft" offensive, and he now faces a challenge far more daunting than Bill Gates.
There are 1100 schools educating 1 million students in New York. The school budget is $12 billion annually, bigger the entire budget for the state of Wisconsin. New York City schools serve more meals than any government institution outside of the military.
There are excellent schools. But there are far more plagued by declining test scores (half the students are flunking the state's standardized tests) violence, drugs, more dropouts than graduations, anachronistic textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, toxic buildings, inadequate teachers and principals and a bloated bureaucracy.
* * * *
There are, says the new chancellor, a graduate of New York public schools, great assets. "We have a few of the finest schools in the world and several hundred good schools." But the challenge, he says, "is to change a culture built on avoidance of accountability."
Both Mr. Klein and, much to my surprise, Mr. Hunt have grasped the point that right-wing educational reformers have been trying to make for years: that money is not the panacea for urban education's ills:
"Its fine to talk about accountability and change," says a skeptical teacher from lower Manhattan's Stuyvesant high school. "But I have five classes of 34 kids apiece – 170 – that's what you need to change."
Sure, more resources are needed, replies the chancellor at this session honoring gifted students hosted by the New York Times Foundation. "But I'd rather have a great teacher with thirty kids than a mediocre teacher with 15 kids in the class." He stresses accountability and for more first-class principals to find and nourish great teachers: "Every great school has a great principal."
Not at all to anyone's surprise, the principals' union doesn't agree with that. It "has protested that a bonus for high-performing principals" – one of the new chancellor's measures – "is 'an unfair labor practice'." It is doubtless even less happy that he has, with the Mayor's backing "vowed to remove 50 non-performing principals, something no other chancellor has done".
He wants to give them better pay and far more leeway; currently most principals can't even pick their own assistants. In return, he will hold them accountable.
That isn't the kind of bargain that appeals to the union bosses. Mr. Hunt is pretty sure that the principals' union is too weak to put up much of a fight, but he does foresee two big sources of obstruction: "the more politically potent teachers union" and "the maelstrom of racial politics . . . . some African-American political leaders took a shot at Mr. Klein's appointment because he's not black".
Educational policy is so far the one bright gleam in "Nurse" Bloomberg's dreary nanny state. (Vide Robert A. George, "The Madness of King Michael".) It's also an area where there is hope for convergence of Left and Right. Only a besotted utopian will fantasize that Chancellor Klein will ever embrace, or liberals like Al Hunt applaud, school vouchers, charter schools, openness to home schooling, merit pay for teachers or other conservative nostrums. New York is still New York, and there are strict limits to the possible. But accountability is a good start.
December 26, 2002
“On Lives Lost and Beautiful Legacies” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is a sentimental title for a rather bald and unsentimental piece of writing, a series of quick notes on men who died in 2002, some of whom Al Hunt remembers fondly for their contributions to liberal politics. Leading off is, predictably, Paul Wellstone, an ineffective proponent of a moribund political philosophy but, by all accounts, an attractive and good-natured man.
The memory of Paul Wellstone remains vivid, not just because of his tragic death 11 days before last November's election; even more it's the memory of the best in American public life: people of principle who believe passionately but don't personalize differences.
Ironic words, coming from a writer who reduces political disagreements routinely to the level of personality traits. Liberals are thoughtful, courageous and compassionate; conservatives are arrogant, dishonest and fumbling. In the very next paragraph, we learn how liberal stands are evidence of rare courage, while conservative ones stem from “punitive” motives.
The Minnesota Democrat's last major vote was to oppose the Iraqi war resolution; he was the only member of Congress facing a tough re-election to swim against the public tide. He did the same thing six years earlier when he voted against the Clinton administration's punitive welfare reform legislation.
It isn’t really conceivable to Mr. Hunt that proponents of welfare reform might have any motive beyond punishing the poor, that they might sincerely believe, rightly or wrongly, that lifelong dependency on handouts makes the recipients worse rather than better off.
"Paul Wellstone leaves a beautiful legacy," notes Tim Pawlenty, the conservative Republican just elected governor of Minnesota. "I know a lot of people who disagreed with Paul Wellstone but everyone respected him." Dean Barkley, the political independent tapped to temporarily fill the final two months of his term, made his top priority in the lame duck session was obtaining funds to start the Wellstone Community Health Center in St. Paul.
At the risk of spoiling the atmosphere, I can’t help observing that Senator Barkley, appointed by that great reform icon Jesse Ventura, devoted all of his energy during his abbreviated term of office to winning pork for the state of Minnesota. Would it not have been a finer tribute to Paul Wellstone to have made some show of adherence to higher principles than getting as large a share as possible of other people's tax dollars?
After Senator Wellstone follow rapid-fire mentions of Herman Talmadge, Walter Annenberg, Howard K. Smith, Tom Winship, Danny Pearl, Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas, Sam Snead, Roone Arledge, Stephen Ambrose and John Gardner. It would be unfair to expect any depth from ten to 100 word sketches, but one in particular is, despite its superficial generosity, quite unfair.
A different model [this follows a couple of paragraphs on Herman Talmadge, who is bizarrely compared to Wilbur Mills] is Walter Annenberg, who died at 94 this year. Mr. Annenberg was a bad newspaper publisher; his Philadelphia Inquirer, which he sold in 1969 – often was used as an organ for his causes and vendettas.
But after he got out of the publishing business, he became one of the truly great philanthropists in America – the Jimmy Carter of his world, a great ex. He gave away billions of thoughtfully directed contributions to universities, the United Negro College Fund, art museums and inner-city public schools. (I have taught at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School.)
The Annenberg generosities and contributions in his later life were so impressive and important that they overshadow his earlier shortcomings in remembrances. That's a lesson for all in the public eye – redemption is possible, though no doubt easier if you've got billions.
I don’t know whether the Inquirer was any more an organ for its owner’s “causes and vendettas” than any other big city paper of its era. It certainly did not outdo Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, Marshall Field’s Chicago Sun-Times or the Graham family’s Washington Post on that score. Maybe they were all “bad newspaper publishers”, but it would show more perspective to say that they were publishers of a different kind, a species that has given way to colorless corporate ownership. The Inquirer is now a dull shade of gray. Was it so much worse under the Annenbergs that Walter needed “redemption” from his sins?
Moreover, Mr. Annenberg did not make his mark on American publishing with his Philadelphia newspaper but with Triangle Publications, which he inherited in 1942 and transformed from a near-insolvent gaggle of downscale magazines into one of the first great media empires. His accomplishments there included founding Seventeen and TV Guide, both distinctive additions to journalism if not culture. The Annenberg philanthropies are impressive, but he was also an outstanding businessman. And, by the way, a conservative Republican – President Nixon’s ambassador the Great Britain – though noting that fact might have clashed with Mr. Hunt’s idée fixe of “punitive” conservatism. How can there be a "beautiful legacy" from the Right?
December 19, 2002
This week’s Huntian effusion begins, “Al Gore's departure as a presidential candidate was anything but a zero-sum game” – demonstrating that Mr. Hunt has no idea of what a “zero-sum game” is. What he meant to say, in “Democrats 2004: A Jump Ball” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] was that the Democratic front runner’s withdrawal did not damage the prospects of any of the remaining candidates, an observation whose banality quite equals the dazzlingly obvious insights that one often hears from sports commentators. Can’t the chief of a major newspaper’s Washington bureau tell us something that we don’t already know?
Apparently not. Here are examples of the column’s insider reportage:
“The reality -- inconvenient for us instant experts -- is that there are imponderables between now and 2004: the economy, war and the performance of the candidates.”
“[E]very Democratic candidate will be against the Bush economic policies, pro-choice, against privatizing Social Security, anti-Saddam and claim the Bush foreign policy is too unilateral and the war on terrorism is faltering. Success will come to the one who carves out something different, an issue or a theme that makes him a more appealing agent for credible change.”
“A simple fact: In recent presidential contests, the candidate with the most money as the election year begins wins the nomination. With the front-loaded process, anyone back in the pack, money-wise, won't make it.”
“[A] presidential race is an enormously complicated strategic undertaking, fraught with totally unforeseeable perils. It is a difference in kind from any other political endeavor.”
“The front-loaded primary process -- it'll all be over by March 9 -- makes the initial tests more important; losers have no time to regroup.”
My first reaction was that I could skip this week’s commentary, but, upon further reflection, I think that one can learn a few things from Mr. Hunt’s very triviality. The questions that a pundit doesn’t think to ask can tell us much about his – and by extension a portion of liberal Democracy’s – state of mind.
The column’s subliminal message is that nothing is wrong with the contemporary Democratic Party. That Al Gore did not want the party’s 2004 Presidential nomination is no evidence that the honor is not worth having, and the basis of eventual nominee’s platform will be themes either familiar – “against the Bush economic policies, pro-choice [on abortion, naturally, not schooling], against privatizing Social Security” – or disingenuous – “anti-Saddam” (does Mr. Hunt really think that the Iraqi dictator will still be around in March 2004?; everybody including Jean Chretien will be "against" him by then), “the Bush foreign policy is too unilateral” (substituting procedural quibbles for substance), “the war on terrorism is faltering” (what Democrat is advocating its more vigorous pursuit?). There is no need for any new Democratic thinking, beyond “an issue or a theme that makes [the candidate] a more appealing agent for credible change”. This is the mentality of the Dole in 1996 campaign, unimaginatively waiting for the incumbent to drop the ball.
Since Mr. Hunt expects all of the Democratic contenders to deliver pretty much the same message, his discussion of their relative prospects focuses on tactical considerations: Who can raise the most money, assemble the most competent staff and win the crucial early primaries? Yet even this tactical appreciation leaves out one large element: How much appeal will each have to the party’s decisive constituencies, including plaintiffs’ lawyers, labor unions (in two slightly different flavors, government and private sector) and the feminist and civil rights victimology establishments?
Perhaps it is embarrassing for a partisan Democrat to say too much about the groups that dominate the nominating process. It is obvious, though, that John Edwards, a first term Senator of no special distinction, would not be in the race were it not for his appeal to other trial lawyers and that Joe Lieberman, who likes to emphasize his centrist credentials, had pressing reasons for fighting in behalf of federal unions during the debate on the homeland security bill. Some of the prospective candidates have clear head starts among particular groups: Senator Edwards with lawyers, Dick Gephardt with non-government unions, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean with the homosexual rights lobby. Most of the key segments seem, however, to be winnable by more than one contender. The true “inside story” of the race will be the subsidiary contests to gain the backing of such powers as the National Education Association, Emily’s List and Al Sharpton. Al Hunt will likely be privy to much of that tale, but I doubt that he will tell much of it on “The Capitol Gang” or in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.
One name never appears in the column: Hillary Clinton. The omission can hardly be an oversight. Post-Gore polls indicate that, if Senator Clinton were to seek the nomination, she would instantly leap far ahead of the field, in fact to the same dominant position that Mr. Gore occupied until his voluntary exit. Whether the junior Senator from New York will pick up the nomination that seems to lie within her easy grasp is bound to be one of the coming year’s conspicuous political questions. Yet Al Hunt does not ask it.
I cannot divine the motive for this unexpected reticence. Would attention to Mrs. Clinton perhaps make all too evident the truth of a proposition that Mr. Hunt denies, that “the Democratic aspirants are second-rate, with or without the ex-vice president”? It certainly is an undistinguished bunch. Senator Daschle, as a former Senate Majority Leader, has the most substantial credentials, but he held that post for less than two years, and the paucity of his accomplishments can be summarized by uttering his name in the same breath as Lyndon Baines Johnson or even Robert Dole. In the other House, Representative Gephardt has been the ineffectual leader of a minority party. Before he was tapped as a Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Lieberman was as obscure as Senators Edwards and Kerry are now. Governor Dean may be an popular figure in Vermont, but one doubts that his celebrity extends as far as New Hampshire.
Senator Clinton, for all of her manifest political and personal failings, is not a mediocrity. If she does stay on the sidelines in 2004, it will be, I surmise, for the same reason that Mr. Gore stepped away. Rather than be the next Mondale or Dukakis, she would like to be in a position to reassemble the Democratic Party between 2005 and 2008. Al Hunt, desperately denying that any reassembly will be necessary, trails several steps behind.
December 12, 2002
Like many other liberals, Al Hunt is good at espousing incompatible ideas without noticing any contradiction. “The Reign of Rovenomics” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] has two theses: First, “the Bush economic agenda is driven by politics more than policy or even philosophy” and “shuns unpopular choices”. Second, the essence of that agenda is “big breaks for the rich”.
Those two notions can be reconciled, of course, by the proposition that “big breaks for the rich” are a popular concept. Mr. Hunt edges in the direction of that possibility when he praises Bill Clinton for having enacted “a politically unpopular tax increase”. The Clinton tax hike was deliberately aimed at “the wealthy”, and the Democratic National Committee ran commercials during the 1994 election campaign emphasizing what a small percentage of taxpayers was affected. Yet it truly was unpopular, probably the biggest factor in the emergence of a Republican Congressional majority.
It would hardly suit Mr. Hunt’s purposes, though, to examine why middle class Americans don’t rally to soak-the-rich rhetoric. He is very fond of it himself, and his principal thesis this week, reached after a few forgettable paragraphs about the new nominees for Secretary of the Treasury and White House Economic Counsel, is that Bob Rubin, the architect of Bill Clinton’s economic policies, was “the most successful Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton” (how many Treasury secretaries between Hamilton and Rubin do you think that Mr. Hunt can name, much less assign a place in the pantheon of greatness?), the keys to whose success were higher taxes and the Mexican bailout (no discussion of the several rescue operations that followed and that, whatever their individual merits, added greatly to the “moral hazard” level of the international financial system).
As usual, Mr. Hunt’s argument is disorderly. Let us rearrange it into three parts. First, a defense of “Rubinomics”:
[T]he president's current top economist, Glenn Hubbard, charges [that] worries about spiraling deficits are the "nonsense" of "Rubinomics”. . . . Given the extraordinary economic performance during Mr. Rubin's tenure, we could use a little more nonsense. . . .
Budget deficits over a year or two aren't especially relevant and don't adversely affect interest rates. But a soon-to-be-released Brookings Institution paper conclusively refutes Mr. Hubbard's charges about Rubinomics. It shows that almost all major macroeconomic models and academic studies suggest that interest rates are affected by the longer term projected budget situation.
The Brookings study (William G. Gale & Peter R. Orszag, "The Economic Effects of Long-Term Fiscal Discipline") is now available (waiting for it is my weak excuse for being so late with this installment of “Hunt Watch”), and readers can judge for themselves whether it “conclusively refutes” anything. The authors do indeed employ a variety of statistical methods to demonstrate a correlation between projections of long-term federal budget deficits and current levels of interest rates. Correlation does not, however, prove causation, and the evidence of causation here is particularly weak. It is reasonable to hypothesize that, if lenders knew how much the federal government would be borrowing five to ten years from now, they would make commensurate adjustments to the return demanded on their loans. Unfortunately for them, they do not have that information. Deficit projections are among the least trustworthy of all economic forecasts, representing the relatively small difference between highly speculative estimates of revenue and spending. A year before the government ledger moved into a large surplus position, there was no estimate that did not predict deficits “as far as the eye can see”. Immediately after the passage of the 2001 tax relief act, projections were equally unanimous in foreseeing continuing surpluses – after taking the tax cuts into account. Basing real-world investment decisions on guesses of that sort would be consummate folly.
At the risk of unfairly criticizing men who far surpass me in economic and statistical expertise, I infer that they have fallen into a common trap of quantitative analysis: Convinced that interest rates are correlated with long-term deficit projections, they pored over the many and varied sets of projections available until they found one that displayed a statistically significant correlation to interest rate movements. A believer in the close relationship between interest rates and baseball standings could similarly hunt until he found a series of data that made a close fit. He would not thereby prove any causal relationship, merely that, among a sufficiently large number of data sets, some must show correlations that result from nothing more than coincidence.
The most fascinating feature of the Brookings study is one that Mr. Hunt does not mention, namely, its implicit repudiation of Keynesianism. In addition to arguing for a relationship between present interest rates and guesstimated future budget deficits, the authors contend that government deficits invariably reduce future economic growth by reducing aggregate saving. That position sharply differs from Keynes’ view that, during periods of economic stagnation or recession, deficit spending increases national wealth by “priming the pump” for economic activity that otherwise would not take place.
It is amazing how the budgetary arguments that I heard in my youth now stand on their heads. Liberals used to regard federal deficits as a positive good. Going beyond Keynes, they were happy to see them at every point in the business cycle. Conservatives meanwhile complained that government borrowing “crowded out” the private sector (that is, reduced aggregate saving) and caused inflation (a variant on the argument that they increase interest rates).
Many conservatives retain a sentimental attachment to balanced budgets, but they are today pretty nonchalant about deficits in the range of two or three percent of gross domestic product. The reason for this change of heart is rational: The Reagan Administration proved both that sound monetary policy can avoid turning deficits into engines of inflation and that deficits resulting from reductions in federal revenue, if accompanied by spending restraint, do not discourage private investment.
The liberal conversion to the virtues of surpluses has no similar basis in history. Those of the Clinton years were manifestly the product of economic growth rather than its instigator. Mr. Hunt would like to single out the tax increases enacted in 1993 as having helped to “pave the way for unprecedented economic growth”. He notes without comment that “federal outlays are 19.5% of the economy today, down from 22.2% 10 years ago, the last year of the first Bush administration”. The fall in the share of the economy controlled by the federal government was even sharper during the Reagan Administration. The big phenomena that the Reagan boom and the Clinton boom have in common are declining federal spending in relation to the size of the economy and Republican control of Congress. Is it not possible that those two factors deserve substantial credit for prosperity?
Having praised Rubinomics, one might expect Mr. Hunt to advocate applying it to the current economic situation, which he sees as dire (“unemployment rising and household income and the stock market falling” – none of which is accurate, though growth in the fourth quarter is uninspiring, probably well below the third quarter’s brisk four percent increase). So what would Dr. Rubin prescribe? The only way to reverse “a cumulative deficit approaching $3 trillion dollars over the next decade” is to combine major tax increases (just freezing the EGTRRA cuts won’t come near to doing the job) with draconian spending restraint. But Dr. Hunt does not embrace that remedy.
There are ways to achieve short-term stimulus without exacerbating the fiscal problems down the road: Extend unemployment benefits, as long-term joblessness is the highest in a decade; funnel more aid to fiscally pressed states to head off budget cuts or tax increases; or, on the tax side, enact a temporary payroll tax holiday or rebates targeted at working-class families.
All of those measures represent a traditional Keynesian approach, the very one repudiated by the Brookings paper to which Mr. Hunt gives so much credence. They are much like what Japan has been trying for the past decade with extraordinarily little success. That they would do much good in stimulating the U.S. economy is likewise doubtful. The main effect of extended unemployment benefits and temporary tax cuts targeted to lower income taxpayers would be to support consumer spending, which has not been a major weakness in the economy. Aid to the states does no more than shuffle funds between levels of government, with no net impact at all. I suspect that Mr. Hunt offers it in the hope that federal largess will cloak the disastrous performance of a Democratic governor and legislature in California.
Finally we come to Mr. Hunt’s substantive criticism of “Rovenomics”, which he defines thus:
the current economy needs a stimulus, it's okay to direct most tax cuts to the rich since they pay most of the taxes, spending ought to be curtailed, and, as the president's current top economist, Glenn Hubbard, charges, worries about spiraling deficits are the "nonsense" of "Rubinomics."
Mr. Hunt does not address why the White House thinks that cutting taxes will provide stimulus to the economy, and we shall leave that argument to another day. Instead, he concentrates his fire on the belief that –
the wealthy bear a vast and increasing burden of taxation.
That's not true. Highest income households actually pay a lower percentage of overall taxes than they did a couple decades ago; their income gains in recent years have far outstripped any increases in taxes or those of any other group. The Bush policies would accelerate the trend of the rich getting richer while ignoring what are probably more effective ways to help the economy over the longer haul.
This time Mr. Hunt cites no authority for his opinion that the rich are bearing a smaller proportion of overall taxes than they did “a couple [of] decades ago”. His statement is certainly not true (as I have discussed elsewhere) for income taxes, which provide a solid majority of federal revenue. Breaking down the burden of all taxes among income groups is difficult. The incidence of many taxes, particularly the corporate income tax, is controversial, while it is unclear how Social Security levies, which are more in the nature of a forced loan than a genuine tax, ought to be treated. Paying into a retirement system that gives all but the lowest income bracket a low or negative return on investment is an economic detriment but not on a par with turning funds over to the government without the prospect of any return.
If Mr. Hunt believes that wealthy Americans are contributing less than their fair share to the government’s coffers, he needs more than his own ipse dixit to make his case. In any event, the Administration’s principal argument for tax reduction is not that the current level of upper bracket taxation is immoral but that lowering it will have a positive economic impact by freeing funds for long-term investment. It is also an elementary fact that one can’t cut taxes much for people whose tax burden is already vanishingly small. The bottom 50 percent of taxpayers pay only four percent of all income taxes while earning over 13 percent of all taxable income, and refundable credits make total net taxes, including Social Security and state sales taxes, almost nil for the lowest brackets.
In his peroration, Mr. Hunt returns to his theme, that “the Bush administration shuns unpopular choices”. I don’t know to what extent “Rovenomics” is popular with the public at large, but Al has shown no reason why it ought not to be.
December 5, 2002
Hardly anybody can top my disdain for “The Mushy Moderates” (link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only), so I began reading the latest Hunt opus with hopes that this might be one of those weeks when Mr. Hunt and I would find ourselves in agreement. No such luck. What I find annoying about “moderates” (not all of them, but many) is their muddled thinking. What Mr. Hunt dislikes is their refusal to act like staunchly liberal Democrats. In fact, he throws quite a tantrum on the subject, starting with -
Ineffective protest, abject surrender and denial.
That, Rep. Barney Frank declares, is the political pathology of moderate Republicans.
Ah, Barney Frank, that epitome of true moderation, that keenly insightful observer of the GOP. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but I’ve never seen our Mr. Hunt quote, say, Rush Limbaugh as an authority of Democratic pathology.
Al’s “case study” of what the moderates do wrong is the new homeland security bill, whose history he recounts with his not-untypical blend of tendentiousness and falsehood.
After clobbering Democrats during the election for delaying action on a massive homeland security agency -- ignoring the White House's fierce resistance to such a proposal until it became politically unpalatable -- the House swiftly approved a measure in the lame duck session.
Al keeps repeating the line about “the White House’s fierce resistance”. Perhaps he believes it by now, but it has little basis in fact. In any event, Senate Democrats did prevent legislative action before the election, principally because the first bill passed by the House was not sufficiently friendly to labor union interests. The fact that the President endorsed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security in June rather than February did not somehow disqualify him from making a campaign issue out of further delay.
Unbeknownst to most members, it [the post-election House bill] included surreptitious special-interest provisions that gave Eli Lilly, a big GOP campaign contributor, immunity from lawsuits over a drug it made that some have linked to autism; gutted a provision that limits offshore corporate tax dodgers from homeland security contracts; and gave Texas A&M special treatment for a new anti-terrorism research center.
To hear a Beltway veteran like Al Hunt moaning about “surreptitious”, last minute additions to about-to-be-passed legislation is mildly amusing. We’ll get to the merits of the provisions in a moment. The first point to observe is that the Democrats have only themselves to blame for the White House’s ability to dictate the terms of the final bill. It could not have done so before November 5th, but Democrats did not want to pass a bill before the election, because they expected to be in a stronger position afterwards. The election outcome gave lawmakers the idea, true or false, that a strong majority of the American public wants the President to lead in the War on Terror and Congress to support him. Thus the Democratic leadership surrendered on union protection issues shortly after the voting and found itself unable to prevent the addition of other items from what had previously been merely a Republican wish list.
It is also ironic to hear complaints about favors for “a big GOP campaign contributor” when such a large portion of the Democratic position on homeland security was dictated by two of the great pillars of their party: government employee unions and plaintiffs’ lawyers.
So far as substance goes, Mr. Hunt has even less to say than in his last column, in which he assailed the same items in about the same words. Since then the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has presented an excellent case for the vaccine provision ("The Truth About Thimerosal"), both as right on its own terms and important as a step toward removing obstacles to the production of medicines that may prove essential to the war effort. Mr. Hunt himself concedes at a later point in the column that “There's legitimate scientific debate over whether the mercury-based preservatives Eli Lilly used in vaccines contributed to autism; even some autism advocates are skeptical.” His complaint comes down to the lack of Congressional hearings on the issue, although, as we shall see, his much despised “moderates” won agreement from the Republican leadership to revisit the issue and hold such hearings next year.
Mr. Hunt’s animus against “offshore corporate tax dodgers” remains as silly and ignorant as ever. Calling companies “corporate Benedict Arnolds” for wanting to escape the dubious U.S. practice (copied by hardly any other nation) of taxing worldwide income is mere name calling. He is probably right about the preferential pork for Texas A&M, but no member of Congress is in a position to cast the first stone against the practice of steering government contracts to one’s constituents.
Continuing the political saga:
In the Senate, when these provisions were revealed, corporate welfare critic John McCain hit the roof; he was joined by a band of GOP moderates, Maine's Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Sen. Collins said these were "odious . . . backroom, secretive politics at its worst." All they had to do was join Sen. McCain and most Senate Democrats and strip them from the legislation.
But the White House and party leaders told them that would take down the whole homeland security bill. The solution: assuage the moderates by getting a commitment from House GOP leaders Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay to rectify these special interest provisions -- next year. A motion by Sen. Joe Lieberman to kill those unrelated provisions from the bill failed, 52 to 47, with John McCain the only Republican standing up.
Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe contend they have a firm commitment to rewrite these provisions -- "to modify them to our satisfaction," Sen. Collins declares -- on the first major bill next year. Tom DeLay said he didn't agree to anything other than to take a look. Sen. Collins says she's "appalled" by that claim. Rep. DeLay, no doubt, is laughing all the way to the bank, or more precisely, the Republican campaign coffers.
“Ineffectual protest, abject surrender and denial,” thunders our sage again. Senators Collins and Snowe seem, however, to have come off rather well. Obviously, whatever they claim for public consumption, they didn’t really win a carte blanche pledge that any change that they propose will be accepted, but they will have the opportunity to make their case. Since even the Wall Street Journal editorial agrees that the current provision has technical shortcomings that make it more drastic than the draftsmen intended, it is likely that a compromise will emerge. The moderates figured that they could wait a few months for that outcome. In short, whether their substantive position is right or wrong, they skillfully found a way to keep it alive without further delaying a bill that they otherwise favored. Al Hunt would prefer that they have played chicken with the White House. Since his declared preference is that no homeland security bill pass at all, his tactical advice to Senator Collins may lack sincerity.
The last segment of the column is devoted to charging that moderates are victims of the archfiends in the Republican leadership and simultaneously accusing them of, well, moderation.
In the House, there are several dozen Republican moderates, but they have remarkably little influence; Tom DeLay views them with contempt, even to the point of occasionally encouraging primary challenges. Moderate Republican Chris Shays, who had the temerity to author the campaign-finance reform, is in line to become the chairman of the House government operations committee in January. Insiders expect him to be brushed aside.
Delaware Republican Mike Castle, the most prominent of the party's moderates in the House, acknowledges his group is less homogenous and ideologically committed than the right: "By our very nature we tend not to agree at the same time." But he insists the centrists will hold the leadership's feet to the fire next year on the environment, education and health spending; he adds deficit reduction, but waffles when asked if that includes looking at taxes.
Liberals campaigned for decades against the seniority system. Now that it is gone, they bemoan the fact that a lightly regarded figure like Chris Shays can’t rise to the top. House Republicans have shown themselves willing to give important committee chairmanships to moderates – Jim Leach on the Banking Committee is a prime example – and to pick less conservative over more conservative candidates, e. g., Bill Thomas over Phil Crane to head the Ways and Means Committee. But Rep. Shays is widely viewed as an airhead. If he isn’t “brushed aside”, that will be further evidence of how accommodating the House GOP leadership is in fact to ideological deviants.
Rep. Castle’s description is a sufficient explanation of why moderates don’t act the way that Al Hunt wants them to, that is, vote consistently with the Democrats. Different moderates are moderate about different things. On each particular issue, the House of Representatives has in recent years tended to have a working, though not huge, conservative majority. Which Congressmen make up the majority on each occasion varies. On many social issues, abortion, capital punishment and gun control being the prime examples, the conservative position is also that of many Democrats. Their votes make up for losses among yuppie Republicans. Economic, particularly tax, votes generally follow party lines more closely. Mr. Hunt’s ultimate quarrel is not with “mushy moderates” but with an electorate that refuses to put Congress into liberal hands. What his side needs to win is not "Tom DeLay, instead of the moderates, caving" but enough Congressional liberals to form the shifting majorities that conservatives now enjoy.
November 28, 2002
Thanksgiving. No Wall Street Journal and thus no Hunt column. I hope that Mr. Hunt and his family enjoyed the holiday.
November 21, 2002
Long ago, when I was a columnist for a college newspaper, I wrote what I considered a devastating exposé of the folly of the local City Council’s cable TV ordinance. Unfortunately, I wrote it a week after the ordinance was enacted.
Al Hunt shows similar tardiness this week. “Politics, Pork and Homeland Security” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] criticizes the newest addition to the President’s Cabinet. Some of its points are, I agree, valid. Unfortunately, Mr. Hunt showed no interest in making them before the Congressional vote. Thus he sounds like an inveterate Bush hater scrounging for policies to grumble against.
In his usual helter-skelter fashion, Mr. Hunt mingles and mangles diverse arguments. They will be separated here in the hope of improving their coherence and clarity.
First, and most cogently, Mr. Hunt questions whether the new Department of Homeland Security will be able to meld its components into an effective organization. That has been a worry of conservative and libertarian commentators, too, many of who would agree that -
most reorganizations initially don't work as intended. It took almost 40 years to correct the problems caused by the defense reorganization act of 1947, and the problems created by the Energy Department reorganization of a quarter century ago still haven't been rectified.
That is why proposals for bureaucratic reshuffling were not the Bush Administration’s first response to terrorism. Or, as Mr. Hunt puts it, “The White House and most congressional Republicans resisted calls for a new agency for nine months after Sept. 11.”
From whom did those calls emanate, one wonders. The Department of Homeland Security started life as a brainstorm of Congressional Democrats. It does the President too much credit to say that he “resisted” it. What he did was study the issue, introduce half-measures, like the appointment of a Homeland Security Advisor, and ultimately conclude that (i) without central direction, resources poured into domestic security would be frittered away and (ii) only a Cabinet department could, in the Beltway reality, wield the clout to give direction rather than merely dispense hopeful advice. The President’s first choice was coordination by a White House advisor rather than the establishment of a new administrative structure, but he could find no way around the fact that no one in Washington can “coordinate” without possessing the authority to command.
The issue is not whether a gigantic government reorganization will be troublesome and inefficient. It is whether the alternative of leaving domestic security in the hands of a congeries of agencies reporting to different parts of different governments is preferable. Mr. Hunt does not answer, or so much as address, that question. It is worth noting that virtually none of his liberal Democratic comrades (the steadily more eccentric Senator Robert Byrd being the sole prominent exception) rejected the theory behind the Department of Homeland Security. If it is a bad idea, they deserve a share of the blame.
In fact, Democratic legislators were quite pleased with the idea of consolidating dozens of agencies into a vast new bureaucratic empire, so long as it looked like a great organizing opportunity for federal employee unions. They began souring on it only after November 5th, when the election returns made it obvious that pushing for rules that would make unionization easier was politically expensive (as Senator Max Cleland of Georgia discovered). Even then, their last minute flurry of objections centered primarily on provisions of interest to plaintiffs’ lawyers, not on concerns about whether the new structure would be effective (and civil liberties were hardly mentioned at all - they are likewise completely absent from Mr. Hunt’s column).
Second, Mr. Hunt calls the new department “the latest federal pork”:
The new agency not only won House and Senate approval in the lame duck session this week, but Republicans and the White House were so arrogantly self-confident [whenever the other side has more votes, Mr. Hunt labels it “arrogant”] it became a vehicle to pay back special interests: drug companies, who forked out some $20 million to help the GOP this year, will be protected against suits from autistic kids; corporate Benedict Arnolds, who go overseas to escape U.S. taxes still would be able to get homeland security contracts; the sleazy companies that used to run airport security would be protected from any liability, and secrecy and pet projects -- a special earmarked center for Texas A&M -- were rewarded. [No, we aren’t told what “secrecy” was “rewarded”. And I know nothing about the Texas A&M grant but note with amused interest that Mr. Hunt last week took a swipe at incoming House Republican leader Tom DeLay for his anti-A&M attitude.]
Pork makes its way into every big bill, and there’s no denying that a due portion is present in this one, but Mr. Hunt’s roundup seriously distorts the facts. The limitation of liability for vaccine manufacturers addresses the fear that they will be bankrupted by tort claims if they rush vaccines into production in response to security needs and something goes wrong. If 250 million Americans are vaccinated against smallpox, a small percentage will contract the disease. If that percentage is as high as one in ten thousand, there will be 25,000 victims, all potential plaintiffs in a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit. More exotic vaccines may carry yet higher risks. What rational company is going to assume exposure to such liabilities? Yes, an autistic child with a valid claim may lose out. Without liability protection, though, manufacturers may forgo producing the medicines needed to spare millions of people from fatal illnesses. Paybacks? Pork?
The “corporate Benedict Arnolds” are a silly issue. The lame duck session softened a provision in the bill that would have barred corporations from federal contracts if they moved their domiciles outside the United States. The motive behind those “corporate inversions” is not anti-Americanism but elimination of federal taxes on income earned outside the territory of the United States. The tax paid on income from U.S. sources is essentially unchanged, and the federal fisc gets a windfall from the capital gains taxes that shareholders must pay at the time of the inversion. The U.S. is almost the only country in the world that extends the reach of its tax collectors beyond its own borders, and it is that anomaly that attracts companies to other domiciles.
In Mr. Hunt’s world, maximizing one’s tax liability may be a badge of patriotism and punishing those who don’t a high priority. Indulging such prejudices carries a price, however. Barring “inverted” companies from federal contracts potentially deprives the government of lower prices and better products. It also has the ironic effect of giving, say, a German company making widgets in Dusseldorf preference over a “Benedict Arnold” that employs Americans to make them in Connecticut. Is that an outcome for “patriots” to cherish?
Third, Mr. Hunt calls attention to a recent report on homeland security prepared by a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. The report, "America - Still Unprepared, Still in Danger" is indeed worth perusing. It describes in detail the deficiencies in America’s domestic security apparatus, from which two alternative conclusions can be drawn. One, the task force’s preference, is that the U.S. should beef up passive protections to the point where they can prevent any imaginable enemy operation. The other is that the group’s findings demonstrate the futility of passive defense and the superior utility of attacking terrorism in its lairs.
The U.S. being a vast territory, the price of perfect safety would be extremely high, not so much in cash as in personal freedom. Implementing the report’s recommendations would probably reduce the risk of successful terrorist action to a small fraction of its current value, but one cannot imagine that Al Hunt would approve many of them if they were brought forward by John Ashcroft. Not long ago, he was lamenting FBI agents’ increased freedom to surf the Internet in pursuit of information about internal enemies. What does he think of "a twenty-four-hour operations center in each state that can provide access to terrorist watch list information via real time intergovernmental links between local and federal law enforcement", transportation security based on profiling (gingerly paraphrased as "intelligence-driven and layered security approaches that emphasize prescreening and monitoring based on risk-criteria"), FOIA and antitrust exemptions to facilitate sharing of intelligence data and "liability safeguards and limits"?
Wishing to use the report as a club against the Bush Administration, Mr. Hunt ignores the uncongenial portion of its recommendations and concentrates on what he likes, namely, the way in which it can be deployed in support of higher taxes.
Ports, border security, protection of energy facilities, the public-health infrastructure and state and local emergency first responders all are dangerously unprepared and underfunded, the Hart- Rudman report admonishes. After extolling how safe we are getting, Tom Ridge last weekend was followed on the same TV program by the Baltimore police commissioner who pointedly declared "nothing has really changed in our eyes." The Feds don't share most information about terrorism, he declared, so police chiefs around the country "don't know what's happening in their cities."
Sen. Rudman says it's inescapable that more resources are necessary: "We ask our soldiers to sacrifice every day but we're not willing to pay for whatever it takes to defend ourselves." There is simply no way to get better port or border security, or better preparation for a chemical or biological attack, or improve essential communications systems without spending more money. "These all are underfunded and understaffed," the always blunt New Hampshire Republican declares.
The Rudman-Hart commission worries that not only would there be a huge economic price to pay if there's another terrorist incident, but the impulse would be to further erode basic liberties. Under John Ashcroft, that'd be a certainty.
* * * *
Sen. Rudman says the needs are so great that radical moves should be weighed: "If we have to put a surtax on people or find some other revenue, let's do it; our children's lives and our democracy depend on it." Instead George W. Bush wants to cut taxes more, use the Department of Homeland Security to reward political supporters and calls for no sacrifices by those who can afford it. So far that's been good politics; it's not likely to make us any safer.
That the Attorney General lives only for the moment when he can repeal the First Amendment is one of the fixed certainties in Mr. Hunt’s universe. He does not ask himself how much liberty we would lose if we tried to guard every port and border, not to mention nuclear power plant, water reservoir, hospital, train and bus, adequately. And once half the populace is guarding against the other half, who will watch the guards?
There is little doubt that some additional spending would be very useful, particularly on information gathering and coordination (though the civil libertarian side of Mr. Hunt’s mouth will undoubtedly excoriate any steps that may actually be taken in those directions), but we are talking about billions, not hundreds of billions, of dollars. Tax policy should be argued on its own terms. To gain a sense of perspective, note that, if tax cuts increase the rate of economic growth by just one percentage point, that annual increment in wealth will offset ten or so World Trade Center catastrophes.
Fourth and last, Mr. Hunt questions the capabilities of the likely choice to head the new department, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge:
But even some Republicans worry whether Tom Ridge is the right man for the current task. An admirable public servant and a good governor of Pennsylvania, he has not made much of an impression during his one-year stint as a homeland security adviser; some worry if he has the requisite experience and tough temperament for the new task. Mr. Ridge will have to forge synergy among disparate elements and bolster morale, leading the 200,000 employees (more realistic than the 170,000 the administration projects) who've been the target of White House attacks in insisting Mr. Bush be able to fire incompetent workers. Fierce strugglers [sic] with the FBI and CIA are unavoidable.
The suggestion that “insisting Mr. Bush be able to fire incompetent workers” makes all of the employees of the Department of Homeland Security “the target of White House attacks” is rather bizarre - unless Mr. Hunt himself harbors the belief that all government employees are incompetent and thus in danger. His reservations about Mr. Ridge may, however, have merit. A highly placed official who knows the former governor well has characterized him, in my presence, as a step-by-step, by-the-book type, too much of a bureaucrat himself to be an effective leader of bureaucrats. Still, he may surprise us; his months as a powerless White House advisor are no sure indicator. In any case, someone must head the department, and Mr. Hunt has no candidates to put forward. I myself think that Colin Powell would fill the position admirably, but he isn’t available.
Criticizing the Department of Homeland Security is not necessarily a bad idea, but criticism of this kind has very little to do with preventing a repetition of terror attacks. It is simply random grumbling from a sore loser. The only real objection that Mr. Hunt harbors, one suspects, is that this bureaucratic colossus was erected by George W. Bush rather than President Al Gore.
November 14, 2002
Like every other Washington savant, Al Hunt this week pens a “Memo to Nancy Pelosi” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] recommending a course of action for the new leader of the House of Representatives’ Democratic minority. As a conservative Republican, I very much hope that Rep. Pelosi listens to his advice.
The “memo” sounds two contradictory tunes. The treble line says that November 5th was a serious Democratic setback, to which the party cannot safely react with complacency and denial. Meanwhile, the bass plays a reassuring melody: To convert defeat into victory requires only technical and cosmetic changes.
Mr. Hunt begins with tactical advice, attributed to “a half dozen of the most able of your Democratic colleagues”. This anonymous chorus is unhappy about Rep. Pelosi’s “first year as whip, [which] . . . has been erratic, marred by unnecessary political miscalculations [as opposed to necessary miscalculations?]”, most notably her support for a down-the-line feminist in a primary fight with old guard Democrat John Dingell. Rep. Dingell won and is not likely to be the minority’s most loyal member during the next two years. The fledgling Democratic leader also has made no effort to build a working relationship with Rep. Steny Hoyer, whom she defeated for whip last time out, only to see him emerge as her successor in that office. No one can dispute Mr. Hunt’s comment, “If you spend precious time and resources battling each other, you both will lose.”
A party leader in opposition has, Mr. Hunt observes, “three main functions: fund-raising, party spokesman, and building a consensus within the caucus for alternative policies”. He has no qualms about Rep. Pelosi’s abilities in the first two areas but is worried about the last. Thus he advises her to nurture “better ties with a few of the dwindling band of white Southerners or moderately conservative Blue Dogs”. What he doesn’t offer is advice on how to do that.
Rep. Pelosi’s most obvious disadvantage in pursuing better ties with moderates in either her own party or the country at large is her ultraliberal record, which Mr. Hunt acknowledges but attempts to minimize:
There are any number of Republicans publicly salivating over an opposition led by a San Francisco liberal Democrat; support for issues like gay rights usually is cited.
Gay rights is hardly the first issue that one associates with Rep. Pelosi: She backs affirmative action, partial birth abortion, gun control and virtually every other left-wing social cause. At the same time, she voted against welfare reform, tax relief and the resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. Mr. Hunt’s proposed response to the notion that she may be just slightly to the left of the American mainstream:
So, let's go to most of America and contrast you with your GOP counterpart, a Sugarland (Texas) reactionary Republican. Tom DeLay doesn't want kids to go to conservative Texas A&M because there's sex on that campus. [The reference is, I believe, to Rep. DeLay’s objections to co-ed dormitories, which may not strike every parent as irrational.]
If they want to play the family values card, lets [sic], as the sportscasters say, go to the tape. You've been happily married to the same man for 39 years and have five terrific kids, young adults now, a close-knit family. You ran for your first political office at the age of 47 when your youngest child was in high school.
Reducing social issues to matters of personality is a familiar Hunt ploy, but the argumentum ad hominem (or ad mulierem) is as invalid in this form as in any other. If Rep. Pelosi favors policies that undermine traditional, two-parent, mother-caring-for-the-kids families, what does it matter that she lives in that kind of family herself? The children victimized by casual divorce, absentee parenting and incompetent school systems don’t get the benefit of growing up in the Pelosi household. If liberal social policies lead to disaster, should we retain them simply because some of their advocates don’t practice what they preach?
Still, Mr. Hunt is not without substantive suggestions. He is aware that the Democratic Party is not completely in tune with the American majority on matters of policy:
Merely going along with most Bush proposals would be crazy. Why go for the counterfeit when you can get the real thing? But ignore those who claim all Democrats have to do is expand the base, the perpetual theme of political lost causes. When Americans across the country vote for the other party, 53 to 47, as they did a week ago, you need to both energize the base and win over more swing voters.
Substantively, you Democrats are perceived as soft on security, a problem in time of war and terrorism. True, most Republican campaign charges on homeland security were duplicitous -- in a few cases, like Georgia, despicable -- but it worked. You must try to minimize that disadvantage. Also, whatever your personal feelings, relegate social issues to the second tier.
He leaves it to Rep. Pelosi to figure out how “to minimize that disadvantage”. A step in the right direction would be not to whine about how “despicable” it was for Republicans to call attention to the Senator Max Cleland’s support for unionizing the Department of Homeland Security, a stance that was sharply criticized by, among others, Georgia’s other Democratic Senator, Zell Miller. Rep. Pelosi and her colleagues “are perceived as soft on security”, because they oppose the war with Iraq and have dragged their feet at every stage of the broader war on terror. Their transparent attempt to turn the new homeland security structure into an organizing bonanza for their labor movement allies was just one symptom of their lack of seriousness. There are, alas, many Republicans who are unserious, too, but Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle aren’t well-poised to call them to account.
So, having wished away both war-related and social issues, where is Rep. Pelosi to find the causes that will “energize the base and win over more swing voters”?
You have, however, a powerful opportunity to take on this administration's dreadful record on economic and health care issues; that should be a glue for most Democrats anyway. But rather than just opposing more tax cuts for the wealthy, create serious alternatives: A temporary suspension of payroll taxes to boost the economy, major assistance to fiscally pressed states to avoid tax hikes or cuts in Medicaid, or the proposal by your energetically ambitious freshman, Rahm Emanuel, to consolidate the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child credit and dependent exemption measures to simplify the code and provide more assistance to those who need it. Stay aggressive on health care, which'll only be a growing concern for your base and swing voters in the year ahead.
Mr. Hunt has grown less ambitious. During the campaign, he urged Democratic candidates to oppose the war on Iraq forthrightly, to call for repeal of last year’s tax cuts, and to make the federal deficit a defining issue. Now he proposes silence on Iraq, alternative Democratic tax cuts and a big increase in federal spending (“major assistance to fiscally pressed states”). On health care, he wants his party to “stay aggressive”. What does that entail? Further bickering with the GOP over adding prescription drug benefits to Medicare (an issue that Hunt columns portrayed as a sure winner a few weeks ago, then last week blamed the Dems for overemphasizing)? A single-payer, government-run health care system (repudiated three-to-one by voters in Oregon, of all places)? Legal changes to facilitate malpractice suits (a favorite cause of tort lawyers, who will funnel part of their contingency fees back to the Democratic Party)? The true answer, I suspect, is none of these: just general grumbling about greedy doctors, expensive hospitals and unfriendly HMO’s.
Mr. Hunt’s specific proposals are hardly the stuff of which political realignments are constructed. Tax code simplification appeals to me, but I’ve never noticed much interest among my fellow citizens in the arcana of tax credits. Big grants to states that let their budgets grow unrestrainedly during the boom will be welcomed by the recipients and resented by the citizens of more prudent jurisdictions. A temporary payroll tax suspension is a pure demand-side measure whose benefits will be largely canceled by the costs of implementation (the reason why the Bush Administration decided against it last year).
Regardless of the merits of these proposals, their most noteworthy characteristic is their timidity. Rather than being “serious alternatives”, they are the petty initiatives of a status quo faction. Mr. Hunt can’t seriously think that they will either “energize the base” or “win over more swing voters”. All that they can accomplish is to avoid the appearance of brain death while the party waits for a favorable blast of wind - military defeat, double-dip recession, corporate scandals - to waft it back into power.
If Nancy Pelosi takes Mr. Hunt as her mentor, she will accept the same role for the Democrats that the Republicans occupied between FDR and Reagan: the naysayers who are called to office now and then to punish the ruling party for its bouts of overconfidence. That is a valuable role in a two-party democracy, and Rep. Pelosi can perform a useful public service as the next Charlie Halleck. I suspect, though, that she has different models in mind.
November 7, 2002
“Hunt Watch” took an hiatus during the last few weeks of the campaign, because Al’s columns consisted of rather dull reporting, interrupted by a valentine to Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), and hardly seemed worth the strain on my typing fingers. Now the election is over, and I opened my browser on Thursday wondering how the fervently Democratic Mr. Hunt would take Tuesday’s outcome.
The headline, “Bush: A Big Win Brings Accountability” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] was a trifle odd. Were we being told that the President had not previously been accountable? Why then did Mr. Hunt incessantly blame him for the state of the economy, corporate corruption, the faults of American medical care and the supposed lack of progress in the war on terror? It may be, however, that Mr. Hunt wasn’t responsible for the headline. The column itself makes only passing references to accountability, expressing the truism that the President and his party, being more or less in control of all three branches of government (not that “control” is such a meaningful concept in the American system), will be criticized if things go wrong. Of course, just as they would also be criticized if they had continued to hold sway in only 2½ branches. The public expects the President to perform, whatever the circumstances. When the elder President Bush couldn’t win Congress to his agenda, he was lambasted as ineffective, not given a pass because both House and Senate had Democratic majorities. His son has had accountability from Day One. Now he has commensurate means for giving an account of himself on his own terms.
Mr. Hunt deserves credit for facing facts squarely in his lead: “Okay, let's start with the obvious: the midterm election was a stunning success for George W. Bush and a devastating defeat for the Democrats with real ramifications, especially on judges and taxes.” None of Terry McAuliffe’s seizing on isolated victories to declare, “This was a very good night for Democrats” and no conspiracy theories of the kind that are percolating among the lunatic fringe. Unlike such “queens of denial”, the Hunt line is stark:
In a business where appearances often count more than reality, George Bush has the mantle of a strong political leader. He'll dictate the initial agenda to the Republican-controlled House and Senate; he will get most of the conservative judges he wants and permanent tax cuts for the wealthy.
Moreover, the war looming against Saddam Hussein will almost assuredly be successful and further boost the president's popularity [contrary to what he was saying just a few columns ago] .
But there must be a “but”, “a few election aftermath heresies”, although the “heresies” amount to little more than, the future may not run smooth, the opposition party will continue to oppose, and a slender Senate majority is not the same as unanimity:
The Bush mandate is enormously exaggerated, much of it blue smoke and mirrors, and a year from now Republicans may regret the accountability that comes from complete control; divided government has its political advantages [but not for those who care more about policy than merely holding office - that is, to my mind, a key difference between Reagan-Bush Republicans and Clinton-McAuliffe Democrats].
The aftermath of war in Iraq may not be an easy period. If it's messy, protracted and expensive, the rally-around-the-commander sentiment will dissipate. The 48- or 49-member Senate minority still will be able to block most right-wing excesses, including some judicial nominations.
As often happens in a Hunt piece, the subject now changes without warning, from the future to the past, namely, the conduct of the just-ended campaign:
On the domestic side, the Democrats undeniably lacked a coherent message and too often seemed to represent the past not the future. But without the veil of Sept. 11, Republicans and the president would have faced similar criticism; they too made a calculated dash to the center.
“The veil of Sept. 11”? As if President Bush were the passive beneficiary of the terrorist attacks. What made 9/11 a political plus for him and the GOP was his vigorous, sure-footed reaction. With a less skillful commander-in-chief, we might still be bogged down in dueling with the Taliban. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the President has displayed far greater strategic sense than his supposedly more competent advisors. Obtaining unanimous support from the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that essentially gives the United States authorization to act as Saddam Hussein’s judge, jury and executioner is merely the latest in a series of successes. (I note with chagrin that people like me thought that Mr. Bush was losing his touch and watering his position down to nothing. He turned out to be cleverer than us.) The electorate didn’t reward the President simply for being in office on a dark day but for demonstrating that he has the ability to lead us back to the sunlight.
If there had been no September 11th, the Republican Party might have gone into the midterm elections in a state of muddle, or it might not. There’s no way to know, since the world would not have been at all the same place. The economy would have been in better, if not superlative, shape, and Republicans would have been running on a different set of issues: further tax relief, private Social Security accounts, aid to faith-based welfare initiatives, tort reform, restoring balance to the federal judiciary. They might have formulated their ideas badly, and corporate corruption would have been a major negative factor (but perhaps not too major: at some point, voters might have noticed that all of the accounting scandals began on Bill Clinton’s watch and were exposed on George W. Bush’s), but they also might have made a compelling case for new directions in domestic policy and beaten the Democrats just as soundly in that alternate reality as they did in the real world.
Mr. Hunt misapprehends what he calls “a calculated dash to the center”. Republicans played down all issues except the war, because they genuinely (and, I think, correctly) believe that the conduct of the campaign against terrorism is of overriding importance. If America is reduced to living in fear of Islamofascism, tax policy and Social Security reform will be about as important as the proverbial configuration of the Titanic’s deck furniture. The President’s political instincts proved sounder than reliance on polls. He reckoned that many of the voters who picked “the economy” as the number one issue saw the war on terror as inseparable from a renewal of prosperity. The Democrats tried to pretend that it was a side issue that could be put in a corner while they addressed much more vital concerns like prescription drug benefits.
When they did talk about economic issues, Republicans were not quite so fuzzy as Mr. Hunt would like his readers to think. His next paragraph is a masterpiece of distortion:
Republicans all over America, for example, distanced themselves from privatizing Social Security. Indiana Republican Chris Chocola, who won one of the most-watched House contests Tuesday, two years ago as an unsuccessful candidate, said eventually he wanted "the entire system privatized." This fall, there was no such talk as he opposed investing any Social Security funds in the markets. Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard did a similar flip-flop, even trying to charge that his Democratic opponent was the real privatizer. In his effective campaign blitz for Republican candidates, how often did you hear the president mention Social Security?
Contrary to Mr. Hunt’s assertion, candidate Chocola remained an advocate of private Social Security accounts. What Mr. Hunt cites is his opposition to the proposal, once advanced by Bill Clinton, to invest the Social Security trust fund in stocks and bonds, a move that would result in government ownership of a large chunk of the economy and bears no resemblance to privatization. Senator Allard, too, continued to support private accounts. (Vide Romesh Ponnuru, "Going the Distance".) It is true that, for the reasons already noted, Social Security was not in the first rank of Republican issues this year, yet even Mr. Hunt admits that a number of candidates embraced it in hotly contested races:
Even those candidates who didn't duck -- John Sununu in New Hampshire or Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina -- misled voters by suggesting partial private accounts were a free lunch with no costs. In fact, without benefit reductions, raising the retirement age or hiking payroll taxes, the standard private account proposals would drain the Treasury of $1.1 trillion over the next decade -- on top of the already Bush-created endless red ink.
Well, it was up to the Democratic candidates to argue the other side. Perhaps they weren’t persuasive, because, like Mr. Hunt, they didn’t grasp the economics of private accounts. In the long run, converting younger workers’ benefits from the current defined benefit system to individual accounts has no net cost, because they will receive the latter in place of the former. There is a short-run transition cost, since contributions to individual accounts will reduce the receipts of the Social Security trust fund but not its obligations to the current generation of retirees. That cost sounds horrendous if one adds it up over a period of years, but it is in the range of one to two percent of the GDP, hardly an intolerable price to pay for a major improvement in our children’s retirement security. It is, one might note, less expensive than the Democratic version of Medicare prescription drug benefits - and more likely to do good rather than harm.
Speaking of drug benefits:
Democrats also blew the potentially winning health care issue, focusing almost entirely on prescription drugs for seniors rather than overall health care problems. But in neutralizing the prescription drugs Republican candidates again were disingenuous, finessing the fact they want any benefit to be run by HMOs, not Medicare. Try that and watch the backlash.
Yet Mr. Hunt’s own pre-election health care column “focus[ed] almost entirely on prescription drugs for seniors”, and on other occasions he trumpeted what a great Democratic issue that was. Would the Democrats have done better by following his retrospective advice to emphasize “overall health care problems”? Should they, for example, have turned Oregon’s universal health care referendum into a national issue? Hint: Oregon voters - not the nation’s most conservative - defeated it by a margin of three to one.
One last point before we move on to the next paragraph: HMO’s aren’t popular at the moment, but does Mr. Hunt really think that Americans have less confidence in them than government bureaucracies?
Mr. Hunt is naturally displeased by the success of “disingenuous” Republicans. In his displeasure, he drifts, as he does now and then, in the direction of the Loony Left. One of the loons’ pet fantasies is that the news media are mostly right-wing lackeys. Mr. Hunt is slightly more measured in his language:
This [referent not specified] raises the stakes for the most acquiescent press corps since pre- Watergate; those liberal media conspiracy theorists never contrast the coverage of the Bush and Clinton White Houses. Will Mr. Bush be held accountable for who benefits from his tax cuts (hint: it ain't the $27,000-a-year waitress) and well beyond the opportunistically-timed sacking of SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt, this administration's scandalous sandbagging of any corporate reforms?
Or, to ask questions less disconnected from reality, will Mr. Bush be denounced for a tax cut whose reductions are proportionate to the share of taxes paid by each income group or for “opportunistically” waiting until after the polls closed on Tuesday before making Chairman Pitt’s resignation public? The President’s “sandbagging of any corporate reforms” is not immediately obvious. He did, after all, sign a bill co-authored by liberal Democrat Paul Sarbanes.
Mr. Hunt’s bigger target, however, is the “acquiescent press corps”. The charge that the media are biased in favor of the Bush Administration may sound preposterous to conservatives. What makes it plausible to liberals is the failure of their favorite anti-Bush canards - Harken Energy, the Ashcroft reign of terror, Enron’s domination of energy policy, etc. - to gain traction. Naturally, they dismiss out of hand the possibility that those themes are so devoid of factual support that not even Howell Raines thinks that he can sell them. But if CBS, NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times and, for that matter, the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Jounal, of which one Al Hunt is the chief, are deliberately distorting the news in order to the President, what does that imply?
No one seriously denies that extremely few of the reporters and editors at leading media outlets are conservatives or that the great majority hold left-of-center views. What is their motive for withholding valid information that would be congenial to their private opinions? Has the Administration frightened them into silence? Are network and newspaper owners ordering them to engage in self-censorship?
Mr. Hunt, as a liberal journalist working for a conservative newspaper, must have personal insights into these questions. Why doesn’t he devote a column to the methods by which WSJ publisher Peter Kann stifles the Washington bureau’s efforts to hold the President accountable? No doubt he would lose his job, but he has a working wife and other sources of income, and it is hard to believe that his heroic exposé of the workings of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy would go unrewarded.
Alas, that column will never be written - and not because Mr. Hunt is afraid of being sacked.
The next paragraphs descend into full-bore whining:
To date, the Bush-manipulated press fails to note that even more than Mr. Clinton, decision-making in this White House is overwhelmingly poll and politically driven. When several big states nixed school vouchers, George Bush quickly abandons them. With West Virginia and Pennsylvania high on the 2004 must-win list, the free trader president embraces protectionist steel measures.
And there's no compulsion [sic] about politicizing the homeland security and terrorism fights. Give a besieged Pakistan a little relief on textile export restrictions? No way, says George Bush, if it imperils a few votes at home.
Only months ago, Mr. Bush adamantly opposed the initiatives of Sen. Joe Lieberman and others for a homeland security agency. The White House not only flipped but now sees it principally as a weapon to club government employee unions and blame Democrats if there's another terrorist incident.
There are actually a couple of good points mixed in with this rubbish. Protectionism for short-term political gain has been one of the Bush Administration’s least admirable facets. What makes it viable, though, is that the Democrats are much more protectionist. Bad as the President’s record may be in this area, it is mitigated by such free trade successes as winning Congressional approval of fast-track trade authority over the opposition of most Democratic Congressmen. Mr. Hunt should direct his complaints here to Representative Gephardt, not to the White House or the press corps.
The rest is pure bunk. The Department of Homeland Security may have started as a Democratic idea, but the President did not oppose it “adamantly”, nor did he change his mind in response to polls that revealed it to be the object of popular longing. A “weapon to club government employee unions”? The White House proposal gives the President the same authority to bar unionization that he has over the rest of the executive branch. It is Senator Lieberman who wants to alter the status quo and make union organizing easier. And the President’s potential ability to “blame Democrats if there’s another terrorist incident” stems entirely from the obstinacy of Senate Democrats in so far blocking the new department's creation.
Winding at last to an end, Mr. Hunt informs us that the President “should get full credit -- or blame -- for the results” of his policies. What an astonishing idea! He then looks to the past as a guide to the future and tries to find a parallel between George W. Bush and - Newt Gingrich: “Eight years ago, following the momentous Gingrich revolution, I suggested a governing Gingrich would not wear well.” It’s pretty clear that he believes that a governing Bush will likewise come to grief. What he does not explain is why. Speaker Gingrich was an abrasive figure, popular only among conservatives, whose talents quite obviously lay in insurrection rather than government and who in any event lacked the means to enact his policies into law over President Clinton’s veto. President Bush is the opposite: conciliatory, well-liked outside his own party, adept at governing and now with simpatico majorities in both houses of Congress. If he doesn’t “wear well”, it will be for reasons completely unlike those that hampered Mr. Gingrich. What those reasons might be is not evident. Mr. Hunt’s veiled prophecy of disaster is nothing more than a desperate hope. If I too may venture a prophecy, I anticipate that such desperation and hope will lead Mr. Hunt in future weeks to new peaks of comical hysteria.
October 10, 2002
Last week Al Hunt was in South Dakota. This week he plays political reporter in New Jersey, once again telling his readers everything that they could have gleaned from CNN. His slightly blurry focus is “The Frustration of Being Doug Forrester” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], the central message of which is that success and failure can be beyond a candidate’s control:
The 49-year-old Mr. Forrester is the Republican candidate for Senate in New Jersey. In short order, he's gone from obscurity to running ahead of a scandalized [sic - if Senator Toricelli has ever been “scandalized” by anything, he hasn’t let that emotion affect his scandalous conduct] incumbent to falling behind a new and better-known opponent. These roller coaster changes share a common element: they had virtually nothing to do with Mr. Forrester.
Reading onward, one gets the feeling that Mr. Hunt regards it as Mr. Forrester’s fault that he entered the Senate race when no better known Republican was willing to be bothered. The general expectation was that Senator Toricelli, with lots of cash on hand, was assured of reelection as soon as the U.S. Attorney’s office decided not to indict him for swallowing bribes. It is pretty clear from what has appeared in the public record that he escaped solely because the people with whom he dealt were so sleazy that the prosecutors couldn’t be confident that a jury would believe them - thus demonstrating once again that large, brazen crimes are safer than mediocre ones.
The damning facts about the Senator’s activities and the rebuke that he received from the Senate Ethics Committee did not trouble the New Jersey Democratic Party. When the primary came around, there was no movement to replace him with a less unsavory standard bearer. The national party was equally unconcerned. Just a week before the Torch’s withdrawal from the race, Senator Tom Daschle, the Nation’s highest ranking Democrat, campaigned at his side, exuding “pride” (his word) in having such a colleague.
Then a poll showed the Republican candidate 14 points ahead, and pride in a great Senator (chairman of the last election cycle’s Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, by the way) transformed into a frantic effort to get anybody else into the race.
Would it be too much to acknowledge that Mr. Forrester, whether or not he is himself elected to the Senate, has already performed an inestimable public service? His tenacity is exposing Senator Toricelli’s corrupt practices has rid the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” of one of its most grotesquely unsuitable members. That was not an event that was going to occur through spontaneous combustion.
Well, yes, for Al Hunt, that would be too much to acknowledge. The most he is willing to say is that Mr. Forrester, after “soaring ahead” by “capitalizing on devastating publicity over Sen. Torricelli's ethical violations”, now faces the task of “retooling his campaign theme -- the other guy is a crook -- at a cost of close to a million dollars”.
As it happens, the other guy really was a crook, but he was in no danger from “devastating publicity”, which had been pouring in for two years, until the Republican candidate started talking about it. “Negative campaigning” is one of the great bogeymen of contemporary punditry, but it played a praiseworthy role this time.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Hunt has no word of dispraise for the means by which the New Jersey Democrats, having declined to choose a better man at the proper time, pulled off an after-the-deadline insertion of former Senator Frank Lautenberg onto the ballot. Al’s only comment: “New Jersey Republicans wasted a precious week with an ill-considered challenge to the legitimacy of the Lautenberg candidacy.”
Actually, the Republicans wasted very little time. Within a few hours after the switch, Mr. Forrester’s Web site featured a Lautenberg quote about how much he had disliked serving in the Senate. A few days later, he issued a challenge to a series of debates (“an offer that the Democrat surely can refuse”, scoffs Mr. Hunt). It’s possible for a candidate to campaign while his lawyers engage in legal maneuvering. Since Mr. Hunt mentions the debate challenge, he must be aware that that’s what happened in this case. His apparent motive for chiding the Republicans for “an ill-considered challenge” is to proclaim his own belief that the Lautenberg candidacy is perfectly legitimate, regardless of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s blatant disregard of state law and fundamental fairness.
Mr. Hunt’s own remarks on the campaign illustrate why letting a political party change horses just before reaching the far bank of the stream is undemocratic with small “d”. Candidate Lautenberg has been spared months of exposure to the electorate, and there is scarcely time for the voters to appreciate the differences between the candidates. Political campaigns may not be the ideal way to ensure that the country makes informed choices in picking its leaders, but they are the only way that exists. A truncated race like this one mocks the democratic process.
The New Jersey judges based their decision on the “right” of a political party to be represented by a viable candidate. They did not pay any attention to the fact that the Democratic Party deprived itself of that right entirely through its own actions, by nominating a known crook for office. Rights are normally coupled with responsibilities. The court in effect gave its blessing to political parties that act irresponsibly in hopes of getting away with it. They now know that, in New Jersey at least, they will get a second chance if matters don’t work out. That is the Huntian concept of “legitimacy”.
The column also has a bit to say about the issues in the reformulated race. Juxtaposed with last week’s column, it makes interesting reading.
Last week, as regular readers will recall, Mr. Hunt wrote about the South Dakota Senate race. There the Democratic candidate proclaims his support for the War on Terror and the coming invasion of Iraq, voted in favor of last year’s tax cuts, favors an expensive version of a Medicare prescription drug benefit and works hard to bring home pork. Mr. Hunt had nothing critical to say about those positions.
Let us turn to this week’s spotlighted candidate:
Mr. Forrester supports all the Bush tax cuts and advocates new ones, including capital gains tax reduction; suggests he's closer to the more expansive Democratic proposal on prescription drug benefits for seniors; endorses all the Bush defense spending increases, especially missile defense systems; heavily stresses homeland security (more than war in Iraq, which Mr. Kean [former Governor Tom Kean, Mr. Forrester’s campaign chairman] dismisses as an issue in the New Jersey elections) in a state with many Sept. 11 victims; and at every opportunity claims he can bring home more federal pork to New Jersey, which he charges has been shortchanged. This all should be done, he insists, without touching the Social Security surplus.
Those stances are not far to the right of the ones that Mr. Hunt attributed to the Democratic Senate candidate in South Dakota. But this time we get a negative gloss:
The problem, of course, is that Mr. Forrester also is bothered by ballooning budget deficits as far as the eye can see and realizes this doesn't add up: "Something may have to give." Probably not the tax cuts.
Mr. Hunt is a firm believer in the evil consequences of cutting taxes - except, as we’ve seen, when he is plumping for the Democratic candidate in a close race.
On the other side, we are reminded that Senator Lautenberg voted against President Clinton’s 1993 tax increase. (New Jersey was then in the throes of a tax rebellion that led to lopsided, though transitory, Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature. Voting the other way would almost certainly have doomed Mr. Lautenberg’s reelection chances. As it was, he beat an unknown by an unimpressive 50%-47%.) Perhaps Mr. Hunt means that historical reference as criticism, but he follows it with puffery.
First, he soft pedals the reasons why Mr. Lautenberg is not still in the Senate and wants to get back in:
Mr. Lautenberg retired from the Senate three years ago, telling friends he was sick of fund raising. He has since said it was a huge mistake. When his old archenemy Bob Torricelli quit in disgrace, he jumped at the opportunity to step up.
He didn’t just tell “friends he was sick of fund raising”. He told the media that he was sick of his Senate duties. "The fact of the matter is the years spent in the Senate have been a large personal inconvenience and effort." -- Associated Press, 8/26/99. Maybe he also didn’t like asking for contributions, but, as a vastly wealthy man who can pay for campaigns out of his own pocket, he doesn’t have to beg for money unless he wants to.
Whether he now looks back more fondly on his days in office is unknowable, but, if he really thought that leaving the Senate “was a huge mistake” and regards Bob Torricelli as “his old archenemy”, where was he at the filing deadline for the Democratic primary? It’s odd how he “jumped” only when he was handed a ballot spot, plus the five million dollars left in the Torricelli war chest. Of course, it isn't quite so odd when one notes that he said, upon stepping down from the Senate, "When you conjure up things, if they promised me a campaign that I wouldn't have to raise any money and a guaranteed victory, I probably would reconsider quickly."
Republicans have asserted that Mr. Lautenberg doesn’t plan to serve very long. After a few months, they expect him to resign so that New Jersey’s Democratic governor can appoint a replacement. There is no way to divine the ex-Senator’s secret intentions, but the circumstantial evidence certainly looks strong.
The second element of puffery is Mr. Hunt’s insistence that an attempt to associate the new candidate with the old one is unreasonable and unfair.
One Lautenberg asset: He doesn't carry the Torch's ethical baggage. "We now can say that our guy not only is on your side," ventures one Democratic strategist, "but he's also honest." Mr. Forrester dismisses these distinctions, railing daily about the "Lautenberg-Torricelli" machine. "I view them as hyphenated," he says.
It won't be an easy sell. The often-confrontational Mr. Lautenberg is unpopular with most New Jersey politicians. And he and Mr. Torricelli have long despised each other. (Ten days ago, after concluding he was going to do the "statesmanlike" thing and drop out, the Torch exploded to one confidant that he wouldn't quit "if that (expletive deleted) Lautenberg takes my place.")
Let’s see. Those New Jersey politicians with whom Mr. Lautenberg is so unpopular selected him as their candidate and arranged for Senator Torricelli, who so despises his replacement, to fund his campaign. Could it be that “these distinctions” are slightly finer than Mr. Hunt perceives? In the column’s opening sentence, he calls Doug Forrester “a classic political remainderman”, who “receives residual assets after all other interests have been exhausted”. Wouldn’t that description apply much more aptly to Mr. Forrester’s opponent?
The Democrats undoubtedly pulled off a slick coup in New Jersey, one that already bids fair to be widely imitated. Within the past few days, the Hawaiian Democratic Party has initiated an attempt to replace a dead Congressional candidate on the ballot (afraid that the deceased won’t be able to “pull a Carnahan”), and Republicans apparently talked seriously about finding a substitute for their Senate hopeful in Montana (but then did nothing, another example of how the GOP plays only amateur politics (Deo gratias!)).
Since the courts have chosen, no doubt wisely, not to intervene against this tactic, it is up to the voters to protect democracy from travesty by punishing those who perpetrate it. We’ll see whether New Jersey strangles this abomination in its cradle. The Web site for donations to the Forrester for Senate campaign is here. Credit cards are accepted.
October 3, 2002
In his recent columns, Al Hunt has chastised timid Democrats who don't speak out against President Bush's Iraq policy and last year’s tax cuts. This week, he has assumed a reportorial manner. He files his copy from "South Dakota: Where the Action Is in 2002" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], a state with close races for the Senate and an at-large House seat. Naturally, he is alert for and critical of Democratic candidates who run “hide-and-seek campaigns”. Yeah. As GOP House candidate Bill Janklow said on another occasion, “I’ll respond to that in three words: Ha, ha, ha.”
First term Democratic Senator Tim Johnson is tied in the polls with Republican Rep. John Thune. The Senator, who as a Congressman voted against the first Gulf War, claims to support the second one. Mr. Hunt has nothing negative to say about that stance. He doesn’t call on the Democratic candidate to raise alarms about the dangers of war. Instead, he scoffs at Rep. Thune’s suggestion that Senator Johnson’s conversion to hawkishness may be less than heartfelt.
As for taxes, how do Johnson’s positions stack up against the marker that Mr. Hunt laid down just last week? Then he intoned, “[T]there are inescapable realities. The government will have to either scale back on last year's huge tax cut, or forget about enacting initiatives like generous prescription drug benefits for seniors or reforming Social Security. . . . The politicians have 40 days to level with the voters about this.”
Senator Johnson voted for the tax cut and has been silent about those “inescapable realities”. Mr. Hunt praises his “ability to bring home pork”, not any eagerness on his part to talk about how the pork will be paid for.
In the House contest, the Democratic candidate is Stephanie Herseth, a political newcomer from one of the state’s best-known political families. Al gushes that she is “arguably the best first-time congressional candidate in America”, though the only evidence brought forward in support of that accolade is a reporter’s statement that “Stephanie is now greeted like a rock star.” She is not praised for boldly debating the war or denouncing tax relief. So far as I can discern, she keeps very quiet about Iraq, says that she is for “strong national defense” and the War on Terror, has lots of ideas for increased federal spending, advocates further “tax cuts for working families” and says nary a word against the tax cuts already on the books.
If Democratic candidates want to duck the issues and present themselves as moderates, that is fine with me, but isn’t it peculiar that it is also okay with Al Hunt? Conservative commentators are always grumbling about Republicans who go wobbly on key issues. Al, by contrast, doesn’t merely refrain from condemning wobbliness; he refuses to notice its existence.
The reportage in the column doesn’t call for much analysis. Except for a few quotes, it all reads as if it had been selectively lifted from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader’s Web site. The most interesting aspect is that Mr. Hunt is unapologetic about the extent to which Senator Johnson relies on the vote-buying power of his patron, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. He tells us that “governmental largesse matters” and that “Sen. Daschle is expected to spend the final week of the campaign in South Dakota stressing how much this small state benefits from the fruits of having a Senate majority leader.”
Just a week ago, it was vital to balance the budget. So Mr. Hunt told us, decrying the irresponsibility of seeking more government spending without openly touting the need for more taxes. But that was all theory. Faced with the practical necessity of maintaining a Senate majority and keeping the wicked Republicans at bay, Al sees pork as a positive good and is glad that the citizens of South Dakota don’t raise too many questions about whose pigs are slaughtered to produce it.
There’s nothing evil about partisanship, of course. Plenty of right-wing pundits root uninhibitedly for the GOP. The difference between them and Mr. Hunt is that they don’t slough over Republican candidates’ deviations from principle. Their implicit motto is “Ideas Have Consequences”; Hunt’s, “Winning Is The Only Thing”.
September 26, 2002
The ostensible target of “The Hide-and-Seek Campaign” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is politicians who duck important questions and aim for “an issueless election”.
Maybe we ought to emulate Pakistan and simply scotch this year's congressional elections. After all, looming war in Iraq, and its uncertain aftermath, is too hot a topic to seriously debate. Moreover, taxes and fiscal priorities also are off the table in most contests.
Politics is supposed to be about choices. . . .
Deriding spinelessness is an easy way to elicit readers’ approving nods. But, as Mr. Hunt continues, it becomes evident that he has odd notions of what constitutes “debate”, while his own preferred way to argue about political choices is to emphasize shibboleths over substance.
It is a little peculiar, in a week that included Al Gore’s two diatribes against the President’s Iraqi policy and Senator Daschle’s complaint about how the White House is “politicizing” national security, to sneer that no one is debating the war in Iraq. Maybe Mr. Hunt doesn’t rank the former Vice President’s strange, self-contradictory meanderings as “serious debate”, but does he also disagree with the Senator Majority Leader’s judgement that President Bush is energetically pushing war-related issues to the forefront? Republican candidates have displayed no reticence in this area. It is the Democrats (except for the left-wing fringe with visions of Vietnam dancing in their heads) who treat Iraq as “too hot a topic” and don’t want it “politicized”.
Similarly, “taxes and fiscal priorities also are off the table” only because Democrats are unwilling to present any clear and coherent proposals. They attack the state of the economy under the Bush Administration but are unwilling to say what they would do differently. Their hope is that the electorate will vote against a slumping stock market and weak recovery, whether or not the opposition has any idea about how to engineer a rebound.
In short, the Democrats are the ones who are playing hide-and-seek this year. It is disingenuous to say that the Republicans “would like to come back from an issueless election after giving President Bush a Gulf-of-Tonkin blank check” when they are loudly proclaiming that the U.S. must act swiftly against Saddam Hussein. What to do about murderous tyrants with potential nuclear capability is, loath though Al Hunt may be to admit it, an issue of more than passing importance.
A real political analyst, which Mr. Hunt of course is not, would find the dynamics of this campaign fascinating, but Al isn’t interested in that. His real subject is the evils of lower taxes:
. . . . there are inescapable realities. The government will have to either scale back on last year's huge tax cut, or forget about enacting initiatives like generous prescription drug benefits for seniors or reforming Social Security.
Federal government revenues exceed two trillion dollars a year. “Last year’s huge tax cut” was projected by the Congressional Budget Office to reduce that take by $1.35 trillion over ten years. For fiscal year 2003, the one for which Congress is currently failing to fashion a budget, the reduction is about $90 billion, i. e., less than five percent. The “inescapable realities” are, first, that the tax cuts look huge only if one ignores their size in relation to the federal budget and, second, that they render new spending initiatives impossible only if Congress decides that it would rather spend two trillion dollars on other things. There is no law of nature that prevents cutting back, say, farm subsidies to make room for tax-funded prescription drugs. It would be more to the point to say, “The government will either have to scale back on last year’s huge increases in spending for politically well-connected constituencies, or. . . .”
Spending restraint is never on the table for a staunch liberal, however (except for cuts in the defense budget, which not even Mr. Hunt is eager to push right now). Let’s go along with that prejudice and explore the next logical question: If prescription drug benefits are vital to the future of the United States, is it essential that they be financed with current taxes?
Not too long ago, no liberal quailed at deficit spending for good causes. Now the Left’s reaction to deficits is phobic. Al groans about the “federal fiscal wreck”. “Under George W. Bush, the $5.6 trillion surplus projected over the next decade has vanished.” He quotes Robert Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and as purebred a fiscal liberal of you’ll find anywhere, deploring “deficits in the neighborhood of $200 billion a year as far as the eye can see”. Also, we are informed, “One of the great myths perpetrated by this White House is that the current fiscal mess is a result of Sept. 11 and a temporary economic downturn.”
To start with the last point, the total projected cost of the EGTRRA tax cuts from 2001 through 2010 was one-quarter of the $5.6 trillion projected surplus to which Mr. Hunt refers. If he knows how a dollar of revenue reduction wipes out four dollars of surplus, he has neglected to share that insight with his readership. Last year’s recession (under weigh before the tax cuts were enacted, as I’ve discussed elsewhere) and this year’s slow recovery (probably exacerbated by the fact that the 2002 portion of the tax cut is the smallest in the ten-year projection period, less than $40 billion, or two percent of federal revenue), coupled with increased expenditures (most of them not, alas, related to the war effort), are the only logically tenable explanations for the disappearance of the $4.2 trillion in anticipated surplus that was not “consumed” by tax reduction.
The surplus would have disappeared in any event. No one seriously expected that it would simply be used to repay the National Debt. Liberals were looking forward to all kinds of new government programs. Conservatives “selfishly” wanted to leave the money in the hands of the people who earned it by reducing taxes further. Both have now been disappointed, but the vanishing of dreams of avarice is not the same as a plunge into destitution. Since it doesn’t look like the country is going to be as rich during the next few years as we thought it would be, it is prudent to adjust our plans to the new realities. The adjustments that the White House advocates (albeit not with nonstop energy, the President having certain other matters to attend to) are -
Accelerate the stretched-out tax cuts and eliminate their bizarre “sunset” in 2011 in order to spur economic growth and get back on track to becoming richer.
Be cautious about new domestic spending, particularly programs that start small and have the potential to expand vastly.
Spend whatever is needed to win the war as quickly as possible.
Accept the fact that, in a time of war and economic slowdown, the government will run a deficit.
The Daschle Democrats have their own program, revealed mostly by the silences in their public statements:
Blame all economic ills on tax relief, but leave the scheduled cuts exactly as they are.
Add plenty of domestic spending.
Go as slow as politically feasible on rebuilding the military, thus dragging out the war and, in the long run, making it more costly.
Accuse President Bush of “squandering the surplus”.
Mr. Hunt is at least slightly more coherent that that. His program:
Add plenty of domestic spending.
Don’t rebuild the military at all, since there’s no need for this nasty war.
Avoid deficit spending at all costs.
Raise taxes (that is, eliminate scheduled reductions) to the extent necessary to accomplish the foregoing.
The arguments that Mr. Hunt offers in support of this agenda reduce to three elements:
1. Everybody wants to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare.
2. Reform of the alternative minimum tax will soon become necessary. If nothing is done to alter it, this currently limited levy will start to hit lots of taxpayers: “13.8 million in 2005 and to 36 million by 2010”.
3. Running a deficit to accomplish either of these worthy ends is unacceptable. Since it is assumed sub silentio that no federal spending can be reduced, the only choice is higher taxes. Q.E.D.
This isn’t the place to argue about the virtues of subsidizing prescription drugs for senior citizens via taxes on everybody else. I agree that it is a terrible thing for someone to die or become incapacitated because he cannot afford medication. On the other hand, I’m not sure that it is utterly hard-hearted to believe that individuals ought to be willing to make substantial financial sacrifices for the sake of their own lives and health, before they ask others to pay in their behalf. Perhaps obtaining the elixir of life shouldn’t force one to give up food, clothing and shelter, but isn’t it worth more than a ten dollar co-pay?
Be that as it may, the alternative minimum tax is certainly as deplorable as Mr. Hunt claims, but he is less accurate when he calls EGTRRA's failure to ameliorate it “cynical sleight-of-hand”. Conservative lawmakers were all for cutting or abolishing the tax, but their proposals were killed by artificial ceilings, necessary to obtain the backing of “moderates”, on how much of the projected surplus could be “spent” reducing taxes. Since the AMT problem was still a few years off, addressing it in EGTRRA would have skewed the tax reduction “budget” even further into the out years and correspondingly limited what could be done in the near term. There is nothing cynical, I think, about preferring tax relief today to tax relief tomorrow, wonderful as it would be not to have to choose between them.
Mr. Hunt quotes a cost of “at least $400 billion to $500 billion over the first decade” to “fix this mess”, though he doesn’t specify what kind of fix he has in mind. I haven’t looked up the cost of possible corrective measures, but let us take $50 billion a year as an approximation. Is that an intolerable lessening of federal resources? Would a $50 billion budget deficit ruin a ten trillion dollar economy?
One of the obvious ironies of American politics is that liberals and conservatives have largely reversed positions on deficits. While the Right has a lingering fondness for a Balanced Budget Amendment, its opposition to deficit spending crumbled during the Reagan Administration and hasn’t revived. Meanwhile, the Left has occupied the old “deficits are evil and immoral” ground.
This ideological switcheroo has its comic aspect, but the conservatives’ reversal is not the result of mere opportunism. Their old position rested on two objections to deficit spending: First, it caused inflation as the Federal Reserve Board expanded the money supply to accommodate government borrowing. Second, interest payments on a massive debt burdened future generations. Both of the those objections have become less compelling, and conservatives, being capable of learning from experience, have modified their thinking accordingly.
The inflation risk lessened substantially when the Fed turned monetarist and stopped responding to budget imbalances by creating money. As the Reagan years demonstrated, proper monetary policy could minimize inflation even in the face of relatively large deficits.
The concern about the impact on posterity remains a real concern but a much more limited one that it was back in the 1960's and ‘70's. Fearsome as Mr. Reischauer’s $200 billion a year deficit forecast sounds in isolation, it is less than two percent of the gross domestic product at a time when public federal debt is 31 percent of the GDP, its lowest level in 20 years. (When John F. Kennedy took office, the figure was 47 percent. That didn’t deter his administration from proposing tax cuts more grandiose - and more tilted toward Al Hunt’s hated “wealthy” - than George W. Bush’s.) Some increase in the debt is tolerable, and a modest improvement in economic growth would be enough to put the government back into the black.
In the face of these reassuring developments, liberals have abandoned their old Keynesian certitudes, declaring deficits unendurable and surpluses divine, whatever the economic weather. The only cause that I can discern for this superstitious attitude is that it furnishes an all-purpose argument against decreasing taxes at any time for any reason. The ultimate evil is not, it seems, deficits but the lurking possibility that citizens may gain more control over how their money is spent.
The column ends with what is doubtless a sincere plea:
The current issue of the Washington Monthly magazine has a provocative piece on what it terms the real possibility that after this election Republicans might control all three branches of government for the first time since the 1920s. "With that kind of power," the article contends, the GOP could "fundamentally reshape American government in ways that can't be undone, no matter which party wins in 2004."
The politicians have 40 days to level with the voters about this.
The“real possibility” that so unsettles Al would be less possible if the Democratic Party offered a program more robust than Tom Daschle’s carping. “Nattering nabobs of negativism” suddenly sounds relevant again.
September 19, 2002
Eager though he was last week for Democrats to go toe-to-toe with George W. Bush on Iraq, Al Hunt’s real hope is that the public will be more interested in other topics come November. American policy toward Saddam Hussein may have been the number one issue in the German elections, but that’s no reason why it should preoccupy our own voters. So Al counsels, “. . . And Don’t Forget Health Care” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only].
Health care is worth remembering for a reason that Mr. Hunt is unlikely to admit: It has been one of the great, unappreciated American success stories. As the latest comprehensive study by the National Center for Health Statistics reports, all major indicators of good health have improved dramatically over the past fifty years. Life expectancy is at an all-time high, infant mortality at an all-time low, while rates of infectious disease, cancer, heart trouble, strokes and AIDS are all declining - despite that fact that a larger proportion of the population than ever weighs too much, exercises too little and otherwise acts in ways that do not promote physical well-being. Nonetheless, Americans, when asked by pollsters, profess great unhappiness with the system that has delivered these happy outcomes, and every measure designed to make matters better seems only to make complaints worse. Does anybody remember when HMO’s were a great liberal cause and only right-wing troglodytes predicted that they would put medical decisions into the hands of an intrusive bureaucracy?
There is, in fact, only one time when Americans don’t criticize the health care status quo, namely, when they are compelled to evaluate detailed alternatives. Then, as happened so spectacularly in 1994, they shy away from fundamental reform, on the theory that an irritating system that works pretty well is preferable to the unpredictable effects of root-and-branch upheaval.
Their defeat in 1994 taught liberals that they were most likely to reach their long-term goal (putting health care into the hands of the federal government) through steady whining that would lead to incremental “progress”. What they present to the electorate is not a rational agenda of proposals but a set of attitudes.
Mr. Hunt, as an attitudinizer par excellence, addresses the topic on the shallowest level possible. His general theme is that support for “universal health care” is rising and “could be decisive” in this year’s election.
He begins with a curious, easily checked distortion:
John Breaux is a centrist Democrat who often works with Republicans, especially on health care issues.
It was therefore of more than passing interest last month when the Louisiana Democrat advocated, for the first time, universal health care coverage. The specifics remain sketchy -- in an interview he stresses that "unlike some of the liberals, I'm not talking about ending the private insurance delivery system" -- but it certainly would entail a larger government role.
Senator Breaux’s advocacy of “universal health care coverage” and “a larger government role” would indeed be of great interest, if it were true. What the Senator actually favors, as reported by Morton Kondracke in Roll Call, is quite a bit different. His idea, not yet fleshed out in any detail, is to turn the purchase of health insurance completely over to individuals, instead of giving the primary role to their employers or the government. “People would be required to have a basic health plan much as they do auto insurance, with better coverage optional and subsidies for the poor.”
The Roll Call article contrasts this approach with Ted Kennedy’s reactionary insistence on compelling all companies with five or more employees to pay for health insurance, a mandate that would be devastating to small business and to young, low-wage workers who would see their jobs disappear or their take-home pay nosedive. The article also notes that neither Senator Breaux nor Senator Kennedy thinks that health care reform is currently “at the top of the nation’s agenda”. The Senator from Louisiana isn’t sure, in fact, that it ought to be a leading campaign issue. “When you're campaigning for president, you tend to look for sound bites. This is not a sound bite. It's a whole chapter.”
Quite an intelligent approach - and therefore diametrically opposite to that of Al Hunt, for whom anything as thoughtful as a sound bite is far too wonkish. After misrepresenting Senator Breaux as a convert to Kennedy-style medical statism, he devotes that rest of the column to the politics of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The analysis is mostly the same as every other political commentators but not without its revelatory passages.
Explaining why Congress has done nothing about prescription drugs, despite the fact that both parties have offered proposals, Mr. Hunt lapses into what almost might be called candor:
But congressional leaders of both parties are cool to any deal. Democrats fear it doesn't go far enough and will rob them of an issue in November; Republicans think it's too costly and undercuts GOP candidates who've been championing more modest initiatives as adequate.
That is as close as he is likely to come to saying that the Republicans are acting out of principle, while the Democrats, with all of their professed concern for the plight of the financially pressed elderly, refuse to accept a large portion of a loaf lest they be deprived of campaign fodder. Isn’t that just a bit more callous than the fault that Mr. Hunt alleges against President Bush: that he hasn’t done enough to pass an extension of funding for community health centers?
What follows tells us much about how Mr. Hunt views the public good:
Substantively [emphasis added], the issue should be clear cut. In a survey last month for the Alliance for Retired Americans, Democratic pollster Peter Hart found prescription drugs are the main voting issue for seniors, who turn out disproportionately in off- year elections. . . .
So “substance” is a synonym for “what polls best”? Yes, in the Huntian vocabulary it is. There is scarcely any need to say more.
September 12, 2002
“Are we better off today than a year ago?” is a strange question to ask on September 12, 2002, but that is Al Hunt’s query in his 9/11 anniversary column. His answer, “A Year Later: More Confusion Than Clarity” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is predictable. To give the loathsome Bush Administration any but the most grudging and quickly retracted credit for its conduct of the War on Terror is more than one can expect from Mr. Hunt.
The column begins with a complaint about the “media excess [of] the past few days”, contrasting it with the dignified way in which Americans marked the anniversary of Pearl Harbor:
On December 7, 1942, factory whistles sounded and church bells tolled at 1:30 p.m., the one-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor. There was little other commemoration; President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked privately, issuing no statements.
On September 11, 2002, the commemoration was “tasteless, as pundits and politicians alike rushed to outdo each other in embracing the tragedy's anniversary”.
There’s something to that view, but surely it would be fair to add that among the politicians who did not contribute to the tastelessness was President Bush. His brief, dignified remarks at Ellis Island and the Pentagon were not the Gettysburg Address, but they played in the same league.
Mr. Hunt then moves on to his theme of the week:
The real central question is: Are we better off today than a year ago? The parallels to World War II are flawed. But the answer to that fundamental question 60 years ago was a clear yes. Today it's not.
A moment of croggling. Americans were better off on December 7, 1942, than a year earlier? Better off with conscription, censorship, rationing, price controls, massive tax increases, even more massive increases in the National Debt, and the first year’s installment of what would become over a million dead and wounded? Is that what an enlightened, sensitive liberal means by “better off”?
All of those evils were, of course, necessary (or reasonably thought necessary) if America was to win the war, so the country bore them in good spirit. It didn’t rejoice in them.
I can’t believe that Al Hunt does either. He is such an imprecise thinker and writer than it is uncharitable to take his words stricto sensu. He probably is trying to say that the first year of World War II brought the U.S. closer to victory, whereas it isn’t clear that the first year of the War on Terror has been so successful.
In evaluating the progress of the war, Al does concede that a few matters have gone well:
Much good has emerged. Soldiers, firefighters, police, rescue workers, survivors and victims of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the doomed flights, and some brave journalists have exhibited exceptional courage and valor. There is in America, as acclaimed author David Halberstam notes, a "nobility of ordinary people."
The dreadful Taliban has been toppled in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden is either dead or hiding, largely incapacitated. And, some would argue, Sept. 11 was the catalyst to finally get serious about the lethal threat of Saddam Hussein.
He also might have mentioned the crumbling of the pro-terrorist Arafat regime after its attempt to open a “second front” in Israel, the exposure of numerous terrorist supporters, the steady progress in preparations for deposing Saddam Hussein, and the failure, due either to our brilliance or their ineptitude, of the enemy to carry out any further significant attacks on U.S. soil or against U.S. personnel. The feeble lobbing of a few shells at U.S. bases in Afghanistan last Wednesday, resulting in not so much as a bruise, was symbolic.
All this happened, one might note (Mr. Hunt doesn’t), while President Bush was ignoring the strategic and tactical advice of liberals like Al Hunt. The President didn’t try to prove a criminal case against Osama bin Laden, didn’t wait for worldwide consensus before attacking the Taliban, didn’t observe a bombing halt during Ramadan, didn’t put off ground operations until after the “brutal Afghan winter”, didn’t force Israel into compromise with Palestinian Authority and hasn’t succumbed to pressure to go easy on Iraq. So far, the dumb cowboy from Texas has a whole lot better track record than the sophisticated realpolitikers from the East Coast.
But, though cowboys may think that the war has gone reasonably well, Mr. Hunt finds grounds for dissatisfaction. He begins by trying to turn the President’s own words against him:
In President Bush's heralded speech to Congress nine days after Sept. 11 there were two memorable commitments: One, that the war won't end until every terrorist group had "been found, stopped and defeated," and that every nation had to decide whether it was with us, or "with the terrorists." Measured against that rhetoric, progress in the war (the White House deliberately chose that term) is disappointing.
The parenthesis is puzzling. Is Mr. Hunt suggesting that some term other than “war” would be more fitting? Has he one to propose? Does he think that, after suffering an attack more destructive than Pearl Harbor, we are not at war? There seem to be echoes here of Susan Sontag’s bizarre fabulation that the war against al-Qaeda and its allies is no more than a metaphorical conflict, like the “war on cancer”.
Mr. Hunt proceeds to list what he regards as failures.
First, Afghanistan is still unruly.
After the initial success in Afghanistan, the administration foolishly resisted committing major American resources, an act which it thought would reek of Clintonian nation building. Washington has changed course, but it's late: Hamid Karzai's new government's hold is fragile, and al Qaeda terrorists have started coming back to their old Afghan haunts.
What could “committing major American resources” have accomplished? The level of activity by al-Qaeda and Taliban holdouts has fallen to a very low level, as the nugatory September 11th attacks showed. Reducing it to zero in a rugged territory the size of Texas isn’t worth the effort. From the point of view of finding, stopping and defeating terrorist groups, what was crucial in Afghanistan was to deprive al-Qaeda of its secure base of operations and to disrupt its leadership. Those tasks having been carried out, it really is up to Afghanis to bring peace, liberty and prosperity to their own land.
Second, the war isn’t over already.
And even if the state-supported element has been eliminated, al Qaeda still operates in some 50 places and has found other important sanctuaries: Pakistan, particularly, but also Iran, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as well as Iraq. We know Saddam isn't "with us," in the president's words, but countries like Iran and Syria blithely brush aside his warnings of a year ago.
It might be instructive to ask al-Qaeda or Hamas whether their members feel better off than a year ago. To borrow Mr. Hunt’s parallel to World War II, one year after Pearl Harbor Germany and Japan still occupied almost all of their conquests, but that did not mean that the course of the war was “disappointing”.
The jibe about how “countries like Iran and Syria blithely brush aside [President Bush’s] warnings of a year ago” sounds peculiar coming from Mr. Hunt’s dovish pen. Is he criticizing the Administration for not yet having pushed the mullahs and the Ba’athists out of power? Would he support efforts to get rid of them? More to the point, when those efforts come, will he?
Third, the President hasn’t “made” that elusive “case” for ousting Saddam Hussein.
There is a case for going into Iraq, but the fumbling efforts by the administration to link it to the war against terrorism have faltered. As President Bush prepares to address the United Nations today, the clarity that seemed so real a year ago has dissipated. He lacks a consensus at home -- the most ferocious fight may be the GOP intra-party debate -- and with Iraq, the international coalition has vanished.
Those words were written before the President’s U.N. speech but not before its anticipated substance had been widely reported. To my mind, it would be hard to excel Mr. Bush’s words in clarity. Clarity has, in fact, always been there, for those who have ears to hear. For those who insist on impossible standards of proof and are never satisfied by any quantity or quality of data, nothing will ever be clear enough. Mr. Hunt, scarcely a credulous observer, conceded a paragraph ago that Saddam Hussein has been allowing al-Qaeda to reorganize on Iraqi territory, yet he proclaims that the effort to establish the link between Iraq and terrorism has “faltered”. Faltered for want of evidence - or for want of willingness on the part of some to believe the evidence?
Mr. Hunt’s standard for “consensus at home” is also formidably high. Polls show strong public support for action against Saddam Hussein, so much so that, as last week’s Hunt column lamented, Democratic politicians prefer to hide their opinions from their constituents. The “ferocious fight” within the Republican Party, which was always pretty one-sided, has meanwhile petered out, with Brent Scowcroft and James Baker declaring themselves in agreement with the President following his U.N. address. In Congress, there may be a dozen GOP opponents of invading Iraq. On the eve of the Gulf War, there were more.
The “international coalition” is a concept not for promoting effective action but for stultifying it. The past several days have shown that the attack on Saddam will have as much international support as it needs to be successful. Mr. Hunt’s attempted pragmatic case for a larger degree of multilateralism is fatuous:
"It is a question of priorities; the danger is we spend too much of our focus and effort now in Iraq, it will divert from the campaign against al Qaeda, which is a clear and present danger," worries Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and an advocate of regime change in Iraq. If the U.S. unilaterally goes after Saddam, Dean Nye worries, "It'll make vital cooperation (on terrorism) much more difficult."
This line of argument treats Iraq and al-Qaeda as if they occupied different universes. One of the several reasons for “regime change” in Iraq is that it will facilitate “finding, stopping and defeating” terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. It might even encourage our partway allies in that region to become more cooperative. The invasion of Iraq is, indeed, more directly related to the war against terrorism than the invasion of North Africa in November 1942 was to the war against Germany.
Fourth, there hasn’t been an investigation.
As we go on Orange alert, there's still only a fragmentary accounting of what went wrong last Sept. 11. By this time in 1942, several Pearl Harbor investigating committees already had reported on the intelligence failures. It is an inescapable conclusion that the Bush White House continues to resist an independent investigation of the massive Sept. 11 intelligence failures out of fear of embarrassment.
Mr. Hunt raised this cry in the column that was the subject of my very first “Hunt Watch”. Nothing has changed since then: The White House has supplied large quantities of documents and testimony to Congressional committees, which are proceeding at their own pace. The Administration’s reluctance to add more investigations to the ones already under weigh is explicable by wartime demands on officials’ time and fear of compromising intelligence methods and sources. If the aim were to avoid embarrassing disclosures, the President’s aides would hardly be content to leave one of the principal investigations in the hands of a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Fifth, internal security still has holes.
Most FBI critics think the bureau is as bureaucratic and short-sighted as it was a year ago. After eleven months the government remains clueless as to who perpetrated the anthrax attacks, killing several Americans and attempting to kill leading politicians and journalists.
For all the complaints about air travel inconvenience, security has improved at airports and on airplanes. But as Newsweek documented this week, other modes of transportation (trains, buses, bridges) the 4,000 mile border with Canada and chemical and nuclear plants are highly vulnerable targets.
Not many will dissent from the criticism of the FBI, but these paragraphs are otherwise a demand for utopian protection. Defending every train, bus, bridge and border crossing to the extent necessary to preclude terrorist attack isn’t possible in a free society. Hence, until the war is finally won, we will have to worry about being vulnerable. That is why playing defense is such a foolish strategy.
Sixth, fascism is descending.
We've given up some liberties. That was to be expected but the zealousness of Attorney General Ashcroft should be unacceptable. There needs to be more surveillance, but it's indefensible to limit the right to counsel of citizens accused of terrorism, to recruit Americans to spy on their neighbors, and, as conservative House Judiciary committee chairman James Sensenbrenner has warned, to resurrect the bad days when the government spied on Martin Luther King and churches. Yet that's what the administration is doing.
Mr. Ashcroft and President Bush have used Sept. 11 as an excuse to justify their penchant for secrecy -- secret trials, secret arrests, and arrogantly refusing to disclose information that the public has a right to know. This is, to paraphrase a recent finding of a federal judge, "odious to a democratic society."
Compressing that much nonsense into just two paragraphs is a remarkable feat. Seriatim -
No citizen accused of terrorism has had his right to counsel abridged. Citizens captured under arms with the Taliban or on missions for al-Qaeda are being held as enemy combatants. If they want lawyers, they can demand to be indicted for treason.
I’ve missed the recruitment ads for domestic spies. The not-yet-implemented TIPS program would little more than set up hot lines for reporting suspicious activity, like the anti-crime and anti-drug programs that I see advertised every day on Chicago buses and El trains. It’s curious that Mr. Hunt wants “more surveillance” while disdaining information voluntarily furnished by ordinary citizens. That is the mindset that leads to a Stasi.
The specter of “the bad days when the government spied on Martin Luther King and churches” stems from allowing FBI agents to look at Web sites and attend public gatherings as part of their investigative work. “More surveillance”, eh, but liberty is threatened when cops don’t shut their eyes to conduct carried out in plain sight?
If there have been any “secret trials”, the secret has been well kept. There is a longstanding secret intelligence court, one of whose judges did recently complain about government abuses - under the Clinton Administration.
While “secret arrest” sounds scary, what the government has actually done would be more accurately termed “unpublicized arrest”. The Department of Justice didn’t disclose the names of a number of persons rounded up on various charges shortly after September 11th, but it also did not prevent them from obtaining counsel and telling anyone whom they wanted where they were.
Mr. Hunt doesn’t tell us what instances of “arrogantly refusing to disclose information that the public has a right to know” he has in mind. In his eyes, naturally, the President and the Attorney General always act “arrogantly”. There’s no such thing as a mistake or an honest difference of opinion in Al’s world.
The quote (not paraphrase) “odious to a democratic society” comes a case cited in Judge Gladys Kessler’s opinion in Center for National Security Studies v. U.S. Department of Justice, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14168 (D.D.C. Aug. 2, 2002). There it is not an evaluation of the Bush Administration’s practices but simply a condemnation of secret arrests in the abstract. I agree that it is odious to arrest and hold people without allowing anyone to know what has happened to them; the question is whether the arrests in question were “secret” in that or any other meaningful sense. Judge Kessler’s decision was, incidentally, quickly stayed by the Court of Appeals.
Seventh and last, Americans haven’t suffered enough.
Other than spying on anyone who looks like a terrorist, about all that Americans have been asked is to spend and consume more. By this time in 1942, not only had millions rushed to enlist in the war or to work in factories, but Washington enacted the largest tax hike in history, adding 60% more Americans to the tax rolls to pay for it.
Today it is hard to claim we're better off than a year ago because, for most of us, so little has changed.
I knew that Mr. Hunt was against tax cuts for the rich; hitherto I had not realized that he was also fond of tax hikes for the poor.
World War II called for much greater sacrifice than the War on Terror ever will. If we spent the same percentage of the Gross Domestic Product on the military today as in 1945, the defense budget would be just under $4 trillion. The vastly different scales of the conflicts explain why one required mobilization for total war while the other can be waged by a civilian economy. It is, if I may be so bold, a good thing that our present enemies are so much weaker than the Axis. Al Hunt evidently disagrees. Maybe if we follow the sluggish line that he advocates, we will someday have the opportunity to confront a truly powerful foe. Then victory will entail suffering. Is one to assume that the spirit of liberalism will be happy about it?