Sunday, January 18, 2004

Politics: The Real Campaign

Below I discussed what was likely to happen in the presidential race. The comments to that post focus on whether President Bush should be reelected. On this question, I am largely agnostic. After following the race for much of 2003, I’ve concluded the 2004 presidential campaign is largely an exercise in political theater without any major ideological battles.

The conventional view is that presidential elections are important. But history tells us this isn’t always the case. The 1984, 1988, and 1996 elections presented idea-free campaigns. The 1976 election was closely contested between two candidates of similar ideas, with only the residue of Watergate dividing popular loyalties. And of the three most recent elections where the White House changed parties—1980, 1992, and 2000—none resulted in much permanent change to the post-New Deal welfare state. The only clear change brought by these three elections was a temporary shift on the issue of taxes. In 1980 and 2000, Republican administrations made short-term tax cuts without cutting spending, and in 1992 a Democratic administration raised short-term taxes without cutting spending. The result is basically the same: A higher percentage of the U.S. economy goes to support government programs.

The most important election of the past 30 years came in 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress and a majority of state governorships. This victory had the potential to undo a great deal of the damage done by a century of statism. But the victory proved short-lived. Congressional Republicans abandoned much of their ideology after the government shutdowns of 1995, and Republican governors spent the budget surpluses of the 1990s to get themselves reelected.

The war in Iraq makes the 2004 election appear more important than it is. In truth, the Bush administration did little more there than cleanup the mess left by the past two administrations. Beyond the decision to go to war, which was correct, this president has shown little leadership in actually managing the postwar situation. George Bush is a checklist manager: He sets a limited agenda and sticks to it, with no understanding of the underlying principles or interrelated concepts affecting his agenda. This style of leadership rarely works in the long term.

But when you take Iraq off the table, you see the presidential race is nothing more than a beauty contest. Thus, I plan to cast a blank ballot for president this year (though I still plan to vote). Where our attention should be cast is rebuilding Congress. The Republicans will enjoy a majority in the House for some time, thanks largely to partisan redistricting. The challenge now is to upset the incumbent-protection racket that prevents genuine competition for most House seats. If we can put even a dozen pro-individual rights Republicans in the House, we can start to build a platform for a radical capitalist agenda. At an absolute minimum, a dozen good Republicans can prevent the corrupt Republicans from inflicting any more major damage, such as the Medicare bill or campaign finance “reform”.

The presidency is the show-pony of politics today. Congress is the substance. The sooner people understand this, the sooner we can get to work rebuilding America.

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