|Goodbye to the permanent majority?
Nov 2nd 2006 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition
Two years after George Bush's triumphant re-election, the Republicans are stumbling to a pummelling by a lacklustre Democratic Party. Here's why
LAST month, George Bush was interviewed on ABC television. The presenter told him that no fewer than 72 Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives “are putting you in their campaign ads”. The president asked: “Are they saying good things?”
It was vintage Dubya: charming, disarming and faux naif. Of course the Democrats all hate me, he seemed to imply; what can you expect when I stand so firmly by my principles? That is not, however, why Mr Bush's party is poised for a whipping on November 7th.
For five of the past six years Republicans have held all the levers of power in Washington—the presidency and both arms of Congress. (A defector cost them control of the Senate in 2001, but they won it back the next year.) For better or worse, Republicans must take responsibility for what the federal government has achieved during this period. And despite a buoyant economy, low unemployment and no significant terrorist attacks on American soil since September 11th 2001, most Americans think little has been done.
The president's approval rating is below 40%. Congress's is under 30%. Two-fifths of voters say they are “angry” with the administration: twice the proportion who said so in 1994, when the Republicans rode a wave of disgust with Democratic incompetence to capture both houses of Congress.
Virtually every political crystal-ball-gazer reckons the Republicans will lose their majority in the House of Representatives next week. Some predict they will lose the Senate, too. For a party whose cockier strategists have boasted of a “permanent Republican majority”, this is quite a come-down. How did it happen?
The Republicans' unpopularity is inextricably linked with that of Mr Bush. Voters who loathe him would obviously prefer a Democratic Congress to curb him. But more significantly, in electoral terms, many of those who voted for him in 2004 now wonder if unified Republican government is such a good thing. If these wavering Republicans either switch sides or stay at home on polling day, the party they once backed will get a thrashing.
There are many reasons why they have become disillusioned by Mr Bush's party, but two stand out. When the Republicans have stuck by their principles, they have done so incompetently. And in too many areas that matter to their natural supporters, such as fiscal prudence, they have not stuck by their principles at all. Add to this toxic cocktail repeated shots of scandal, from Abu Ghraib to Mark Foley, a Republican congressman who exchanged salacious e-mails with adolescent pages online, and the wonder is that their ratings are not even lower.
Iraq is the prime example of a principled policy, poorly executed. It is also the issue that will hurt the Republicans most at the polls, because they have steadily lost the confidence of those who, at first, supported the invasion.
This was a gradual process. Although no stockpiles of chemical weapons were found in Iraq, many Americans knew that Saddam Hussein had used them before, and believed he would have built them up again had sanctions been lifted. To many, replacing an odious tyranny with something resembling a democracy seemed a good enough reason for ousting him.
The last time Americans went to the polls, in 2004, 52% of them still thought that invading Iraq had been the right thing to do. Now only 40% do, and only one in five thinks America is winning the struggle there. Some doubtless assume this is because Iraqis are incapable of democratic self-government, but many blame bungling by their own side.
Better-informed American voters ask why Mr Bush's representatives in Iraq let looters gut Baghdad, why they sacked the civil servants who knew how to operate the electricity grid, and why they disbanded the army. The less well informed have a less detailed—but no less definite—impression of failure. They probably have not heard that the first name proposed for a reconstituted Iraqi army, the New Iraqi Corps, when abbreviated to NIC, means “fuck” in Arabic. But they do know that, three and a half years after apparent boasts of victory, there are still a lot of American troops in Iraq, and the place looks an utter mess on the evening news.
In January last year a majority of Americans started telling pollsters that invading Iraq had been a mistake. Nine months later the Republicans' reputation for competence took a further lashing, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast.
Much of the bile heaped on Mr Bush over Katrina was unfair. First, the disaster was not as ghastly as the media painted it. The stories of chaos, murder, rape and even cannibalism among the storm's victims turned out to be false. Second, much of the blame for the wretched response to the hurricane belonged to Democrats: Louisiana's dithering governor, Kathleen Blanco, and the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who let school buses that could have been used to evacuate people sit idle until they were half-submerged.
In the end, though, Mr Bush made the response to Katrina a federal responsibility, and the federal government botched it. The rescue effort was ill co-ordinated. Billions of relief dollars were wasted. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector-general noted, for example, that $900m was splurged on 26,000 mobile homes for evacuees, when regulations forbid the use of such homes on flood plains, so 11,000 of them were left “sinking in the mud” in Arkansas.
The Katrina clean-up could cost $200 billion. And that is perhaps the most troubling lesson from the debacle: that Bush Republicans will throw money at a problem if they think it will make them popular. Ryan Sager, the author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party”, describes it like this:
As Bush's poll numbers [sank] in the New Orleans floodwaters, he sent his staff scrambling to spend money at a pace that might dispel the notion, expressed most memorably by rapper Kanye West...that “George Bush doesn't care about black people.” He pre-emptively waved off the concerns of fiscal conservatives, saying that rebuilding was going to “cost whatever it costs”. [When some small-government Republicans] began pushing for budget cuts to pay for the Katrina clean-up, then majority leader Tom DeLay declared that there was simply no fat left in government to cut: “Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared it down pretty good.”
Mr Delay's boast was so ridiculous that it brought what Mr Sager calls “a sudden moment of clarity”. This was less than two months after the passage of the lardiest highway bill of all time, including a $223m bridge connecting the Alaskan town of Ketchikan to an island with a population of 50. If that was what the number-two Republican in the House of Representatives called “pared down pretty good”, it was clear that the Republican revolution of 1994 was over.
Twelve years ago, Newt Gingrich and his Republican footsoldiers swept to control of Congress by promising to slash federal spending. For a while, they kept that promise. Between 1995 and 2000, with a Republican Congress acting as a check on a Democratic president (and vice versa), real federal spending per head remained nearly frozen. When Mr Bush took office, however, Republican lawmakers were reluctant to restrain their own man. In Mr Bush's first five years real per head federal spending grew by 3.1% annually, making him the most fritter-happy president since Lyndon Johnson (see table). Under Mr Clinton, the number of federal employees shrank by 200,000 (excluding the armed forces and postal service). Under Mr Bush, it rose by 79,000.
William Niskanen, a former economic adviser to Ronald Reagan, speculates that divided government itself may be the key to fiscal restraint. Using data going back to Harry Truman's time, he found that real annual growth per head in federal spending averaged 1% under divided government and five times that under unified government.
With no hostile Congress to block him, Mr Bush has been free to follow his political instincts. There was once some ambiguity about what these were. When he first ran for president, he said he believed in limited government, and boasted that if his race with Al Gore were a spending contest, “I would come in second.” But he also distanced himself from Republicans in Congress by accusing them of “balanc[ing] their budget on the backs of the poor.”
Once in office, he appointed a budget director with a reputation for frugality, Mitch Daniels, who even tried—unsuccessfully—to make the phones at the Office of Management and Budget play the Rolling Stones' “You Can't Always Get What You Want” to callers on hold. But Mr Bush never gave Mr Daniels the latitude to make real cuts, because he was determined that everyone should get what he had promised them during his campaign.
The biggest handout was a prescription-drug entitlement for the elderly, known as Medicare Part D, which passed by a handful of votes in 2003. It addressed a real problem: some 22% of the elderly lacked drug coverage. But it did so in the costliest way imaginable. It is not means-tested, so old people who previously paid for their own drug coverage have an incentive to mooch off the taxpayer instead. It will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion over the first ten years—making it the biggest expansion of the welfare state since Mr Bush was dancing the Alligator at Yale.
The Bush Republicans passed the bill to woo the 40m elderly Americans, a group that seldom forgets to vote. Some were doubtless grateful, but since the plan started working this year, many have complained that it is confusing (which it is) and stingy (because it covers the first $2,250 of drug spending and anything over $5,100, but leaves a “doughnut hole” in the middle). Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the plan is too generous to drug companies. Voters seem to agree.
Some conservatives take comfort in the fact that a potentially significant conservative reform—the creation of individual health savings accounts—was attached to the Medicare drug bill. But even they fret that $1.2 trillion is a lot of money to win not a great many votes.
The other big reform of Mr Bush's first term, the No Child Left Behind Act, was supposed to jolt the American public out of their longstanding preference for Democratic education policies. The idea was to get Congress to swallow serious conservative reforms by sugaring them with federal cash. In the end, schools got extra cash without the key reforms.
The first draft created a voucher programme, so that kids in awful schools could take their share of federal funds to better ones, public or private. But Democrats and left-leaning Republicans on the relevant House committee replaced this bold reform with a vague guarantee that children in “failing” schools could transfer to non-failing ones. The catch was that state education officials were able to dumb down the tests so that schools which ought to have earned a “failing” grade did not do so. They also made it so tricky to transfer from a rotten school that in 2004-05 only 1% of eligible children did so.
The theory of big-government conservatism has few defenders. Mr Bush himself shuns the label. Fred Barnes, the journalist who coined it, argues that Mr Bush “is a visionary”, and that his philosophy of using the immense power of government for conservative ends is “the conservatism of the future”. Others see it as the triumph of expediency over principle. When Congress passed a grotesque package of farm subsidies in 2002 and Mr Bush signed it, many Republicans were convinced that it was the lesser of two evils. If they failed to support uneconomic farms, they figured, they might lose crucial Midwestern votes and hand power back to the Democrats. The same logic allowed Mr Bush to impose tariffs on imported steel that year. He knew that protectionism makes people poorer; but given the number of steel mills in swing states, he thought he'd better protect them anyway.
Ugly compromise is the essence of politics. But the Bush Republicans have backed down so often on the domestic front that some of their erstwhile supporters wonder what they stand for, apart from winning elections.
Consider what was supposed to be the headline reform of Mr Bush's second term, an overhaul of Social Security (public pensions). Arguing, correctly, that the system is heading for bankruptcy as the country ages, Mr Bush spent much of early 2005 promoting the idea that Americans should be allowed to shift some of the money they currently drop into the common retirement pot into private accounts, to invest as they please. The public was at first ambivalent; but the more the president campaigned, the less popular the idea became, until the Republicans ran for cover, and reform died.
Big-government conservatism has another serious flaw: it fosters corruption. The more cash the government sprays out, the greater the temptation to bribe those who aim the firehose. The most prominent scandals have involved actual criminal behaviour. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a Republican congressman, was caught trousering bribes from defence contractors to pay for his gaudily furnished yacht; Jack Abramoff, a well-connected Republican lobbyist, was convicted of fraud.
More troubling, however, is the much larger number of lawmakers—nearly all of them, in fact—with perfectly legal conflicts of interest. A congressman has the power to “earmark” funds for a specific project. He can insert the earmark into a big, fat, unrelated bill, in the hope that it passes without anyone reading it. And he can accept campaign donations from the beneficiaries of his largesse, so long as no favour is explicitly traded. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group, the number of porky earmarks has exploded under Republican rule, from 1,439 in 1995 to 13,997 last year. Congress's response to recent bribery scandals has been to impose footling restrictions on lobbyists. But the only effective way to curb corruption would be to trim the pork.
By some measures, the economy has been doing quite well under the Republicans. Productivity growth has been strong, unemployment is low and inflation modest. Although output growth is slowing as the housing market slumps, petrol prices have plunged in the past couple of months and the stock market is up.
Yet Americans are gloomy. Three-fifths of them tell pollsters that economic conditions in the country are getting worse, a much higher share than in 2004. Economists argue ferociously about how close this is to being true. The more dismal-minded ones point to average hourly wages, which rose by a slothful 0.6% annually between 2000 and 2006 once you adjust for inflation. Sunnier ones point out that if you include benefits, total hourly compensation rose by 1.3% a year over the same period. Yes, say the pessimists, but that is eaten up by soaring health-care costs. All right, say the optimists, let's look at consumption per head, which rose 17% in total between 2001 and the second quarter of 2006. Ah, say the doomsters, but that is because consumers are recklessly over-borrowing. No, say the optimists, it is because the Bush tax cuts left more money in their pockets.
Both sides make some valid points. But on balance the naysayers have the upper hand. The Bush economy has not felt great for most workers, for three reasons. First, workers' compensation—at least until recently—has been surprisingly sluggish, while firms' profits are at a record high. Americans have kept up spending by borrowing, largely against the value of their houses. Their savings rate is now negative. Second, the gains of growth have been skewed to the highest earners. Rising income inequality means that average income can be growing smartly, even as most workers are not much better off. Third, as Jacob Hacker of Yale University points out, incomes are much more volatile than they were a generation ago. People may be better off, on average, but they worry more about losing their jobs, and with it their health insurance and their ability to pay their children's college fees. None of this helps the Republicans; polls show that Americans prefer the Democrats on every economic issue bar taxes.
The Republicans' most reliable remaining supporters are religious conservatives and those who applaud Mr Bush's tough line on terrorism. The former cannot imagine ever voting for the Democrats; but some may stay at home on polling day. Mr Bush impresses them with his religiosity and his picks for the Supreme Court, but some feel that his “faith-based” social programmes are more about symbolism than ending poverty. And religious conservatives are repelled by the Foley scandal.
As for the terror hawks, many are doubtless appalled at the idea of a Democratic Congress hamstringing a wartime commander-in-chief with investigations. But some think Mr Bush would have been a better president with a hostile legislature to keep him on his toes.
One should never underestimate the Democrats' flair for losing. But if they cannot capture at least the House of Representatives on November 7th, argues George Will, a conservative columnist, “they should go into another line of work.”