October 4, 2009
They Call us LeftistsBy Vasko Kohlmayer
"Neocons are leftists in disguise," claimed William H. Calhoun in an article a few years ago. The first impulse would be to dismiss the assertion with indignation. Surely few things could be more unpalatable or offensive than being called a leftist.
The more one reflects on the recent past, however, the more one realizes that Calhoun's statement -- an exaggeration though it may be -- is not entirely groundless. If by a leftist we mean someone who expands government and the state, then surely we neoconservatives have displayed some leftist tendencies of late.
Consider the last eight years. It is generally agreed that the policies of the Bush administration were largely shaped by a neoconservative outlook and ideals. Much has, of course, been said and written about the administration's foreign policy whose main objective was to make the world safer by spreading democracy. Its domestic policy, on the other hand, received comparatively less attention. It can, however, be summed up easily in two words - government expansion.
Under President Bush the federal government grew more than under any president since Lyndon Johnson. By whatever criterion we may choose to measure it - budget, spending, the size of federal workforce, national debt, entitlements, regulatory burden, bureaucratic apparatus - the growth was truly prodigious.
Consider this. During his term in office, President Bush expanded public spending by more than 70 percent. He was the first president in 176 years to go through an entire term without vetoing any legislation or spending bill. When Bush was sworn into office our national debt was $5.7 trillion. By the time he left, it stood at $10.6 trillion, an increase of more than 100 percent. When military personnel and contract employees are included, the number of people who worked for government rose from 11 million in 1999 to nearly 16 million in 2008, an increase of nearly fifty percent.
When Bush came into office, the Federal Registry -- the quintessential tool of the federal regulatory muscle -- contained some 64,000 pages. By the end of his term, the Registry had grown to almost 80,000 pages. Economically significant regulations - defined as those which cost more than $100 million a year -- increased by 70 percent. According to a study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in 2007 alone federal regulatory agencies "issued 3,595 final rules, ranging from boosting fuel economy standards for light trucks to continuing a ban on bringing torch lighters into airplane cabins."
Veronique de Rugy writing in Reason Magazine points out how costly the regulatory regime turned out to be:
In the third year of his first term, President Bush signed the Medicare Act of 2003, which was essentially a prescription drug entitlement program. At the time of the signing the administration estimated that the ten year cost of the program would be some $430 billion. Less than two years later, the administration revised the estimate to $1.2 trillion. Former US Comptroller General David M. Walker called it "...probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s... because we promise way more than we can afford to keep."
Federal medical care expenditures -- which encompass Medicare, Medicaid, hospital and medical care for veterans, substance abuse and mental health services -- went up by more than 50 percent between 2001 and 2008.
The No Child Left Behind Act -- Bush's signature education legislation -- federalized K-12 education to an unprecedented degree. In 2008, this program cost federal taxpayers more than $20 billion, which was more than the yearly funding of NASA. Despite the program's high costs, there is little to show for in terms of results.
Federal Public Assistance -- which covers family support payments to states, low income home energy assistance, earned income tax credits, legal services, payments to states for daycare assistance, payments to states for foster care/adoption assistance, and a host of other services -- increased by almost 20 percent during Bush's two terms. Housing assistance grew by 12 percent. Federal student loans and related programs shot up by more than 120 percent. Federal Food and Nutrition Assistance - food stamps, child nutrition, special milk programs, etc. -- increased by some 50 percent.
In September 2005 President Bush together authorized more than $60 billion in federal relief to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This was the largest package of its kind in American history. In the end it proved to be a giant waste of taxpayer dollars as much of it was wasted or pilfered.
In September of last year President Bush urged Congress to pass a massive bailout of the financial sector. Known as The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, its cost was an astounding $700 billion. It was the largest bill passed by Congress up to that point. Only a small portion of it, however, was spent purchasing distressed assets, which was the bill's original selling point. Worse yet, the mammoth legislation cleared the way for the bailout extravaganza of Bush's successor.
We could go on and on, but this is enough to make the point. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator John McCain remarked that "we have now presided over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society." McCain's observation was correct. He neglected to say, however, that he himself voted for most of it.
Phil Gramm, a former Republican senator from Texas, assessed Bush's era thus: "Basically, we have had in the past eight years an unending growth in government and ever higher increases in the level of spending." The phrase "an unending growth of government" sums it up aptly.
Some may think that the dramatic government expansion was largely due to expenditures and contingencies relating to the War on Terror. But as the list above shows much of it was not. The bailouts, the costly Medicare Act of 2003 or No Child Left Behind are completely unrelated to anything connected with 9/11 or its aftermath. They all fall into the category of unnecessary government boondoggles in the tradition of FDR and LBJ.
It should also be noted that these programs were not forced on the administration either by Congress or by circumstances. They were the administration's own initiatives, an outgrowth of the mindset that assumes that government - if properly directed and guided - can be the solution to many of our problems.
There may be those who would say that the Bush's domestic policies represent an unfortunate betrayal of neoconservative principles. But if that should be the case, then you would expect a corrective rebuke from the neoconservative establishment. How did, then, neoconservative commentators, intellectuals and opinion makers respond to the administration's obvious leftward lurch toward statism?
Surprisingly, not much was said about it. Occasionally an objection was raised, but there was no strong reaction overall. Sharp criticism was rare. Many neoconservatives were, in fact, instrumental in supporting the president's key domestic initiatives. When the president needed to come up with arguments for some of his more questionable programs he could always count on the neoconservative intelligentsia to make an eloquent case. Bill Kristol, the founder of Weekly Standard and one of America's leading neoconservative thinkers, was, for example, a vocal and visible supporter of the president's immigration bill. It is fair to say that overall the neoconservative establishment was firmly behind Bush.
Our nonchalance about the government expansion that took place right before our eyes is startling for a number of reasons. For one thing, many of us like to think of ourselves as heirs of the Founding Fathers' legacy of limited government. And yet when we lived through the greatest state expansion in living memory we did almost nothing to stop it. Is it any surprise, then, that some take our silence and inaction as a tacit endorsement of what occurred?
Some of us may say that we did not like what was happening, but we did not want to criticize and weaken the president in a time of war, especially since he was being so viciously and unfairly attacked by the left. But this is a weak excuse. Criticism need not to be destructive. It does not have to be personal or cutting. There is always a way to raise objections in a civil and constructive manner; we can always speak truth in love. But one suspects that the fear of weakening the president was actually not the primary motive for our silence. It would rather seem that we were simply not sufficiently bothered by what we saw and that the government growth simply did offend our sensibility enough to provoke a reaction.
The charge of leftism against neoconservatives is thus not altogether meritless. If we are honest, we cannot but concede that in the last eight years we did exhibit some decidedly leftist tendencies. It is ironic that we routinely condemn Bill Clinton as a leftist, and yet he expanded government less than Bush did. Some of us may protest that we not mean for this to happen. But it did happen and it happened on our watch - so to speak - when people whom we voted for and identified with were in power.
Today many of us look in consternation at the exploding statism of the Obama administration. We shudder at the spectacle of huge bailouts and government takeover of banks, car companies as well as other forms of governmental intrusion into the private sector. But we must not forget that the stage for this was set by Bush. Obama is only taking to a logical conclusion the process that was set in motion by his predecessor. Our failure to stop it, or at least raise objections at the time, makes us at least partially responsible for what is happening today.
This should give us a pause. Can it be that there indeed is a leftist strain in our ideological make up, a blind spot of which we are not cognizant? The question that we neoconservatives need to ask is this: How is it possible that we were not alarmed by the encroaching statism of the Bush years? What does it say about our mindset and ideological orientation that we either failed to notice it or ignored it?
Let us ponder these questions as honestly as we can. It is becoming increasingly clear that the main problem facing this country is the growing state. It is threatening to smother this nation as it usurps ever more of our income and liberties while all the while it spends with insatiable abandon. We must admit that we bear a share of blame for the current situation. Let us resolve to never again become heedless of the danger of statism at home. Let us stay vigilant and remember Ronald Reagan's maxim: "Government is the problem, not the solution." And above all, let us not ever again give anyone a reason to charge us with leftism.