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Four more years?

February 26th, 2004

The announcement that Ralph Nader will again run for the Presidency raises the (almost) unaskable question -are there any circumstances under which we should hope for, promote, or even passively assist, the re-election of George W. Bush as against either of the remaining Democrat contenders? I feel nervous even raising this question, but I think it’s worth a hard and dispassionate look.

Regardless of their political persuasion, most people will agree, at least in retrospect, that it would have been better for their own side (defined either in ideological or in party terms) to have lost some of the elections they won. Most obviously, this was the case for the US Republican Party in 1928. Hoover’s victory, and his inability to cope with the Depression, paved the way for four successive victories for FDR and two generations of Democratic and liberal hegemony, which didn’t finally come to an end until the Reagan revolution in 1980. The same was true on the other side of poltiics in Australia and the UK, where Labour governments were elected just before the Depression, split over measures of retrenchment demanded by the maxims of orthodox finance and sat out the 1930s in Opposition, watching their own former leaders implement the disastrous policies they had rejected, but had been unable to counter.

So, is 2004 one of those occasions? The case that it is rests primarily on arguments about fiscal policy. Bush’s policies have set the United States on a path to national bankruptcy, a fact that is likely to become apparent some time between now and 2008. Assuming that actual or effective bankruptcy (repudiation of debt or deliberate resort to inflation) is unthinkable, this is going to entail some painful decisions for the next President and Congress, almost certainly involving both increases in taxation and cuts in expenditure. On the expenditure side, this will mean a lot more than the obvious targets of corporate welfare and FDW[1]. Either significant cuts in the big entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) or deep cuts in everything else the government does will be needed, even with substantial increases in taxes (to see the nasty arithmetic read these CBO projections, and replace the baseline with the more realistic “Policy Alternatives Not Included in CBO’s Baseline”)

As far as I can see, the only way to avoid four years of grinding bargaining would be the Big Bang approach of repealing the Bush tax cuts en bloc while the electoral mandate was fresh. Gephardt and Dean proposed this (along with, I think, Kucinich, Braun and Sharpton), but Edwards and Kerry propose repealing only the cuts on incomes above $200 000 a year. Whichever of them wins the Democratic nomination, it seems likely that the pressures of the campaign will lead them to soft-pedal the bad news on tax and spending options, making it more difficult to push even partial repeal through a Congress that will probably have a Republican majority in at least one House.

Given that the deficit has yet to register as a major issue with many (most ?) voters, , it will be very hard to shift the blame back onto Bush and the Republicans if the problem is deferred until 2005 or 2006. It’s easy to imagine scenarios leading to an electoral catastrophe in 2008 and the election of a Republican even worse than Bush. Conversely, a re-elected Bush could be a second Herbert Hoover, discrediting the Republicans for decades to come.

Of course, similar arguments were made in 2000, notably on behalf of Nader, and they turned out to be totally wrong. More generally, the folk wisdom about birds in the hand and in the bush (sic) is applicable. And it’s always easier for an outside onlooker to advise taking the long-term view in cases of this kind, though in this case, we all have to live with the consequences.

Looking at the damage another four years of Bush would do in all areas of domestic and foreign policy, I can’t conclude that the putative long-term benefits of demonstrating the bankruptcy of his ideas are enough to balance the inevitable and immediate damage his re-election would cause. Still, I look forward to a Democratic victory with trepidation rather than the unalloyed enthusiasm I ought to feel.

fn1. Fraud, Duplication and Waste

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  1. February 26th, 2004 at 08:02 | #1

    nice post, john.

    perhaps the democrats should let this one go.

    i personally dont think they can get up. bush’s foreign policy, whatever one’s opinion on it, has been too succesful in terms of its goals.

    plus i think they will capture bin laden, and maybe hold on to him until just before election night.

  2. Dave Ricardo
    February 26th, 2004 at 08:04 | #2

    Reagan’s election did not end Democratic hegemony. That came to an end in 1968, with the election of Richard Nixon. What set this off was the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which over time delivered virtually the entire South to the Republican Party.

  3. February 26th, 2004 at 09:21 | #3

    From 1968 to 2000, a 22 year conservative “march through the insititutions”.

    David Ricardo is correct, in that Nixon 1968 started the cultural populist approach of conservatism, ie identity and security politics, which obtained the poorer whites of the South for the Republican party.

    This conservative momentum built up in 1980, but the emphasis under Reagan shifted to the economic elitism of supply side tax cut economics. Reagan was not able to win the Congress, so the Republican culture wars were put on hold for most of his tenure.

    The cultural populist and economic elitist wings of the movement finally fused under Gingrich in 1994, when the Republicans captured Congress. But Clinton was able to stymie attempts to downsize the welfare state and the Culture wars were largely played out in civil society.

    Only since 2000 have the Republicans owned both branches of government, the judiciary and a managed to make the media docile. Both economic elitism and cultural populism have been, somewhat erraticly, pursued by the Bush admin.

    One should not be too hard on the Republicans.
    The seventies saw the US lose a major war, go through several economic declines and suffer cultural dysfunction. They have subsequently won about six little wars, retained global techno-economic dominance and repaired a significant amount of cultural damage.

    FWIW, I think that Pr Q is correct. Another Bush admin will well and truly stuff things up if it continues on the same policy settings. If they come to their senses, they will spend the whole tenure doing housekeeping, which will be time well spent. Either way, this election will be a good one to lose.

  4. February 26th, 2004 at 09:23 | #4

    FWIW, I think that Pr Q is correct. Another Bush admin will well and truly stuff things up if it continues on the same policy settings. If they come to their senses, they will spend the whole tenure doing housekeeping, which will be time well spent. Either way, this election will be a good one to lose.

    One should not be too hard on the Republicans. From 1968 to 2000, a 22 year conservative “march through the insititutions”.

    The seventies saw the US lose a major war, go through several economic declines and suffer cultural dysfunction. They have subsequently won about six little wars, retained global techno-economic dominance and repaired a significant amount of cultural damage.

    David Ricardo is correct, in that Nixon 1968 started the cultural populist approach of conservatism, ie identity and security politics, which obtained the poorer whites of the South for the Republican party.

    This conservative momentum built up in 1980, but the emphasis under Reagan shifted to the economic elitism of supply side tax cut economics. Reagan was not able to win the Congress, so the Republican culture wars were put on hold for most of his tenure.

    The cultural populist and economic elitist wings of the movement finally fused under Gingrich in 1994, when the Republicans captured Congress. But Clinton was able to stymie attempts to downsize the welfare state and the Culture wars were largely played out in civil society.

    Only since 2000 have the Republicans owned both branches of government, the judiciary and a managed to make the media docile. Both economic elitism and cultural populism have been, somewhat erraticly, pursued by the Bush admin.

  5. John Quiggin
    February 26th, 2004 at 09:50 | #5

    I had Nixon in mind when I said

    liberal hegemony, which didn’t finally come to an end until the Reagan revolution in 1980

    . I agree that he began the Republican resurgence, but Reagan was the one who finished the job.

  6. Stewart Kelly
    February 26th, 2004 at 15:07 | #6

    The Republicans seem to take it as an article of faith that their starve the beast strategy will result, eventually, in some serious spending cuts. But what if the US voters decide they like their Medicare and Social Security benefits, and it instead results in some serious tax hikes? Focused of course on the rich.

    Wouldn’t that be pee-your-pants funny?

  7. Dano
    February 28th, 2004 at 10:28 | #7

    I’ve argued this in a devil’s advocacy context for a little while now – thanks, John.

    Imagine the pendulum-swing for the Dems if the country gets 4 more years of this crew…hmmm…no, that’s just not fair. Never mind.

    D

  8. February 28th, 2004 at 16:31 | #8

    The Dems can win in 2004 without 2008 becoming a disaster for the party. The American public knows the impending boom in retirees is going to change some things fundamentally, so it won’t be totally unexpected. A set of tinkering changes — inch up the retirement age, inch up taxes, cut discretionary spending, contract the Navy to pay for expanding the Army, cut FDW, cut down on pork, improve the health care IT infrasturcture to cut health care & medicare costs, cut benefits a tad, etc.– would probably thread the needle to keep the system solvent for the next 20 or so years.

    Further, two more years of Bush would likely result in sweeping gains in the House, if not also the Senate, making either gridlock, a centrist agenda, or impeachment (pending the outcome of various investigations) more likely possibilities than the continuing “starve the beast” strategy.

  9. zolaris
    February 28th, 2004 at 21:47 | #9

    Jesting about “loosing for winning” when dealing with street thugs and the enronic Bushist crowd is both childish fantasy and suicidal musing.

  10. nitpicker
    February 29th, 2004 at 00:15 | #10

    Your CBO projections link is broken.

  11. February 29th, 2004 at 10:13 | #11

    Oh, and one more thing, a successful withdrawl from Iraq and/or success in finding Osama bin Laden, plus careful guidance through the baby boom years, would give the Democratic party a stranglehold on government, since that would likely repair the lingering perception of foreign policy weakness that has lasted since the Nixon administration.

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