Saturday, October 10, 2009

"The New Season", by George F.Will

Unlike his other books (at least the ones I'm familiar with), this one is not a collection of Will's columns, but rather is a series of five long essays on politics, written in 1987, before the candidates for the 1988 election were selected. In fact, the subtitle is "A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election."

Will loves politics, saying early on that "All American elections are entertaining. They, like baseball, are dull only to the dull." In his first essay, entitled "Introduction", Will expands on this concept, saying "Politics as Americans practice it is a serous business because it is about ideas. So pay attention to the words. The public utterances of politicians, not the private machinations, are the important story."

In line with this thought, Will distinguishes between the "outside story" and the "inside story". Will cites approvingly the work of Richard Brookhiser, who argues that journalists have become too preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of political activity, i.e., the inside story. As a result, journalists have been shortchanging the outside story, which concerns the "words, themes and ideas that are the most important ingredients in elections".

Will goes on to state that "A theme of this book is that politicians' words--the most public acts of public people--matter and should be taken seriously by serious students of politics. But this does not mean that words are invariably reliable indices of a politician's probable behavior." Will says the discrepancy between the words and (later) actions is not that the politician is lying or being misleading in some way, but that "words, especially those spoken in campaigns, often express values and intentions out of the context of responsibility. This does not make the words unimportant. But it does mean that words must be examined in the cold white light of the expectation that between words and deeds fall the shadows of compromises....The problem is just that words, although important, often are not the last word in politics. Conditions often speak last and loudest."

We can certainly see this discrepancy today with Obama. Many of the things he said he wanted to do (what some would rudely call "campaign promises") are things he has not been able to accomplish. Just this morning NPR had a story on "don't ask, don't tell", which Obama clearly stated during the campaign that he wanted to abolish as it has resulted in some 400 soldiers being thrown out of the military. As Obama prepares to speak to a gay rights group, he will surely be asked about this, which seems so simple to do. I am reminded of JFK who in 1960 said that segregation in public housing was wrong and could be removed by a simple "stroke of the pen". Well, it took JFK almost two years after he became President to pick up his pen and accomplish this "stroke" to eliminate segregation in public housing. This does not mean JFK was "lying" when he made his comments, just that reality intruded.

Also in the news is word that Obama will likely not be able to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by January as he said he would. Again, reality has intruded. Same for getting out of Iraq. And the biggest headache of all, Afghanistan, which Obama stressed during his campaign, is looking now like it will become Obama's biggest test in office. Will he stick to his campaign rhetoric of military action and send the additional troops being requested, or he listen to his advisers who are pointing out there is no clear strategy for success, no reasonable prospects for success, and certainly no exit strategy. What are we going to do, stay there forever and try to build a government in a country that has never been governable in the past, and is really a collection of hundreds of tribes rather than an actual nation? This truly is Obama's biggest test, and how he handles it will determine what sort of President he will be.

Will applies this principle to Reagan, and concludes that if you look at his actions rather than his rhetoric, he comes off as not nearly as radical as his rhetoric would imply. Unlike other conservative commentators who blamed Congress rather than Reagan for the huge budget deficits during the '80's, Will correctly points out that "Congress has spent about what Reagan has requested. And Congress has enacted only as many balanced budgets as he has submitted." Will goes on to say that "Reagan has supported almost all the water projects President Carter tried to kill, has supported 'swollen farm subsidies and generous farm-loan guarantees, has supported subsidized electric power and grazing fees for his Western friends, has pledged that he will 'not stand for' cuts in the biggest sector of big government (Social Security), and wants some new deficit-enlarging programs, such as tuition tax credits."

Will says that the era of "big government", if you will, started by FDR in the 1930's has been embraced by every President since, both Republican and Democrat. The idea that there was a Reagan Revolution", as idiots like Sam Donaldson like to call it, is quite false, as Will amply demonstrates. Rather than a revolution, Reagan kept us going along the same path we had been, with minor corrections. Implicit in this is the idea that there are few true conservative in politics these days, and that Republicanism today has strayed far away from its stated conservative philosophy.

The experience with the 1980's-era Grace Commission is instructive. This was a much-ballyhooed group of private citizens who were to study government and recommend ways to make it more efficient and economical. The commission came u with 2,478 recommendations. Will says the bulk of the savings were to come not from correcting "waste, fraud or abuse", but rather would involve changing policies which had been embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. The largest single chunk of savings--14% of the total--was to come from cutting federal pensions, both civilian and military. Of course that recommendation went nowhere, and Will says if Reagan had acted on, or even endorsed, the dozen or so most important of the recommendations he would have lost all fifty states when he ran for re-election in 1984.

Will acknowledges that Americans have a lot of growing up to do, and need to be talked to in a frank way instead of pandered to as both parties usually do. The disconnect which afflicts American conservatives can be illustrated by a story Fritz Hollings used to tell, which I have reproduced in the post "Profile of a Conservative".

Will then moves to the Democrats for his fourth essay. Here he discusses Arthur Schlesinger's cycle theory, which says the cycles come in 20-year intervals in American politics. This theory would have predicted a switch to the Democrats in 1988. Instead, the Republicans got four more years, but there *was* a switch in 1992 with Clinton so Schlesinger's theory holds up pretty well IMO. And the idea that the cycles can be explained by the fact that one generation of leaders inspires the next, who then come to power when they are old enough 20 years later, seems to have been demonstrated: FDR to JFK, JFK to Clinton and Obama. Of course, the bad news here is that after Obama we will get someone who was inspired by Reagan.

Will compares the Democrats to a family which inevitably has to lay down the law to its kids about use of the F-word. Yes, that rascally 4-letter word which wreaks such havoc in families. After thus teasing us, Will reveals that the dreaded word is "fair". At the end of this essay Will sums up the Democrats' task: "Just as the party must acquire foreign policies that acknowledge that the world is dangerous and there is little the United States can do to make it less so, the party also must acquire domestic policies that accept the fact that life is a corduroy road and there are limits to what government can or should do to smooth it."

I can't help but think of something Martin Dickinson, my tax law prof, once said. He said "You can't have both simplicity and fairness in the tax laws". This illustrates the Democrats' dilemma nicely. In an effort to take too many factors into account the tax code has become so complex that nobody can hope to understand it all. These complicating factors are almost all put there to make the code more "fair". (I have to put the "almost" in there, as Professor Dickinson showed us a provision inserted by Louisiana Senator Russell Long which benefited a single university in his state.)

The Democrats have attempted to smooth the corduroy road of life, to use Will's terms, and in the process have created a monster with the tax code (and other needless laws and regulations). Going to the "flat tax" advocated by some is surely going too far in the other direction. But can't we find a happy medium somewhere?

In his final essay, "Conclusion", Will again expresses his sense of wonder at the American system: "Americans have more fun than any other people, in part because their politics--their collective conversation--is so astonishingly amicable, and, all things consider, intelligent. America's political system--the day-to-day success of it, the mundane miraculousness of it--is the big news of he modern world and, I think, of human experience."

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