By Sheldon Richman
“Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton famously said. “And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The voters apparently agreed.
It’s reasonable to conclude from the election results that most voters felt the Republicans had been in power too long. The hopeless war in Iraq, the culture of corruption and incompetence, the spending binge (which includes the war), the grating social conservatism, and the autocratic arrogance approaching the dictatorial all culminated in a thunderous repudiation of President Bush and the Republican Party. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch.
In the voters’ view, they had only one group to turn to: the Democrats. But even if this was largely a negative vote, it doesn’t mean people won’t warm to Democrats’ activist agenda. Americans, sad to say, are not opposed in principle to activist government. They just don’t like the appearance of incompetence, which the Bush team gave them in spades. Most people welcomed Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, an activist piece of legislation if there ever was one, and the Medicare drug program, a massive expansion of the soon-to-be-bankrupt government medical retirement plan. Why shouldn’t they applaud the Democrats when the new majority begins promising expanded middle-class entitlements?
Would people have bailed out on the administration if the Iraq war appeared to be going well (meaning minimal American casualties) and FEMA hadn’t bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina so badly? Probably not. A CNN poll found that 54 percent say government is too intrusive, but when we get down to specifics, the small-government ranks probably melt away fast. A pragmatic frame of mind, unguided by principles and sound economic theory, can lead to all sorts of impractical outcomes.
President Bush wasted no time in throwing a bone to the voters by dumping Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and naming former CIA chief Robert Gates to replace him. Will this make any difference? Rumsfeld was in charge of carrying out the plan to remake Iraq in America’s image, but he was hardly the architect of that plan. The architects were the utopian neoconservatives who now are jumping ship and blaming Bush and Rumsfeld for bad execution of their excellent idea. Former Bush loyalist David Frum has been quoted saying that Bush never really understood the idea.
Thus cleaning house at the Pentagon will make little difference if thinking hasn’t change at the White House. Bush needs to come clean with the American people. Does he see his Iraq adventure as a terrible mistake or not? If not, what kind of changes is he likely to make beyond the cosmetic? Bush’s statements at his press conference were not encouraging. He doesn’t need a “new perspective.” He needs to check his premises.
Gates may come from the former President Bush’s team of “realists,” but let’s not forget that this team was capable of foreign intervention too. Remember Iraq, Somalia, and Panama. And let’s not forget that Bush 41 and his team were part of the Reagan administration, which intervened directly in Lebanon and Grenada, while also meddling in Latin America and Africa. Gates also was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, which circumvented the law by selling arms to the Ayatollah Khomeini and using the money to intervene in Nicaragua’s civil war.
Still, we can hope Gates is more realistic on the subject of nation-building than the gang that got us mired in Iraq. Nothing is more unrealistic than to think you can rebuild a society from the ground up. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that what some people are saying is true: that the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by another former Bush 41 operative, James Baker, is actually a device to give the current President Bush cover for getting out of Iraq soon.
The voters might have thrown Bush out of office if they had the chance. Maybe that knowledge will motivate the president to begin undoing his many mistakes.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) and editor of The Freeman magazine.