Saturday, January 29, 2005

Policy in the service of partisan politics

It's not news to anyone who's been paying attention, but tomorrow's Washington Post outlines just how many of Bush's major policy inititatives--notably social security privatization, caps on tort liabilities, and abrogation of collective bargain rights for civil servants--are designed not so much with an eye toward what's good for the country, but rather with an eye to undermining the Democratic coalition. (Along the same lines, a couple months back, I detailed the political logic driving the Republicans' effort to phase out Social Security.)

That political logic drives everything in this White House was most memorably exposed in Ron Suskind's 2002 Esquire expose (available here) of Karl Rove, as narrated by John DiIulio, Bush's recent director of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Suskind quoted DiIulio in that article as saying, "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus.... What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." (DiIulio later retracted his statements in a Stalinist-victim-style self-criticism.)

While I've always savored the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis"--which perfectly captures the political mein of the sort of pasty-faced, balding, overweight, bespectacled political operatives who obsess about their "credibility"--it's nevertheless true that DiIulio's comments stem from the typical political naivete of the policy wonk: he honestly believes that there exists such a thing as "good policy" outside of good politics. Now, I happen to agree with DiIlulio that one ought to be able to create policies aimed at the greater general good without reference to politics, but that's an explicitly non-ideological view of politics.

The real point about the current Republican Party is that they are a completely ideological bunch. For ideologists, the political goal is the policy goal; trying to separate politics from policy is at best sentimental, at worst "elitist" technocratic thinking. And central to Republican Party ideology is the notion that making the country a better place requires undermining the institutions and practices that allow, support or encourage people to hold progressive political views. In other words, destroying the underpinnings of the (rudimentary, makeshift) social democratic institutions built during the New Deal is the Bush regime's policy agenda.

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