Manservant

By

Is President Bush a conservative? His successful push for

the Medicare bill, as well as his unsuccessful (for now) push

for an energy bill, have prompted another round of gentle tsk-

tsking by conservative pundits. "One side advantage of the

measure is that it should, at least, retire for good and allthat absurd claim that President Bush is some kind of

ideological extremist," writes former Bush speechwriter David

Frum in National Review Online. "It's sobering to

consider that with the prescription-drug benefit, George W. Bush

has created the first major new federal entitlement since Gerald

Ford signed the Earned Income Tax Credit a quarter-century ago.

If that isn't 'moderation,' what is?"

This argument betrays a common misunderstanding of the

precise nature of the president's right-wingery. Bush's

extremism does not lie in the purity of his devotion to the

teachings of Milton Friedman but rather in the slavishness of

his fealty to K Street. The distinction is a fine one, but it's

highly revealing. In most instances, being pro-free market and

pro-business amount to the same thing. Businesses usually want

the government out of their way, which is why the business lobby

threw its weight behind Bush's efforts to cut taxes, scuttle

workplace safety standards, and so on. The way you tell the

difference between a free-marketer and a servant of business is

how he behaves when the interests of the two diverge. And all

the evidence, including the Medicare and energy bills, points to

the conclusion that Bush is happy to throw free-market

conservatism out the window when business interests so

desire.

Consider, for instance, the $180 billion farm bill signed by

Bush in 2002. The notion that taxpayers should subsidize farmers

rather than, say, butchers or t-

shirt salesmen represents the most archaic and unjustifiable

kind of government intervention. But farmers have lots of clout

in Washington, in part because they're relatively affluent (farm

households earn more on average than non-farm households) but

mainly due to the disproportionate representation of rural

states in the Senate and electoral college. In the course of

showering federal largesse upon farmers a year ago, some

senators tried to mitigate their shame slightly by limiting

payments to $275,000 per farmer. Republicans removed this modest

measure. Bush also capitulated to the textile and steel

industries by imposing tariffs on competing imports, overruling

the advice of his economic advisers. (Only after steel-consuming

industries complained and the World Trade Organization ruled the

tariffs illegal did Bush finally relent.)

A cornerstone of Bush's domestic policy is his aptitude for

economic giveaways that are supported by neither liberals nor

true conservatives--indeed, that are supported only by those who

profit from them monetarily or politically. Take the energy

bill, which lavished subsidies upon favored industries. Not only

did environmentalists and mainstream liberal economists denounce

it, so did conservative scholars at think tanks like the

Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Everything you need

to know about the politics and policy of the energy bill is

contained within one sentence that appeared in The Washington

Post last month: "The assembled lobbyists--representing

farm, corn, soybean, wind, geothermal, coal, oil and gas

interests that benefit from provisions in the 1,100 page bill--

gave [GOP Senator and energy-bill champion Pete] Domenici a

standing ovation, and he thanked them for helping to push the

legislation to the brink of passage, according to one person

present."

Similarly, the Medicare bill, supposedly evidence of Bush's

moderation, is in fact typical of his domestic agenda, which

revolves around granting favors to powerful interest groups.

Again, most of the major liberal and conservative think tanks

opposed the bill. But the pharmaceutical companies were ecstatic

with it: Not only does it subsidize drug purchases, it

specifically prohibits the federal government from using its

negotiating power to hold down the cost of the drugs it

purchases. (Got that? Those who spend your tax dollars are

forbidden from striking a good bargain with the drug

companies.) The American Medical Association was brought on

board with a promise to boost Medicare reimbursements. And

employers received federal subsidies--more than twice what they

requested--to help cover the cost of their retirees' health

care. As Thomas Scully, the Bush appointee who heads the Centers

for Medicare and Medicaid Services, put it, businesses received

"way beyond their wildest requests" and "should be having a

giant ticker-tape parade." Perhaps deeming a ticker-tape parade

unseemly, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of

Commerce instead launched a lobbying campaign on the bill's

behalf.

Note that all these measures would require the government to

spend more money. But they triggered nary a complaint from

conservatives. What they hated about the Medicare bill was the

part about helping senior citizens buy medicine. When the

government gives money to sick people, you see, that's incipient

socialism. When it gives money to drug companies, doctors, and

employers, that's the free market in action.

All this is in keeping with the recent pattern of Republican

governance. Last year, the Associated Press conducted a

remarkable study showing how federal spending patterns had

changed since the GOP took over Congress in 1995. Republicans

did not shrink federal spending, it found, they merely

transferred it, from poorer Democratic districts to wealthier

Republican ones. This, the A.P. reported, "translates into more

business loans and farm subsidies, and fewer public housing

grants and food stamps." In 1995, Democratic districts received

an average of $35 million more in federal largesse than

Republican districts, which seems roughly fair given that

Democratic districts have more people in need of government aid.

By 2001, the gap had not only reversed, it had increased nearly

twentyfold, with GOP districts receiving an average of $612

million more than Democratic ones. Justifying this shift, then-

Majority Leader Dick Armey said, "To the victor goes the

spoils." It would be a worthy slogan for Bush's reelection

campaign.

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