Saturday, September 24, 2005

Liberal Loser

The Bush administration is on the run! Bush's approval ratings are at an all time low, and even members of his own party are disappointed in him. His mismanagement of the war in Iraq and the Katrina cleanup are now admitted by anyone who isn't completely servile. The press is become less servile, emboldened by Bush’s declining popularity.

So clearly, now is a time for liberals to vigorously oppose administration policies they disagree with, and even to start to advance a bold agenda of their own. Surely this should be the attitude of liberal pundits.

But not at Slate, where they are made of weaker stuff.  Unbelievably, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg counsels Democrats and liberals to roll over for Bush, at least when it comes to the conservative agenda for rebuilding New Orleans. Weisberg says:

Liberals, who have failed to muster any kind of social consensus for a major federal assault on poverty since LBJ's day, should welcome conservatives as converts to the cause. They should hold back on their specific objections—some of which are valid, some of which are not—and let Bush have his way with the reconstruction. Making New Orleans a test site for conservative social policy ideas could shake out any number of ways politically. But all of us have a stake in an experiment that tells us whether conservative anti-poverty ideas, uh, work. If the conservative war on poverty succeeds, even in partial fashion, we will all be better for its success. And if it fails, we will have learned something important about how not to fight poverty.

How foolish is this?  Let’s consider Weisberg’s arguments.
  • Liberals have failed to muster consensus for a major assault on poverty, so let's give up and let conservatives have a turn. What better time than now, when the Republicans are unpopular and Katrina has focused the country's attention on the problem of poverty, to try to advance an anti-poverty agenda that liberals think will work. Why should liberals, at this particular moment, abandon their objections to bad conservative ideas and give up on advancing their own agenda?

  • Liberals should roll over for Bush, even when we think he's wrong, for the sake of providing an experiment in right-wing anti-poverty ideas.  Great-- and send the message that liberals are willing to sacrifice the quality of life for poor people for the sake of an experiment conducted by politicians who manifestly do not have poor people’s best interests at heart.  For instance, liberals want to provide Section 8 housing vouchers to homeless victims of Katrina, giving them maximum flexibility to find housing where it most suits them.  The Bush administration, by contrast, wants to put homeless victims of Katrina into massive new temporary trailer home parks that would be concentrations of poverty, isolated from opportunity.  Obviously a terrible idea.  But what the heck—let’s do it, as an experiment.  Pathetic.

  • If Republicans are allowed to try out their pet ideas and they fail, then we will “have learned something important about how not to fight poverty” and by implication, we won’t repeat the same mistake.  Weisberg seems to have forgotten that the Republicans are the faith-based party, and won’t likely accept real world failure as proof that they were wrong.  Weisberg also assumes that we all agree on what success means—for Weisberg, as for Citizen Cain, success means less poverty, and a better life for those who remain poor.  But is that really the objective of, for instance, Bush’s suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act in Katrina-ravaged areas? As a result of Bush’s action, federal contractors will be able to pay workers less than the prevailing wage.  Do we really need to conduct an experiment to tell us whether lower wages reduce poverty?  But terminating Davis-Bacon is a dream of the right-wing.  Suspending it for post-Katrina rebuilding will just whet their appetite for eliminating it all together, regardless of its impact on poverty.

  • If some anti-poverty program “works” in New Orleans, then it will work everywhere.  But giving lots of tax breaks for businesses that operate in hurricane-ravaged areas will no doubt increase business activity in those areas, at the expense of business activity in other areas.  That doesn’t mean that reducing business taxes nationwide will be good for the national economy, for our finances, or for the poor. Conservatives will say, “look, giving big tax breaks to business works!  Let’s do the same for the whole country.”

Josh Marshall provides a bracing contrast to Weisberg’s sad, pathetic approach.  Instead of writing off the poor in the Gulf Coast, Marshall has been keeping track of who in Congress supports, doesn’t support, or doesn’t take a position on legislation to overturn the Gulf Coast wage cut.  This is the same approach the Marshall followed, to great effect, in the Social Security debate.

Let’s hope Marshall’s approach prevails among liberal pundits.  Weisberg’s way is the way of defeat.