TCS Daily

'W' is for Wilson?

By James Pinkerton - February 2, 2005 12:00 AM

George W. Bush and Tony Blair are out to change the world. If they have their way, the future will be more democratic but also more big-spending statist -- including, inevitably, here in the US.

The President has announced that his ultimate goal is "ending tyranny" around the world. But the Prime Minister, reflecting his own leftist views, insists that the world's peoples can't be truly free unless they also enjoy material minimums. So the emerging division of labor between the two leaders becomes clear: Bush will be in charge of the tough talk and the tough action -- nailing not only Saddam Hussein, but also, hopefully, other nogoodniks, including Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And for his part, Blair will back up Bush on foreign policy, even as he, Blair, prods Bush to spend more and regulate more -- a lot more. Blair hopes that this Anglo-American alliance will end to poverty in Africa, as well as global warming. But it's more likely that political effects aside, this joint crusade for "planet change" prove to be an economically disastrous global boondoggle.

But for now, the ambitious Bush-Blair vision received a big boost from the Iraqi election turnout on Sunday. Both leaders went on worldwide TV to praise the voting millions.

Of course, a few worrywarts, such as Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, noted that "elections are not democracy", in that mere majoritarianism doesn't guarantee, for example, property rights and the rule of law. But most Americans are too busy cheering the news to worry about the un-democratic "democracies" that Zakaria cited in his piece, such as Russia and Nigeria.

Much more typical, in his blissfully ahistorical enthusiasm, was Mike Bayham, whose opinion piece for was entitled "Iraq's Great Leap Forward." Nobody seems to have told either Bayham or the website's headline writer that the original Great Leap Forward was one of the worst man-made calamities of all time. Or maybe Bayham & Co. don't care about the past and its lessons; as one Bush intimate told The New York Times, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Besides, plenty of others have joined in the Bush-cheering, from some surprising quarters. The Washington Post, which endorsed John Kerry, trilled these notes of editorial affection for Iraq's voters and the policy behind them: "Their votes were an act of courage and faith -- and an answer to the question of whether the mission in Iraq remains a just cause." And the Democratic Leadership Council added this: "The Iraqi transition to self-government is a prospect that should unite all Americans, and all friends of peace and democracy."

To be sure, the Post's edit page and the DLC are "neocon" Democratic, but their enthusiastic support for Bush's policy is a reminder that internationalist interventionism has deep roots in both parties -- and in truth, much deeper roots in the Democratic Party.

No wonder, then, that Bush's foreign policy is commonly called "Wilsonian"; on Monday, I Googled the words "Bush" and "Wilsonian" and got 34,000 hits.

For neoconservatives, most of them ex-Democrats, Wilsonianism is catnip, recalling the days when their ancestral party stood for robustly remaking the world. But more traditional conservatives and libertarians might reflect for a moment on just who Wilson was, asking themselves whether they really want the 43rd President to walk in the 28th President's footsteps.

Wilson was a religious perfectionist who won World War One, but then lost the peace at the Versailles conference in 1919 and then, later that same year, lost the politics of his hoped-for New World Order when the US Senate refused to join the League of Nations.

Yet for those with a limited-government orientation, Wilson's domestic record is equally noteworthy. During his first term, the president was merely a liberal Democrat; he ushered in the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and a small federal income tax. But after he was re-elected, in 1916, he swung far to the left. World War One, declared just a month after his second inauguration, was his rationale for Big Government, followed by Bigger Government. Citing the war emergency, he raised the top income tax rate from seven percent to 77 percent; yet when the war ended in 1918, he refused to lower that punitive and counter-productive top rate.

The Cato Institute's David Boaz further details Wilsonomics:

        "In two short years President Woodrow Wilson and Congress created the 
        Council of National Defense, the United States Food 
        Administration, the United States Fuel Administration, the War Industries 
        Board, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the United States Grain Corporation, 
        the United States Housing Corporation, and the War Finance Corporation. 
        Wilson also nationalized the railroads. It was a dramatic leap toward the 
        megastate we now struggle under, and it could not have been done in 
        the absence of the war."

During the Wilson administration, war was the health of the state. In fact, there's little doubt that Wilsonian progressives, operating with pre-Soviet enthusiasm for central planning, would have nationalized much of the US economy, had they been able.

Happily, instead, a public backlash -- the Republican Party won the Congress in the 1918 midterms and the White House two years later -- forced a de-nationalization of the railroads and thwarted the Fabianization of America.

Yet Wilson and his "ism" endured, mostly inside the Democratic Party. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson fought the Vietnam War on Wilsonian grounds; it was a war of choice, waged in the name of American ideals. And Jimmy Carter was a thoroughgoing Wilsonian, in sharp contrast to his realpolitiking Republican predecessors. In his 1977 inaugural address, Carter used the words "human rights" or some close variant six times, compared to precisely zero such uses in Richard Nixon's inaugural just four years before.

Yet Carter's idealism pales next to George W. Bush's. On January 20, 2005, the reinaugurated president said "freedom" 27 times, and "liberty" 15 times.

Indeed, on Fox News' "Special Report" on Sunday night, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard said that Bush had "totally seized the mantle of idealism" from the Democrats. Barnes is no doubt right about that.

But Bush might have seized more than most Republicans realize; in the chortling words of neocon Robert Kagan, Bush's foreign policy goals are "the antithesis of conservatism."

Of course, the Iraq elections are a fruit of this antithetical-to-conservatism conservatism. Yet the perspectivally empowered might recall with a weary sigh a giddy headline in the September 14, 1967 edition of The New York Times: "U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror." Only later did Americans learn that South Vietnamese democracy was a weak reed, indeed.

Meanwhile, what of Bush's domestic policy? In January 2004, libertarian-minded Republican political operative Steve Moore rallied a group of conservatives to oppose Bush's "drunken sailor" budget. Yet while the prospect of a John Kerry presidency zipped Moore's loyal lip for the rest of that election year, the fact remains that federal spending has soared under the leadership of this Republican president and two Republican congresses.

Ah, many conservatives say in defense of their W., that was then. Bush had to get re-elected. But now, in his second term, it will all be different. Bush will clamp down on spending, they promise, even as he moves ahead on the privatization -- or, as party-liners call it, personalization --of Social Security.

Well, maybe. But it's going to be a steeply uphill fight. Don't take my word for it: here's National Review's Bushophilic Ramesh Ponnuru, writing right here in TechCentralStation, gently telling the "personalizers" to downsize their expectations.

In fact, history shows that US presidents achieve their domestic goals, if they achieve them at all, in their first term. By their second four term, commanders-in-chief typically grow bored of the hurly-burly of pork, patronage, and parochialism; they yearn to make their mark on the larger canvas of the whole wide world. Such plans, of course, always involve spending more money.

Moreover, presidential persona aside, a basic political reality cuts against cutting back the size of government. What reality is that? War is collective. Sacrifice is communal. And when blood is being spilled in the name of the country, it's hard to advance a politics based on anti-statism and individualism. Arguments that free enterprise expands the economic pie are as valid in wartime as in peacetime, but the simple reality is that war-politics are different. That difference was expressed by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had been a minor socialist before World War One. But after he moved to Number 10 Downing Street in 1916, he proved to be the lion of British victory in the Great War; In 1918, he outlined his homefront mission in these ringing terms: "What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in." Thus did wartime collectivism and communalism gave birth to peacetime cradle-to-grave welfarism.

Lloyd George's words might seem ominous to American conservatives, preoccupied, as they are, with limiting the take of the state. But to Tony Blair, such professed compassion is the sweetest music of domestic politics and policy. Blair is all about the collective and the communal, nationally and internationally; his additional mission -- and he has decided to accept it, is to sell that vision to Bush.

But first, Blair must win re-election this year. Interestingly, with the opposition parties moribund and marginal, Blair's main rival is a fellow Labourite, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The two men might sit at the same governing table, but they are rivals nonetheless. And much of their rivalry is aimed at answering the question, "Who can spend more on foreign aid?"

So last month Brown called for a "Marshall Plan" for Africa that would lead to an extra $500 billion in aid. And for his part, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Blair called for a "quantum leap forward" in African aid -- at least he didn't say "Great Leap Forward."

Will that money be well spent? Or will it simply go down a rathole, like most of the trillions spent since World War Two? Those questions aren't being asked, mostly because the Labour Party, institutionally uncomfortable with a wartime alliance with a Republican American president, is looking for a way to express pure, unadulterated, no-questions-asked liberalism.

Meanwhile, other leaders are getting into the aid-upsmanship game. French President Jacques Chirac has called for a worldwide AIDS tax, and immediately gained the support of Gerhard Schroeder, although the German chancellor has said that he also supports the British aid plan.

Sadly, the Americans have fallen out of the habit of imposing rigorous cost/benefit analysis on foreign aid expenditures. After all, in Iraq, the emphasis has been on getting the money out the door; the US is trying to spend $18.4 billion on parks and playgrounds and other projects with Great Society rapidity. No wonder, then, that the Americans seem to have misplaced $9 billion in Iraq. With a track record such as that, who are we to complain about other countries' careless aid programs?

So the US will find itself tractor-beamed by the Europeans and the Rest of the World -- or ROW, as it's called in Washington -- into many various big-spending plans, Marshall as well as martial. As Blair said at Davos: "If America wants the rest of the world to be part of the agenda it has set, it must be part of their agenda too." And that'll cost us.

Indeed, if America doesn't write blank checks for foreign aid, the alternative is vastly worse. In his 3000-word speech at Davos, Blair devoted approximately a quarter of his talk to the issue of global warming. And on the homefront, a key Democratic supporter of the Global War on Terror, Sen. Joe Lieberman, is also a strong supporter of drastic action on warming. So what to do? Given the hideous expense and dubious utility of any Kyoto-like deal, Bush will likely seek to massage Blair, Lieberman, et al. by spending more money -- including more money on climate change "research."

What won't prove to be an option is to stiff Blair completely, on both foreign aid and global warming. If Bush wants to keep what remains of alliances with key countries -- especially if he wishes to overcome strong opposition from European countries, including Blair's Britain, to possible military action against Iran -- he will have to pony up more money. That's simple politics; sometimes you have to give in order to get.

Thus we see the working alliance between the Labour leader and the Republican leader. Every time the US president declares himself to be vitally concerned about delivering democracy to the peoples of the world, Blair will remind him that Uncle Sam must care about the nutrition, health, and economic development of those same people. To put it bluntly, paternalism is a seamless web. Of course, Bush supporters will argue that bringing democracy will bring about prosperity and self-reliance. And they might be right, although the past record of externally induced democratic and economic transformation is spotty. But as we wait for the hoped-for positive results from US arms and aid, America will not be able to wriggle off the costly hook.

So that's the bottom line: in the process of building an enduring Wilsonian coalition to support strenuous internationalism, Bush will likely end up moving left on domestic policy, just as Wilson did. After all, to keep his bipartisan support, Bush will have to throw occasional bones to the likes of The Washington Post and the Democratic Leadership Council. And as he does, he will likely reap heaps of praise for "growing in office," thus strengthening the pro-spending cycle.

Perhaps Wilson's contemporary, H.L. Mencken, was too harsh when he declared, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule." Or maybe he had it exactly right.

In any case, Mencken is dead, and alas, there's no contemporary figure able to replicate his incisively libertarian vituperation. And so in the absence of effective criticism from the right or the left, Bush will likely join Blair in the creation of a new welfare-warfare paradigm across the globe. The US will provide the grand ideology of freedom, enforced by a costly Pentagon, while the UK will further coax Americans to pay for the world's wellbeing. This new course for the 21st century will certainly be expensive, it will probably prove heartbreaking, it might possibly evince moral clarity -- and it will definitely not be conservative.



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