TCS Daily


The Bermuda Triangle of American Politics

By Ilya Shapiro - May 13, 2005 12:00 AM

PAGET PARISH, BERMUDA -- The aftershocks of the 2004 election still resound in this outpost of "Benedict Arnold CEOs." Yes, long after the Swift Boats Vets exited stage left and the pundits exhausted their unique takes on the real significance of "moral values," one rocky campaign outpost remains in the ocean of Social Security reform and "nuclear options."

Bermudians aren't overly concerned about the policy implications of President Bush's "ownership society." Nor are they debating the wisdom of filibustering judicial nominees. Instead, if we are to believe The Royal Gazette -- the paper of record in the commonwealth -- islanders are upset that their homeland remains the scapegoat for outsourcing and tax avoidance.

Or at least that's the impression one gets from an article covering a symposium hosted by the Professional Liability Underwriters Society (PLUS) last week. The keynote duet at this affair, which was staged at the swanky Fairmont Hamilton Princess, was given by the unlikely pair of Mary Matalin and Jim Carville -- unlikely not for being the consummate red-blue couple, which was a cliché a decade ago, but for gracing such a random event. (For which I'm sure they were well compensated, and not in the colorful local scrip that trades at par with the dollar.)

No doubt dazzled by the coral and pearls on display among the marble and teak, the crossfiring couple treated the professional liability underwriters -- don't ever confuse them with accountants -- to a behind-the-scenes tour of the state of American politics. The only thing that both agreed on was that, contrary to local fears, Bermuda was not the central concern of either politicians or the electorate on the mainland.

Carville thought that things like "the deficit, al Qaeda, the military, you name it," were much more on the political radar for 2006 and 2008, and that Democrats had to figure out a way to "turn the economy around."

Matalin countered that John Kerry's attack had not even been about Bermuda or offshore investment, but rather was a "time-honored Democratic bogeyman" that didn't work because "you can't be pro-job and anti-business."

Extrapolating from the Matalin-Carville colloquy on the relationship between outsourcing and job creation, one would thing that American politics were stuck in the 1980s, with a Republican administration racking up economic and foreign policy successes that Democrats are unable to accept -- let alone comprehend. And there is some truth to that, as some clever columnists have noted (disparagingly from the left, gleefully from the right). But, more accurately, what we have is a Republican Party enamored with big government and a Democratic Party enamored with little more than the status quo.

It is not quite a reversal of polarity: the GOP still favors deregulation, and the Dems continue believing that there is no problem too big for teachers' unions and trial lawyers to solve. But, leaving aside social issues, the transformation is striking. Call it a triangulation gone horribly wrong -- not inappropriate for a discussion set in the titular vertex of the Bermuda Triangle.

Think about it: A two-term president, a decade-long hold on Congress (except for the Jeffordsonian blip), and seven of nine Supreme Court Justices (even if two don't count and two have "grown" on the bench), yet domestic discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP is higher than under Clinton with a Democratic Congress -- and its growth rate is higher than at any time since the Great Society. Which doesn't even take into account the out-of-control rise in so-called "mandatory" spending, including the new drug benefit, which, not coincidentally, is also the costliest new entitlement since LBJ.

And then there's the Department of Homeland Security -- which Republicans can't fully be blamed for given that many of them, including the President, were initially opposed to its creation before the Democrats demagogued the issue (and then had the gall to demand concessions for unions).

Not that what would be called here the "loyal opposition" has been any better. From resisting any changes to the sclerotic Social Security apparatus or public education system to going after any industry that dares be successful -- which is why Bermudian insurance companies are in the news -- the Democrats are missing a fine opportunity to pick up the support of libertarians and small-government conservatives. As Carville joked tellingly, "We're gonna have a [New York Attorney General Eliot] Spitzer fundraiser as soon as this is over."

The bottom line is that 9/11 forged a renewed American populism of both the right and the left. That, unfortunately, is the true lesson of the 2004 election.

Ilya Shapiro, a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS and can be reached at ilya.shapiro@gmail.com. His last contribution said, "Mr. Henri-Lévy, you're no de Tocqueville."

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