Marc Rotterman: Right Conclusion, Wrong Reasons

In a News & Observer Op-Ed on Monday Marc Rotterman, senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, concludes correctly that the conservative movement is damaged goods:

“The damage to the country, the conservative movement, and the party may take years if not decades to repair.”

His reasons for reaching this conclusion, however, are wrong. And they reveal much about what is wrong with the conservative movement and the public policy think-tanks which have supported it. Mr. Rotterman contends the reason the conservatives are in trouble is that President Bush has a misguided domestic agenda. You heard me right. According to Rotterman, the problem with George Bush is that he has focused on big-government programs like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill. Rotterman says the bottom fell out when, rather than making the tax cuts permanent, Bush spent his political capital on privatizing Social Security.

Say what? Can somebody at JLF please tell the dude there’s a war on?

In his 600 word essay Mr. Rotterman could devote only 8 words, not even a full sentence, to the Iraq War (“But coupled with an unpopular and mismanaged war…”) Rotterman had nothing at all to say about president Bush’s “Global War On Terror.” Despite Mr. Rotterman’s essay, somehow I don’t think George W. Bush’s legacy is going to turn on the success or failure of No Child Left Behind.

As I outlined in this post, whether conservatives like it or not, 9/11 changed everything for their movement. How people view George Bush’s “Good vs. Evil” doctrine of endless war determines their political orientation. I assume Mr. Rotterman knows this, but would rather not acknowledge it since it no longer serves his organization’s purposes.

That Mr. Rotterman is wrong in his analysis of what is ailing the conservative movement should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention (or,even, listening to talk radio) for the past 6 years. You simply cannot ignore that the conservative movement and the Republican party are tethered to George Bush’s apocalyptic foreign policy. More than that, though, his essay reveals much about the institutional mind-set at conservative think tanks like the John Locke Foundation.

At JLF they are certain…absolutely certain…that unleashing the free-market for business promotes the common good. Their president, John Hood, has even written (“persuasively” so says his publisher) a book on this topic. I’ve not read the book and I’m no economist, but suffice to say that both sides of this theory can be debated effectively.

However, what is starkly evident in JLF’s ideal society is that government must be stripped to its bare essentials. It is imperative to maximize raw consumerism, because “individual pursuit of economic opportunity benefits all.”

Whether or not this is true in theory I have no idea. I’ll accept on good faith that the folks at JLF truly believe free markets promote the common good, rather than just a mechanism to maximize one’s personal wealth. This is not really the forum to parse the economic minutiae. But, if you are a small government free-market absolutist, consider this conclusion from the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in a report analyzing government spending over the past 40 years:

“It seems incontestable that we should conclude that the country’s purse is worse off when Republicans are in power.”

American Enterprise Institute

At any rate, it is likely that the big government/small government debate is moot. The American public has spoken. They like Social Security. And Medicare. And strong national defense. And in this regard, I believe the conservative free market think-tanks like JLF have fundamentally misread the American public. There is no outcry for less government. FEMA during Hurricane Katrina under “Brownie” is a good example of that. What people should demand of their government is competence and transparency, neither of which has been apparent in the Bush administration.

Ultimately, though, what promotes the common good is convincing our leaders to make the kinds of investments in people and institutions that allow us to address our most pressing problems. If that sounds familiar, it should. Go here to read all about it.


  1. Anglico

    July 18, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    Competency and transparency.

    These are my watchwords. And depending on the issue, each has special relevance.

    The free-market types, for all their enthusiasm for private sector operations have a gigantic disconnect on the issue of excellence.

    When it comes to the making of money, they are all for excellence. After all, it is the way good companies become great – by achieve excellence in all aspect of their operations: human capital, finance, supply chains, strategy, and so on.

    But when it comes to the public sector, they happily advocation the exact opposite: no planning, no strategy, no excellence, mediocre pay, etc.

    I believe government services should be as “excellent” as they can possibly be. I want NC to be first in teacher pay, assuming that could be linked to first in teacher performance. I want to have the most highly paid governor in the nation, assuming that could lead to an extraordinary level of service, intelligence, skills and competence.

    Why the settling for mediocrity? What’s the matter with excellence?

  2. sturner

    July 18, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    Anglico, you have touched on the “starve-the-beast” doctrine. Here is what the smartest man in America had to say about that:

    Here’s how the argument runs: to starve the beast, you must not only deny funds to the government; you must make voters hate the government. There’s a danger that working-class families might see government as their friend: because their incomes are low, they don’t pay much in taxes, while they benefit from public spending. So in starving the beast, you must take care not to cut taxes on these “lucky duckies.” (Yes, that’s what The Wall Street Journal called them in a famous editorial.) In fact, if possible, you must raise taxes on working-class Americans in order, as The Journal said, to get their “blood boiling with tax rage.”
    —Paul Krugman, “The Tax-Cut Con,” The New York Times, September 14, 2003

  3. Jim Stegall

    July 18, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    Paul Krugman, the smartest man in America?

    This page never fails to crack me up.

  4. sturner

    July 19, 2007 at 7:58 am

    You prefer Sean Hannity? Notice that Jim has used the familiar tactic of commenting on the messenger rather than the message.

  5. krm0517

    July 19, 2007 at 9:27 am

    The reason Bush’s poll numbers are so low is because conservatives have abandoned him. Conservatives have abandoned him because of the issues outlined by the guy from JLF, not because of the war. If anything, the war is the only reason he still has any support at all.

  6. sturner

    July 19, 2007 at 10:50 am

    krm…your analysis is nonsense. Who do you think makes up the 30% who still approve of the job Bush is doing? (Hint: It is not “pro-war independents” or “pro-war liberals.”) The hard-core conservatives still support Bush, although slightly less so due to his stance on immigration. President Bush has been abandoned by moderates of both parties and independent voters.

    In the 2006 mid-terms 90% of voters opposed to the war voted for the Democratic candidate, while 90% of voters who favor the war voted Republican. This is the political realignment which Mr. Rotterman does not want to acknowledge.

  7. krm0517

    July 19, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    And six years of the media accusing Bush of wanting to undermine Social Security, devastate the environment, underfund DHS, Medicaid and education, give legal status to illegal immigrants and spiral national debt out of control has had nothing to do with the abondonment of moderate and independent voters?

  8. sturner

    July 19, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Well, sure…there are many legitimate reasons to abandon president Bush, not the least of which is that he can’t seem to govern anything. Still, it is silly for Mr. Rotterman to ignore the impact of President Bush’s failed GWOT policies.

  9. Adam Searing

    July 19, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    With the continued willingness of Senate Rs to filibuster a vote on finally setting a date to start bringing our troops home, I look forward to Bush-style approval ratings for many Senate candidates next year.

  10. Jim Stegall

    July 19, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    If Krugman ever writes something worth commenting on, I’ll comment on it. In the meantime I’ll just pass the time smiling at the unintentionally amusing antics of self-absorbed, self-proclaimed experts like Krugman (and Hannity).

  11. sturner

    July 19, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Paul Krugman’s bio: B.A. Yale 1974, Ph.D. MIT 1977, author or editor of more than 20 books and 200 papers in professional journals, he currently is professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. His Op-Ed column for the New York Times frequently comments on economic issues or international affairs.

    Sean Hannity bio: dropped out of NYU, received honorary degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in 2005.

    Jim, I think the kind of pundit you must like is William Kristol (editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and former chief-of-staff to Vice President Dan Quayle). Kristol is best remembered for having dismissed concerns in March 2003 that sectarian conflict might arise after the US invasion. He said, “Most Arab countries have Shiite’s and Sunni’s, and alot of them live very well together. Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.”

    David Corn sums up William Kristol with this: “Kristol was mistaken about the justification for the war, the cost of the war, the planning for the war, and the consequences of the war. That’s alot for a pundit to miss.”

    If you want to find out what else William Kristol will be wrong about, go to this website:
    where the John Locke Foundation cordially invites you to their “Headliner Luncheon in Pinehurst with special guest William Kristol.” The JLF invite informs us that Kristol is “widely recognized as one of the nations most knowledgeable political analysts.” Good to know that meritocracy is alive and well at JLF.

  12. […] In this post taking aim at the John Locke Foundation, the The Progressive Pulse says “there is no outcry for less government.” […]

  13. Jim Stegall

    July 20, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    And Kristol being wrong makes Krugman smart…….how?

  14. sturner

    July 20, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Well…for starters, he was right about everything that Kristol got wrong.
    Also, he was never an underling for Dan Quayle or Bill Bennett.

  15. Jim Stegall

    July 22, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time.

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