Luke Phillips, Assistant Editor
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Columns by political figures who think they have a future can be the most boring things to read, behind textbooks, diner menus, and phonebooks. They’re predictable- you know what they’re going to say before you read them. The same, mostly, can be said of columns by political figures who know their end has come. Freed of the restraints that once bound them, these former politicians’ freed minds have nowhere to go- decades of parroting trite canned sentences have impressed grooves upon their brains, making them incapable of saying anything meaningful or interesting.
Or they might just be wise old serpents who know that every word will be parsed, so as little as possible should be said.
Regardless, Jeb Bush is one of those, and he illustrates the phenomenon beautifully (or rather dully) in his latest Wall Street Journal column. It’s basically a laundry list of safe talking points for out-of-power Republicans to admonish in-power Republicans to pursue in policy, and most of the proposals are stupid. So let’s examine Bush the Third’s prescriptions for a better America:
Republicans should support convening a constitutional convention…
Woah woah woah, stop there. Not going to happen, too many switches that have to flip to get a constitutional convention going. Even if we did get a constitutional convention set up, it seems to me it’d be dangerous- the constellation of political ideologies of 2016 is so very different than the constellation of 1787, and this one does not seem to prize the moral realism and liberal politics of the Founding Generation. There was a wisdom then that is lacking now.
Across the board, our generation of political operative-theorists who would presumably be delegates to such a convention are generally more motivated by theories of political economy (on the right) or of social justice (on the left) to have more than a basic understanding of government structure, the balance of forces, the operation of governance, and the like, necessary to form a good and effective government capable of preserving ordered liberty.
Just as the Constitution of 1787 is a jumbled mess of compromises hatched at the time between ideological factions, so a Constitution of 2016 would be a jumbled mess of compromises- but one probably more given to crackpot libertarian economics and liberal declarations of economic and social rights than the one the Founders designed. The Constitution of the Founders isn’t anywhere near perfect- but as a framework, it’s better preserved than tinkered with obtusely.
But what, precisely, would Governor Bush want to have passed, if such a Constitutional convention were to take place?
To pass term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and restraints on the Commerce clause…
Well there we go. Earlier Bush had written “Americans… agree that Washington is broken,” so clearly his answer is to put three more straitjackets over it.
So Congressional term limits. I get the emotional appeal behind them, and a lot of people I admire- from President Richard Nixon to Governor Jon Huntsman- have insisted that they’re necessary if we’re going to get new blood into government. And they have a point, especially given that something like 90+% of Congress gets reelected every cycle.
But the consequences of term limits just seem overly high to me. Politics is, at a fundamental level, a business, and people who stay in the business longest accumulate the most influence, experience, and power. With politicians- who are elected and thus accountable to the people- no longer able to accumulate that kind of experience, the unelected people around politicians- lobbyists, consultants, staff- become the experts and the connected ones whose relationships are the ones that matter. These may well be well-intentioned people, but they do not face reelection and are thus unaccountable to voters. I, for one, would not be in favor of seeing our political class puppetized further by well-meaning progressive reforms. I like accountable politicians who can do real things on their own and in coalition- not our so-common parrots of interest groups and donors.
As for the balanced budget amendment, I understand the logic behind it too. Force Congress to spend with its means and it’ll never overspend again! Force balanced budgets and the government will naturally have to conform to fiscal sanity!
It’s appealing and logical, but it doesn’t hold up to empirical scrutiny. In a nutshell, the government has to be able to overborrow and overspend beyond its timely means- being the fabled “lender of last resort-“ because emergencies happen. Wars, depressions, natural disasters, etc., all tend to require large amounts of capital to weather. That doesn’t mean we should be spending irresponsibly on everybody’s pork-barrel projects and entitlements, and go about recklessly putting a dollar in every pocket- but it does mean that we need fiscal flexibility and shouldn’t constrain it artificially.
As for restraints on the Commerce clause… it’s interesting how often conservatives like Bush say they “defend the Constitution” when it’s so clear that they defend, instead, their free-market, small-government conception of the Constitution rather than the Constitution itself. In any case, with a complex economy and a complexifying society, you need a government energetic and flexible enough to respond to new problems rising up. Perhaps our government has been ham-handed and inefficient in carrying out that task, but I would much rather have a Commerce Clause capable of regulating monopolies and keeping food safe than whatever Bush means by one that “the Founders intended.”
Bush continues on in a predictable litany of run-of-the-mill conservative slogans without going in-depth in proposed policies, but that’s ok. We already heard the structural changes he wants to make. They’re bad structural changes.
As Alexander Hamilton so often noted, we need a flexible and energetic government capable of carrying out policy in the public interest, as effectively as possible. Until establishment Republicans realize that the Hamiltonian vision of government is the only practical one in a Republic forged by Union victory in the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal- that is, that the Jeffersonian idyll of “the government the governs least” is permanently impossible to return to, if it ever existed- we’ll never have a useful American right. Our right will be reactionary and radical in different ways, but never pragmatic.
That’s unfortunate, because a pragmatic right will be important to counterbalance an increasingly radical left and the radical populist movement that has conquered the presidency. A few Republicans, I’ve argued, have figured out what they need to do. But Jeb Bush clearly is not one of them, not at the moment.