The Multinational Monitor

  May/June 2004 - VOLUME 25 - NUMBERS 5 & 6


The Perma-Bush Scenario

As the death of Ronald Reagan reminds us, the presidents who leave the greatest legacy are those who are paradigm shifters.

Although George W. Bush entered office in what author Charles Derber correctly notes was already a corporate regime, Bush has been a paradigm shifter nonetheless.

The Bush administration unsettled policymaking expectations so as to favor corporate interests almost without nod to countervailing considerations.

The ruling group has elevated militarism to a value unto itself and legitimized the doctrine of preventative war. Its partisans have said the United States is embarked on what is effectively a permanent war.

Whether out of opportunism or belief, the administration has subordinated science to extreme right-wing religious interests. (Example: the nomination of Dr. David Hagar, who will not in his practice prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women, to chair a Food and Drug advisory panel on reproductive health drugs.)

Exploiting the tragedy of September 11, the governing clique has achieved the most severe narrowing of civil liberties since the McCarthy era.

By and large, these radical shifts are responsive to the ideological and material interests of the Bush political coalition -- big business, the extreme religious right, the neoconservative militarists.

But some on the Bush team are guided by more strategic considerations. These individuals -- none more important than conservative strategist Grover Norquist -- favor certain policies not just because the policies benefit themselves or other member of the Bush coalition.

These planners are trying to facilitate long-term political realignments through policy.

Consider what is at stake in Bush tax policy, privatization of the federal government and privatization of Social Security.

Each of these is an economic issue strongly supported by the corporate elite -- tax policy obviously serving the top-income brackets plus corporations in general, federal privatization benefiting a narrow class of campaign contributors who take over government functions, and Social Security privatization an enormous benefit to Wall Street (which would be able to charge exorbitant fees on tens of millions of new privatized accounts). But each also works or would work to create fundamental changes in the political arena.

The slashing of taxes on the rich performs the function that David Stockman described for the Reagan tax cuts: starving the government of funding. Reduced revenues then become the excuse and rationale for cutting a wide range of important government programs (although somehow defense spending is never included in the category of budgetary allocations that must be subjected to the imposed fiscal discipline).

The administration's assault on the unionized civil service of the federal government is a much lower profile issue, but also one of profound political importance.

Organized labor remains part of the core of the Democratic Party. Union families are much more likely to vote Democratic than non-union families, and this holds true accounting for race and income. Organized labor is also a major source of funding and volunteers for the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. But organized labor's power in the private workforce has plummeted in recent decades, for a wide range of reasons including the impact of international trade and corporate globalization. Unions are strongest, by far, in the public sector.

So Bush administration maneuvers intended to privatize nearly half of the federal workforce, and to deprive many of the rest the benefits of union representation, will meaningfully undermine the base of opposition to the Republican Party.

In contrast to the Bush administration's yearly tax cuts and its ongoing efforts to privatize federal jobs and destroy federal government worker unions, Social Security privatization remains aspirational.

A representative from the libertarian Cato Institute tells Lee Drutman in this issue that Social Security privatization is a "2005 issue" -- meaning an unpopular proposal that will rise to the top of the policy agenda in the event that the Bush administration wins reelection.

As Drutman reports, besides the support from the financial sector and the ideologically driven libertarians, Republican strategists like Norquist see Social Security privatization as politically transformative. If everyone's Social Security is invested in individual investment accounts, rather than managed as a public good, then people will be tempted to identify their own interests with Wall Street. On issues where Wall Street conflicts with Main Street (for example, in support for downsizing and outsourcing), people will be increasingly inclined to support Wall Street -- raising the prospect of people supporting the outsourcing of their own jobs, or at least those of their neighbors. In politics, those who perceive their interests as dependent on corporate profitability will tend to vote Republican.

Bush may have entered office with a minority of the votes, but the big-picture planners aim to use his tenure to enable a policy-driven political realignment that maintains the Republican Party as the permanent ruling faction. n