The NYT Gets It–Eventually

When I was a kid, I thought the New York Times was the epitome of journalism. I've learned better. By law school, I was receptive to Charles L. Black Jr.'s warning that “The New York Times is a slim reed” for the support of justice and good causes. But here's one where the NYT editorial board gets it right. OK, it's at least 2 years after everyone else figured this out….

Yet whatever the reason, some formerly reliably Republican doctrines seem to have disappeared. Federalism is a case in point. After decades of extolling state governments as the best laboratory for new ideas, Republicans in Washington have been resisting state experimentation in areas ranging from pollution control to antispam legislation to prescription drugs.

Late-20th-century Republicanism was an uneasy alliance of social conservatives — who were comfortable with government intervention in citizens' lives when it came to morality issues — and libertarians who wanted as little interference as possible. That balancing act ended on 9/11. Since then, the Justice Department has enlarged the intrusive powers of government by, among other things, authorizing “sneak and peek” searches of private homes and suspending traditional civil liberties for certain defendants. The story of the military chaplain who was arrested — apparently mistakenly — as a suspected terrorist and then wound up being publicly humiliated with a public vetting of his sex life seems like a summary of a libertarian's worst fears of an overreaching federal government.

The Republicans' newly acquired activism, however, has very clear limits. The modern party's key allegiance is to corporate America, and its tolerance for intrusive federal government ends when big business is involved. If there is a consistent center to the domestic philosophy of the current administration, it is the idea that business is best left alone. The White House and Congress have chipped away at environmental protections that interfere with business interests on everything from clean air to use of federal lands. The administration is determined to deliver on corporate America's goal of cutting overtime pay for white-collar workers. At the same time, it has been tepid in asserting greater federal vigilance over the developing scandal of workplace safety.

Republicans have always enjoyed their reputation as the champions of business. The difference now is that they no longer couple their business-friendly attitudes with tight-fistedness. Discretionary spending has jumped 27 percent in the last two years; budget hawks complain Congressional pork is up more than 40 percent. Some of that money has gone to buy the allegiance of wavering party members in the closely divided House and Senate, but much of it is directly tied to the demands of big business. Agriculture subsidies to corporate farms have swollen to new heights, while energy policy has been reduced to a miserable grab bag of special benefits for the oil, gas and coal companies. The last Bush energy bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate, seems likely to be remembered most for the now-famous subsidy for an energy-efficient Hooters restaurant in Louisiana.

The two halves of Republican policy no longer fit together. A political majority that believes in big government for people, and little or no government for corporations, has produced an unsustainable fiscal policy that combines spending on social programs with pork and tax cuts for the rich. Massive budget deficits have been the inevitable result. Something similar happened in the Reagan administration. But unlike Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush has given no hint of a midcourse adjustment to repair revenue flow. In fact, his Congressional leaders talk of still more tax cuts next year to extend the $1.7 trillion already enacted. That would compound deficits, which could reach $5 trillion in the decade.

This, it appears, is what compassionate conservatism really means. The conservative part is a stern and sometimes intrusive government to regulate the citizenry, but with a hands-off attitude toward business. The compassionate end involves some large federal programs combined with unending sympathy for the demands of special interests. If only it all added up.

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