Governing by Crisis

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts in stark terms an Obama Administration impulse I find odious:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience Friday “never waste a good crisis,” and highlighted the opportunity of rebuilding economies in a greener, less energy-intensive way.

Highlighting Europe’s unease the day after Russia warned that gas flows via Ukraine might be halted, she also condemned the use of energy as a political lever.

Clinton told young Europeans at the European Parliament that global economic turmoil provided a fresh opening. “Never waste a good crisis … Don’t waste it when it can have a very positive impact on climate change and energy security,” she said.

Never waste a good crisis, eh? As an empirical matter, it is difficult to cite an example in which sweeping legislative changes, rushed into law under the cover of a crisis, produced better outcomes than a slower, more deliberative attempt to effect the people’s will and improve policy outcomes.

Indeed, during the Bush Administration, liberals were quick to object not merely to the substance of the Iraq War or the Patriot Act, but to the process in which they came into being — the insufficient time to identify flaws in Administration plans, popular support predicated on fear of inaction as much as confidence in the proposed action, and a rhetorical atmosphere that painted even mild critics as endangering American safety and prosperity.

It is foolhardy to build major policy changes on a foundation so shaky. Once the immediate crisis passes, so does the majority support predicated on fear and trusting one’s leader in a time of crisis. The citizens feel as though their trust was violated, especially as idiotic flaws in the original program become evident. These flaws are the inevitable product of marginalizing critics in the rush to do something before it’s too late, and the realization that there were critics who identified all the foolhardy provisions prior to their approval leads a polity to distrust the whole political class, and swing wildly between contradictory positions. Thus you have a war like Iraq that a majority of Americans once supported, and that is now regarded even by many former supporters as a foolhardy enterprise sold on a lie.

Of course, it was always unlikely that the Obama Administration would resist the temptation to exploit times of crisis to advance whatever ambitious policy ends they already had in mind. But it is nevertheless a shame that they are doing so. The Hillary Clinton quote above sums up the opportunistic mindset, and a line from President Obama’s State of the Union speech exemplifies how the mindset manifests itself:

As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President’s Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government — I don’t. Not because I’m not mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited — I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardship.

This is nonsense. Barack Obama does believe in bigger government — government that achieves universal health care, that improves education for lower income kids, that spurs a revolution in green technology and reduces greenhouse gasses, that pours more money into federal agencies like NIH, that improves the nation’s transportation infrastructure, that increases the size of the military, etc. etc. etc.

Rather than do the hard work of convincing Americans that these would be worthwhile investments even if we weren’t in an economic crisis — that they are worth higher taxes or higher deficits or both — he pretends that it is only an unprecedented financial crisis makes the spending contained in the stimulus bill prudent.

Well. It’s going to work, for now, and perhaps a quick economic recovery will enable President Obama to avoid ever having to convince a majority of Americans about the substance of his agenda, and it will survive on its own inertia. What I regard as more likely is that our economic recovery will be slow, that the crisis mentality will nevertheless pass, that the stimulus bill will be shown to have major idiotic flaws inevitable when legislation is passed so quickly that no one can claim to have read it, that Americans once willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt will suddenly realize that some of his critics had a point, and that Americans will find themselves in the maddening position of paying for irreversible policies that they soured on long ago, all due to the rapidity, opportunism and ambition with which they were passed.

Would that we had leaders who behaved modestly in times of crisis, but if a guy whose background is rife with community organizing and consensus building cannot bring himself to enact his agenda the right way, despite campaigning as someone keen on reforming the means by which the executive wields power, I’m doubtful we’ll see such a president anytime soon.