No Panaceas

Thursday, February 26, 2004
The National Zoo as metaphor: I don't know how much the current crisis at that National Zoo has hit the national headlines -- living, as I do, inside this rarefied bubble known as inside-the-beltway it can be a little hard to tell sometimes what is national news and what is not national news. Anyway, suffice to know that the Zoo is a mess and it has been getting that way for a while.

Separate from the immediate issue regarding management , I think the marked decay of the National Zoo is a nice illustration of a larger shift in the nature of public policy in the United States. Simply put, most non-defense entities that rely on discretionary budget dollars are in decline and will continue to decline unless they can find other types of non-governmental revenue. It mainly started in the 1980s. Huge deficits drove up the amount of the budget devoted to interest payments. At the same time entitlements, insulated from cuts by its political support, continued to grow. That left discretionary spending to cut and, while the support for defense spending varies some, for the most part what it really left was domestic discretionary spending. What gets cut there? The kinds of areas that don't lend themselves well to Members of Congress taking yearly credit with their constituents and campaign financiers, e.g., earmarks. Something like the National Zoo and national parks are sitting ducks in such an environment. The National Zoo has been underfunded for years now and what has happened is that slowly over time the administration was forced to cut corners in lots of little ways. Eventually it all compounded into a rotting physical plant and, more distressing, animal care that's chronically deficient.

The new zoo director will ask for more money. He or she will not get it. That is the reality in a budget context of $500 billion plus deficits, multi-trillion debt, and politically untouchable but economically unsustainable entitlements. For the Zoo to survive it will have to find alternative sources of revenue. Look forward to the Coca-Cola Panda Pavilion. Maybe that is not such a bad thing. But the point is that we are, almost by default and virtually without debate, remaking the very nature of what our government has traditionally done in a wide range of areas including parks, the arts, scientific research, et cetera, in exchange for hugely expensive, and ultimately unsustainable, redistribution from one generation to the next.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Quack, Quack!: There is a wonderful anecdote in The Brethren. (Though dated, it's still the best "insider's" view of the Supreme Court.) In the anecdote Tommy "the Cork" Corcoran visits Justice Hugo Black. They were old friends from the New Deal and Corcoran's daughter later served as a clerk with Black. So it wasn't so odd that Corcoran dropped by Black's office. But what made it memorable was that Corcoran tried to lobby Black on behalf of a client that had a case pending before the Court. Black was appalled and threw Corcoran out of his office.

I think of this anecdote every time I hear about the Scalia-Cheney duck hunting dustup. My how things have changed.

First, a couple of basic facts. 1.) Scalia did nothing illegal; 2). Scalia did nothing that violates Supreme Court rules. It might be a violation of a norm, but really it is the justice's individual call on these matters. Second, a basic assertion. I do not believe for a second that Scalia's decision in In Re Cheney will be in the least affected by his excursion.

Look. Justices are people. They had lives before joining the Court and they deserve to maintain and enjoy friendships, even if those friendships are with people in positions of power, influence, and legal controversy. But, once you put on that robe then you also accept a responsibility for something far greater than yourself. Probably more than any other major institution, certainly more than any political institution, the Supreme Court relies on its reputation for legitimacy. The Court has no real powers of enforcement and it leans on our shared sense that, while we may disagree with specific decisions, the Court nonetheless operates as an institution grounded in the rule of law and justice. If we lose that consensus, if levels of our "diffuse" support or loyalty for and to the institution ever erodes, then the very nature of our political system will shift in a way for the worse.

Virtually every justice in history -- certainly modern history -- has understood this point. I could point out numerous examples of justices making sacrifices of self or ideology for the greater good of the Court. Black understood this. That's why he was shocked and then furious over Corcoran's craven lobbying attempt. It's why it ended their friendship.

Love him or hate him, Scalia is a brillant jurist. But in many small ways, and now in this rather big way, he demonstrates shocking contempt for the Supreme Court. It's part of the reason why he has been a far less effective justice then he could be.

By the way, I was in a bookstore yesterday and noticed that there a biography of Tommy the Cork just came out. It looks pretty good.

Monday, February 23, 2004
Nader: Some Democrats are apoplectic that Ralph Nader is running for president. Four years later I am still amazed that so many Dems overestimate the impact that Nader had on 2000 and yet underappreciate the implications of why Nader did as well as he did.

Democrats blaming Nader for the 2000 loss is like Red Sox fans blaming Bill Buckner for the 1986 World Series. Sure, it was Buckner's fault...if you conveniently ignore the other three games the Red Sox lost and you ignore the long list of mistakes and misfortunes that happened in that infamous six game. Likewise it was all Nader's fault, if you conveniently forget the other mistakes and misfortunes that beset the Dems in 2000. Let's not forget the derivation of the term "scapegoat." It was a cheap and easy way for villagers to "dispense" with their sins without need for introspection or reform. Nader is the Dem's scapegoat. Blaming him is easier then acknowledging that the party has a problem with the group that should be the party's most loyal supporters.

Liberals defected from Gore because of a general feeling (accurate or not) that the party had become Republican Lite. They were reacting to the Clinton-Gore mad rush for corporate dollars, DOMA, welfare reform, NAFTA, and Iraq, Haiti, and Kosovo. Then there was the addition of Lieberman to the ticket. (Plus they naively thought that Bush's Texas record (and the close partisan margin in Congress) meant that Bush would be a relatively moderate conservative president.

Post-2000 the Democrats as a party should have engaged in a wide internal dialogue about why there was such dissension on the left. Instead, most of the party leadership just vilified Nader and his supporters. Now we are seeing that same vilification cranked up even worse.

This is a mistake. It's a mistake because Nader is not a threat to Kerry. Not even close. You'd think that experienced pols like DNC chair McAuliffe would recognize this basic reality. This time around Nader is going without Green Party support -- which was organizationally crucial for him in 2000 -- and he won't enjoy the same support he had in 2000, if only because of the left's loathing for Bush. Nader will be luck to get on the ballot in more than a dozen states and his vote totals will be negligible in those states.

It's a mistake for another reason. The disenchantment that provoked the defections in 2000 is still there. You could see it in the Dean campaign. It will not manifest itself in major defections this time around because of Bush. But continuing to vilify Nader's 2000 supporters only guarantees that it will continue to fester and reemerge eventually.