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Political Crackups

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, April 10, 2006

In the fall of 1992, when a different Bush administration was unraveling, Shin Kanemaru ran into a little trouble. Kanemaru was the Tom DeLay of politics in Japan; he was the gruff son of a rural sake maker who became a political kingmaker, and after he got busted for taking money from the mob, gold ingots were discovered under his floorboards. In the ensuing months, two things happened. Japanese politics underwent convulsive shifts -- the ruling party split, then lost its grip on power for the first time in four decades. But Japanese policymaking barely improved. However odious the old crony boss, the alternative proved nearly as imperfect.

Today the signs of a political crackup are all over Washington. Within the administration, the White House chief of staff is going, the Treasury secretary is rumored to be going, and the defense secretary argues publicly with the secretary of state about whether he made "tactical errors" in Iraq. The president's domestic policy has shriveled to pleas for expanded health savings accounts, whose shockingly muddled design speaks volumes about the administration's lack of economic talent. In a mark of desperation, Bush has gone off script to take questions from journalists and citizens. At a forum in North Carolina on Thursday, he confessed that the torture revelations from Abu Ghraib had been "disgraceful."

The spectacle in Congress is no prettier. One cannot regret the fall of Tom DeLay, who combined a mastery of politics with a complete indifference to its purpose. Really, what did this man seek public office for? It's said that he was inspired by his conviction that the Environmental Protection Agency is like the Gestapo, but I suspect this theory is too kind. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who bristled with policy ideas, DeLay never seemed to care about anything beyond counting votes and cultivating links to the moneybags on K Street.

Still, in the absence of a functioning administration and a powerful House boss, nobody is running the asylum. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician who "diagnosed" Terri Schiavo by watching her on video, is as charismatic as a stethoscope and as principled as a cigarette salesman. I doubt many Americans could even recognize DeLay's successor as House majority leader, John Boehner, let alone say what he stands for. His most memorable moment came in 1995, when he chose the House floor as a suitable venue for distributing checks from tobacco lobbyists.

In theory, this political vacuum presents an opportunity. Liberated from the DeLay-K Street axis, the GOP could become less of a political machine and more genuinely interested in governing. But the signs so far aren't good. Last week House Republicans began debating a budget framework, then decided the whole thing was awfully hard and shelved it. The House considered some bad tax legislation, too, but couldn't get around to making progress.

For a brief moment last week, the Senate seemed poised to produce a worthwhile immigration bill. But this turned out to be a feint, and in the end the whole thing fizzled. The fight laid bare the deep splits among Republicans: on one side, business-backed moderates; on the other side, spluttering nativists whose contributions to public policy include proposals to bomb Mecca. A president who wasn't quacking and limping might perhaps have secured a deal. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the implosion of the Bush domestic agenda and unrelentingly awful Iraq news, this proved impossible.

The Republicans' dismal performance could shake their grip on power -- much as the gold-ingot episode upset Japan's politics. But the top congressional Democrats seem barely more attractive than the Republicans; they have mastered the art of obstructionism but are light on policy proposals. In Japan in the 1990s, the collapse of the cronyistic ruling party was expected to usher in economic change that would pull the country out of its financial swamp. Instead, reform proceeded at a glacial pace, and it took a full decade for the economy to get going again.

The paradox of politics is that government is at once essential and dysfunctional. Globalization, demographic change, the sheer fact of economic growth: All these shifts create demands for government to step in, as a provider of safety nets for workers; retirement security for seniors; and public goods such as environmental quality and food safety, which become priorities as societies grow richer. But governments have a way of screwing up. France can't even take baby steps toward fixing its labor market without provoking riots; Italy is led by a high-heeled tycoon who passes laws to protect himself from prosecutors, though the election yesterday and today may dispatch him. Despite a world economy that's growing at a record pace, governments in rich countries can't even pass the basic test of balancing their budgets. At least the American political system is not alone in its pathologies.

smallaby@washpost.com


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