Monday, August 12, 2002

Jim Henley has been challenging liberals for a while now to acknowledge Dick Armey's late work in defense of civil liberties. For what it's worth, I had a response up for a few hours a while back, quoting my namesake's famous defense of the virtues of stopped clocks, before deleting it as, well, too snarky. But the truth is, I just didn't know what to make of it.

That contrasts with, say, my view of the generally odious Grover Norquist's yeoman's work towards the same end. In fact, I seem to recall last fall that Norquist was publicly frustrated at the diffidence of Democratic civil libertarians a while back, stopping barely short of calling them cowards.

The interesting question here, is what are these people thinking? Not the Democrats. That's easy; they're thinking that there are no campaign donations in defense of unpopular principles --- the same sort of thinking that led to solid, bipartisan support for the Communications Decency Act, Sen. James Exon's attempt to impose a G-rated, "safe" internet on the public, which was nearly laughed out of the Supreme Court. But rather, Norquist and Armey.

First, Norquist. Welcome as Norquist's help may be, it's still a bit disturbing to note how much Norquist's sudden sensitivity towards civil rights in the wake of September 11 has to do with the strange new friends he's been making in the radical Islamic community, with the apparent long-term goal of building some kind of alliance between wild-eyed Muslim fundamentalists and their wild-eyed Christian counterparts. Norquist, in fact, had built a coalition involving Arab-Americans and his more usual conservative forces in opposition to the more extreme provisions Clinton-era anti-terrorist legislation.

Which brings us back to Armey, the novel exception to my rule that politicians don't vote on principle when they can't find some boodle in it. It turns out that he's announced his retirement, which means that he suddenly has a lot less need for campaign donations, or patronage in any form. And that, in turn, has led him in all sorts of strange directions, like this:

In a vivid sign of waning support for the economic embargo on Cuba, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Flower Mound, said he believes the United States should open trade with the Communist regime. He added that he has backed the restrictions on travel and trade only out of loyalty to two Cuban-American members of the House.

Having decided to leave office, he finally feels free to let go the pandering, and speak his mind. But if he couldn't before, why was the office worth having in the first place?

Which returns me to another mystery, one I mentioned last week. Many libertarians vote Republican under the mistaken belief that the party stands for reducing the size of government, and government power. Republicans talk like that, but they now have a twenty-year record that says otherwise --- while they cut taxes, they don't cut spending. Instead, they just steer it to their own districts. "To the victor go the spoils", says the libertarians' friend, Dick Armey. And before that, we have the Nixon administration, and its mandatory wage and price controls (and its enemies lists and other assaults on civil liberties).

A politician with a real record of reducing the size of government is a rare thing in either party. But we had one running for president in the last election --- Al Gore, the point man for the Clinton administration's cost reductions, which led to the first federal budget surpluses in decades. Why were so many libertarians voting for the other guy?

(For those who tuned in late, the usual Republican response to those embarrassing Reagan deficits is to try to blame them on the Democrats in Congress. That's a lie. If Congress had passed Reagan's proposed budgets unaltered, the deficits would have differed from their actual values by well under one percent).


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