McCain Real Change Candidate?
David Brooks invokes the late Mancur Olsen to explain why egregiously bad legislation like the recent farm and energy bills — pork laden monstrosities that pretty much everyone agrees are bad public policy — easily pass into law.
He then shifts to the presumptive November contest between John McCain and Barack Obama.
Barack Obama talks about taking on the special interests. This farm bill would have been a perfect opportunity to do so. But Obama supported the bill, just as he supported the 2005 energy bill that was a Christmas tree for the oil and gas industries.
Obama’s vote may help him win Iowa, but it will lead to higher global food prices and more hunger in Africa. Moreover, it raises questions about how exactly he expects to bring about the change that he promises.
If elected, Obama’s main opposition will not come from Republicans. It will come from Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. Already, the Democratic machine is reborn. Lobbyists are now giving 60 percent of their dollars to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The pharmaceutical industry, the defense industry and the financial sector all give more money to Democrats than Republicans. If Obama is actually going to bring about change, he’s going to have to ruffle these sorts of alliances. If he can’t do it in an easy case like the farm bill, will he ever?
John McCain opposed the farm bill. In an impassioned speech on Monday, he declared: “It would be hard to find any single bill that better sums up why so many Americans in both parties are so disappointed in the conduct of their government, and at times so disgusted by it.”
McCain has been in Congress for decades, but he has remained a national rather than a parochial politician. The main axis in his mind is not between Republican and Democrat. It’s between narrow interest and patriotic service. And so it is characteristic that he would oppose a bill that benefits the particular at the expense of the general.
In fact, in this issue, McCain may have found a theme to unify his so far scattershot campaign. He has always been an awkward ideological warrior. In any case, this year may not be the best year for Republicans to launch a right versus left crusade. But McCain has infinitely better grounds than Obama to run as a do-what-it-takes reformer.
Of course, the collective action problem hasn’t been solved. So, while most people might agree with McCain on this one, they’re unlikely to do much about it. Meanwhile, those who benefit from government subsidies care a whole lot and have the resources to back those who support continuing said subsidies.
It’s is ironic, though, that the candidate of “change” is in favor of the status quo here while the old coot with “half a century of experience” is the one bucking the tide.
UPDATE: The Times has issued the following correction: “The column by David Brooks on Tuesday said incorrectly that Senator Barack Obama voted last week for the farm bill. Mr. Obama did not cast a vote on the bill; he supported it.” The analysis remains unchanged, methinks.