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How Joe Biden Helped Public Policy Become War (Washington Examiner) May 7, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

When I share with people that Gordon Lloyd and I have published a new book, How Public Policy Became War, they invariably nod and comment on the timeliness of the topic. Of course, they are thinking of the partisan war-like environment in Washington in which very little is done, and that is part of the story. As former Vice President Joe Biden is learning in his presidential campaign, however, the root of the problem is longer and deeper than today’s hyper-partisanship.

When you have been in politics as long as Biden has, you develop a track record that is subject to attack, especially as times and politically correct opinions change. It turns out that Biden was a strong supporter of two domestic policy wars, the war on drugs and the war on crime, that are now unpopular with Democrats. In the 1980s and 1990s, Biden was known as tough on crime and said that President George H.W. Bush’s war on drugs did not go far enough. As chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden led the charge in setting longer prison terms for drug offenders and building more prisons. Some say he invented the term “drug czar” to describe the general who would oversee that war.

As Lloyd and I trace in our book, modern presidents have developed a bad habit of declaring wars on serious domestic policy problems they do not know how to solve. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the foundation, with his revolutionary New Deal mobilizing the country for an unsuccessful fight against the Great Depression, President Lyndon B. Johnson formally declared “war on poverty” in 1965, another policy failure after 50-plus years. This was followed by wars on crime and drugs, along with President Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war” on energy consumption, the decades-long war on terror, and several lesser wars.

All these domestic policy wars were fraught with several problems:

  1. They do not solve the problem at hand.
  2. They create roadblocks to better policy solutions.
  3. They increase executive power at the expense of Congress.
  4. Their imagery is negative and destructive.
  5. They never end.

When paired with their close cousin the national emergency, and we live under 31 of those today, the entire process of making and implementing public policy is changed, and not for the better.

Biden’s leadership in the war on crime is an example of these policy failures. The war on crime was problematic from the beginning because we were not sure who the “enemy” was or what tactics made sense. Were we going after the supply or the demand? We did not know.

Politicians, as they are wont to do, felt a need to “do something,” even though their law enforcement approach is not a matter of federal, as opposed to state or local, government. The drug problem has not been solved and, in the meantime, the number of drug offenders from drug offenses grew 10-fold between 1980 and 2015 and the U.S. now has the largest prison population in the world. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Richard Nixon, presidents who led these efforts, are gone. Biden, who led from the Senate, is left holding this damaged bag of policy goods.

As Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” and presidents have been declaring wars and crises in order to consolidate greater federal power at the expense of states, and more executive power at the expense of Congress. President Trump’s national emergency to build his border wall, over the explicit objection of Congress, is a current example of government by war and emergency and not by deliberation, as the founders intended.

I liked the bumper sticker I saw on a California freeway: “There is no hope but I may be wrong.” In the final chapter of our book, we propose ways to better manage the war metaphor, including making Congress not only great but also more deliberative again, and strengthening the filters between the government and the people. It is high time we do so before everything becomes a war or emergency led solely by the commander in chief.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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