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War is the New Normal in Washington (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Insight) May 19, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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I have some bad news for Joe Biden: Donald Trump is not, as Biden said recently, an “aberration” from the bipartisan policymaking he remembers nostalgically in Washington. Biden’s “Republican friends,” and even many of his fellow Democrats, are not waiting eagerly for the kind of collegial dealmaking he says he will bring to Washington. Rather both politics and policy have shifted dramatically from a model of deliberation to one in which war is the new normal.

In this past week alone, Washington is talking about a trade war, a war with Congress, an abortion war and even a military war with Iran.

The shift didn’t happen overnight. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 was America’s French Revolution, changing everything including how public policy is made. Roosevelt was an early case study for Rahm Emanuel’s now famous line that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste — it’s an opportunity to do things that you could not do before.” Claiming “the American people want action, and action now,” Roosevelt used the crisis of the Great Depression to drive Congress into passing his bills with little debate, issued a record number of executive orders and created a plethora of new federal agencies that is now the enormous federal administrative state. Following the Depression and World War II, there was no return to normal, and the modern, powerful, action-oriented presidency became a permanent fixture in Washington.

Modern presidents built on Roosevelt’s legacy by explicitly declaring war on intractable domestic problems with Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the Johnson-declared but Richard Nixon-accelerated war on crime, Nixon’s war on drugs, Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war” on energy consumption, George W. Bush’s war on terror, and any number of lesser wars. After studying these domestic policy wars carefully, one can draw five conclusions:

(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) They are negative and destructive.

(5) They never end. All these domestic policy wars are still active.

Wars and their close cousin the national emergency — we currently live under 31 of those — have revolutionized how policy is made and carried out, and not for the better.

Take the war on poverty, for example. Lyndon Johnson wanted to do something about poverty and called his advisers together to draw up plans shortly before his first State of the Union message in 1964. Little was known about anti-poverty policy so his team proposed a series of small pilot programs. Never one to go small, Johnson instead declared “here and now unconditional war on poverty,” which was short on policy and long on rhetoric. Decades later, with poverty still high, Ronald Reagan would quip that we declared war on poverty “and poverty won.” Although the President’s Council of Economic Advisers attempted to declare victory in this war last year, that was based on redefining poverty and very few bought it.

Sacramento is not immune to the executive power grabs of war. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared war on the death penalty, unilaterally imposing a moratorium on executions while saying he would “like to shut down the system of death.” Apparently he was not interested in consulting the Legislature and was willing to override California voters who have rejected anti-death penalty measures twice in the past eight years. Why deliberate when you can just win?

Trade wars, wars on the Constitution, culture wars and more. Enough already. While we probably cannot eliminate the war metaphor in public policy, there are several things we can do. We need to make Congress great again, encouraging it to exercise its war powers, its spending power, its ability to check the president. As important, we need to make Congress deliberative and bipartisan again, rather than merely taking a series of party-line votes. Power can be restored to committees and committee chairs to actually hold hearings, take testimony and seriously consider amendments, making bipartisan support for bills more likely. And “we the people” bear some responsibility too, needing to strengthen our anemic civic education programs and increase engagement in our democracy.

I saw a bumper sticker on the I-405 freeway in Southern California that reminded me of this moment: “There is no hope, but I may be wrong.” We trust America can slowly move away from war in public policy back toward deliberation.

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of “How Public Policy Became War” (Hoover Institution Press, 2019). To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.

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