Today’s news brings a true blast from the past: Ronald Reagan’s legendary budget director and former Congressman, David Stockman, has been indicted on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice in connection with his operation of an auto parts firm that went bankrupt in 2005. He faces up to thirty years in the hoosegow, along with fines that could reach over a billion dollars. Many younger readers may have never heard of Stockman, who masterminded the massive budget and tax bills that characterized the core of Reaganomics. But he was virtually a pop culture figure in the early 80s, before losing power and eventually being forced out of office after incautiously admitting to journalist William Greider that the Reagan budgets were creating a fiscal disaster, mainly because Republicans had caved in to special interest demands while lavishing unnecessary hundreds of billions of excess dollars on the Pentagon.Shortly after leaving the administration, Stockman published what still stands as one of the best political “insider” books ever written, The Triumph of Politics, which expanded on his Greider interviews in fascinating detail. As the title indicates, the book chronicled the abandonment of the lofty objectives of Reagan’s initial budget blueprint thanks to an orgy of vote-buying and constituency-tending by GOP pols. Two sections of the book particularly stand out in my own memory: Stockman’s angry account of then-Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger’s exploitation of an accounting error to secure a vast increase in the Pentagon budget above and beyond what Reagan had originally proposed; and his graphic description of the bipartisan special-interest bidding war that made the first Reagan tax bill fiscally and morally ruinous, eventually requiring a big fix in the 1986 tax reform legislation. Aside from its historical value, Stockman’s book remains relevant because he so clearly anticipated and analyzed the political dynamics that ultimately produced the systemic fiscal profligacy and corruption of the Bush/DeLay-era GOP. Indeed, it was Stockman who coined the phrase “starve the beast” for the cynical conservative argument that unfunded tax cuts and huge deficits could restrain big government down the road without the political pain associated with specific budget cuts. The Bush-DeLay era of corruption, which pervaded corporate as well as political circles, led among other things to enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. In a special twist of fate, that’s the law under which Stockman has been indicted. I have no idea whether Stockman is guilty as charged, but it would be highly ironic if the man who offered the first and best analysis (and confession) of the moral rot infecting latter-day conservatism succumbed to corruption himself.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
I read a Thomas Friedman column this week that really required a smackdown. So I supplied one at New York:
How much political capital should Democrats invest in a probably doomed effort to save the political career of Liz Cheney? Earlier this week, Never Trump Republican Linda Chavez penned a column urging Wyoming Democrats to take a dive this November in order to give the incumbent a chance to survive as an independent, assuming (as it safe) that Cheney will be purged in her own party’s primary. And now, in an apparent coincidence, in comes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggesting a far more radical step by Democrats to align themselves with the small slice of Republicans who follow Cheney’s example in repudiating Donald Trump. He wrote:
“Is that what America needs in 2024 — a ticket of Joe Biden and Liz Cheney? Or Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or Stacey Abrams and Liz Cheney, or Amy Klobuchar and Liz Cheney? Or any other such combination.”
Friedman phrases this as a question, but clearly he thinks it’s a good idea given the “existential moment” America would face if Trump is allowed to regain the presidency in 2024. It’s a bit of a loaded question, too, since it postulates that nothing short of a previously unimaginable “sacrifice” by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans alike can stop Trump — and that it would, in fact, succeed in stopping Trump.
I certainly agree that Democrats dumping Kamala Harris to give their vice-presidential nomination to a conservative Republican who opposes legalized abortion and is a militarist by conviction and heredity would be a “sacrifice,” to put it very mildly. It would also be very, very weird. Friedman cites the recent establishment of a mind-bending coalition government in Israel to thwart Bibi Netanyahu as a development comparable to what he is suggesting. But as he acknowledges, Israel has a parliamentary system in which multiparty coalitions are the rule rather than the exception. A presidential system in which parties invariably run separate tickets for the top job is another thing altogether.
The U.S. has had exactly one example of multiparty fusionism in a presidential election. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Republicans nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee — then serving as U.S. military governor of Tennessee — to run with Lincoln on a “Union” ticket. The experiment did not turn out well, beginning with Johnson’s drunken inaugural address in 1865 and continuing with the racist solidarity he exhibited toward ex-Confederates after Lincoln’s assassination, culminating in his impeachment and near removal from office. There are important reasons politicians sort themselves out into major parties, which should be apparent in an era of polarization over issues other than the scofflaw behavior of Donald Trump.
Is the threat of Trump’s return to the White House the equivalent of the U.S. Civil War? Not in itself, I would contend, though that horrific development could lead eventually to grave conditions comparable if not equal to a civil war. The premise that a Biden-Cheney fusion ticket would uniquely doom Trump to failure is even more dubious. There has never been much evidence of a mass following for Never Trump Republicans, and such as it is, it is mostly composed of people who would (and did in 2020) gladly vote for Biden and Harris. The baleful effect that replacing Harris with Cheney on the ticket would have on Democratic turnout could easily offset or exceed the alleged benefits of bipartisan and trans-ideological fusion.
So Democrats should say thanks, but no thanks, to Friedman for the idea of submitting their party to some sort of unwieldy and unnatural coalition of national salvation, so long as there is the slightest possibility of beating Trump the old-fashioned way. Liz Cheney deserves great respect for the courage she has shown in defying Trump at the expense of her own career, and if Biden is reelected with her support, perhaps she deserves an ambassadorship, a minor Cabinet post, or a major sub-Cabinet position. But she has no business being at the top of the line of succession to a Democratic president.