- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

Politics could learn a lot from economics when it comes to understanding the true cost of war. The cost of war would hardly appear to be an unknown. The tragic human losses in dead and wounded and the staggering fiscal costs measured in billions of dollars are obvious. However in economics, cost’s fullest measure is the opportunity cost — those opportunities forgone when a particular decision is made.

In politics, actions translate into policy and choosing one policy inevitably means closing the door on others. U.S. history clearly demonstrates: No policy has a higher opportunity cost than war, and that cost is domestic policy.

No American president in the last 100 years has been able to successfully pursue war and domestic policy. The exemplar presidencies of war’s domestic policy costs are Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but they are hardly the only ones.

Both Roosevelt and Johnson had mandates from landslide presidential elections. Both had huge congressional majorities with which to work. Both had expansive domestic agendas — probably the most ambitious in American history. Yet both faced wars that eventually ended further pursuit of their domestic agendas.

For Roosevelt, World War II ended the New Deal. Needing unity to wage total war against the Axis powers, he appeased Republicans and conservative Democrats by truncating the most iconoclastic and successful domestic policy agenda in U.S. history. A generation later, Johnson attempted to weave the threads of the New Deal left by Roosevelt into his expansive and expensive domestic agenda: the Great Society. Vietnam starved the Great Society, not only of dollars but of political capital.

Despite having won a landslide in 1964, Johnson didn’t even seek re-election in 1968 and virtually only the automatic spending of his entitlement programs (Medicare and Medicaid) continued after him.

War’s cost of domestic policy is the same regardless of whether the war is pursued by a president or pushed on him. War eclipses all domestic policies not related to it. World War II was brought to Roosevelt: He had no need to rally public support for it. The Vietnam escalation was essentially brought on by Johnson: His need to retain public support grew rapidly. Yet both found themselves jettisoning domestic policy.

There are several reasons war and domestic policy cannot coexist. The American public has limited patience for government demands and wants to pay little attention to government. This limited taste for government goes back to the nation’s Founding, as King George III discovered 230 years ago. At best, the public can be engaged on only one front — foreign or domestic — at a time.

The public’s skepticism of government action is enshrined in the Constitution. The first 10 amendments, and almost every succeeding one, serve to restrict government’s power and protect the individual’s. The 18th Amendment, Prohibition, since repealed, was an exception that proves this rule.

The Constitution also dramatically affects how America fights its wars. Once declared, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution makes war almost entirely the president’s responsibility — regardless of whether he sought the war. Once this prerogative is given, Congress is less likely as an institution to yield further to the executive — particularly on domestic policy, where Congress justly feels co-equal.

Both factors are reinforced by the political parties. Political parties exist to reflect differences, so friction is inherent and magnified — where there is unanimity, there is no need for parties. Yet parties are inclined to minimize their differences on foreign policy. The result is that differences at home are fairer game during war. Even the president’s supporters will be less likely to support his domestic policy during wartime in order to not look excessively tied to him.

The opportunity cost of war is a bill delivered collectively by the public, the Constitution, and the political parties. The president’s limited time in office guarantees it is a bill he will have to pay. A two-term president has just eight years to enact his agenda. Three of these eight years — the last of his first term and the last two of second term — are essentially lost to approaching campaigns.

Even a short war therefore consumes much of a president’s available time. Time lost cannot be recaptured — even if the war is successful and more so if it is not.

None of this is meant as a comment on the current president or the current conflict. Both merely focus us on the larger pre-existing pattern of U.S. politics. President Bush has, and always had, an ambitious domestic agenda and it is a testament to him how much he has accomplished after the terrorist attacks of 51/2 years ago. But the domestic agenda and foreign conflict are found swimming against a historical tide.

Presidents never had or ever will undertake war lightly but it is important that they understand its full cost. It is equally important they understand how high the cost is even if they succeed. To truly do this, we must not look to only war’s direct cost but add in the inevitability of forgone domestic policies as well.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2004 and as a congressional staff member in 1987-2000.


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