Sunday, September 25, 2005

American politics seems to have dwindled down to a choice between a big government party and a big permanently-out-of-government party. The Senate Democrats had two months to cook up a reason to vote against John Roberts and the best California Sen. Dianne Feinstein could manage come the big day was that she had wanted to hear him “talking to me as a son, a husband and a father.”

In that case, get off the Judiciary Committee and go audition for “Return To Bridges Of Madison County,” or “What Women Want 2” (“Mel Gibson is nominated to the Supreme Court but, despite being sensitive and a good listener, is accused of being a conservative theocrat”).

That slab of meaningless emotive exhibitionism would make a good epitaph for the Democratic Party. The reality of life as a big-shot Dem is that what John Roberts is like “as a father” is less important than what George Soros is like as a sugar daddy.

The more money shoveled at the party by, Hollywood, the National Organization for Women and other unrepresentative fringes, the less able it is to see over the big pile of green to the electorate beyond. A party as thoroughly Sorosized as the Democrats is perforce downsized.

To be sure, they have many institutional advantages: If you watch the TV news, you would still think Cindy Sheehan an emblematic bereaved army mom, rather than a pitiful crackpot calling for President Bush to pull his troops out of “occupied New Orleans.” Her Million-Moan March washed up in Washington Thursday to besiege the White House. As the Associated Press put it, “Sheehan, supporters descend on the capital.” There were 29 supporters. Can 2 dozen people “descend” on any capital city bigger than the South Sandwich Islands’?

Surely her media boosters were cringing with embarrassment at their own impotence. Since its star columnist Maureen Dowd became focused on Mrs. Sheehan’s “moral authority,” the New York Times has run some 70 stories on Cindy — and every story attracted another 0.4142857 of a supporter to her march on the capital.

Nonetheless, Hillary Rodham Clinton has yielded to “pressure” from all those 0.41428s and agreed to meet with Mrs. Sheehan to “explain” her vote for the Iraq war. The dwindling stars of today’s Democratic Party expend most of their energy jumping through the ever-smaller hoops of an ever-kookier fringe.

These days one party raises a ton of money from George Soros and the other raises a ton of money from you. George Bush has made a commitment to spend $200 billion on Gulf Coast “hurricane relief.” Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal provided this perspective: Katrina supposedly displaced a half-million families. For $200 billion, every family could be given $400,000, and they could build their own beach-front home anywhere in America except next door to Barbra Streisand.

For 400 grand, they could all move into the Plaza Hotel — with a view of Central Park, not the cheap rooms looking out on 58th — and live off the $30 Snickers from the mini-bar.

Oh, sure, some might blow the $400,000 on beer and strippers, as several hurricane “victims” have already done with their complimentary Fedit-credit cards at the Baby Dolls Club in Houston. “You lost your whole house,” said Abby, one of the eponymous dolls, “you might want some beer in a strip club.”

But even Abby, skilled as she no doubt is, would have a hard job taking as much off as the “public servants” of Louisiana will once that $200 billion starts sluicing through the sewers of its kleptocrat bureaucracy. Even taking the gloomiest view of human nature’s partiality to beer in a strip club, giving every displaced Gulf Coast family a 401(k) with an instant $400,000 would unlikely be as economically wasteful as a $200 billion government program — unless, that is, it’s going straight to the Army Corps of Engineers to build the world’s highest seawall out of unused Sacagawea dollar coins.

Big-time Republicans tell me Mr. Bush’s profligacy is doing a great job of neutralizing the Democratic advantage in the spending-is-caring stakes. This may have been true initially — in the same sense as undercover cops neutralize a massive heroin-smuggling operation by infiltrating it. But, if they’re still running the heroin operation five years later, it looks less like neutralization and more like a change of management.

Savvier Republican types say, ah, well, Mr. Bush is the war president, his priority is the war, and he doesn’t want a lot of domestic nickel-and-diming to distract from his prosecuting it.

I like that argument even less. One lesson of September 11, 2001, is that a government that tries to do everything is likely to do most of it badly. You could make the case that the government simply doesn’t have the resources even to read the immigration applications of young single men from hotbeds of terrorism — but not if that same government apparently has no problem finding the resources to fund Rep. Don Young’s now famous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. If a thousandth of the care lavished on the Don Young Bridge had been lavished by U.S. Immigration on the September 11 killers’ visa paperwork, things might have gone very differently.

More to the point, domestic policy isn’t a distraction from the war, it’s a key front in it. Alaskan oil is part of the war on terror, so is increased refinery capacity. One reason half of Americans have tuned out Iraq, Afghanistan and all the rest is because they can’t see any connection between Bush foreign policy and their own lives. Way back in summer 2002, I wrote: “September 11 is not just an event, hermetically sealed from everything before and after, but a context. Everything that’s wrong with the environmental movement, with the teachers’ unions, with the big-government bureaucracies can be seen through the prism of their responses to that day.”

Ambitious presidents seize on extreme events to change the culture, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did, using the Depression to transform the nature of the federal government. In allowing the eco-crazies to get away with giving priority to the world’s biggest mosquito herd over Alaskan oil, and the teaching establishment with insisting there’s nothing wrong with the most world’s overfunded public-education system that can’t be fixed with even more wasted dollars, and the bureaucracy with creating an instantly sclerotic jobs-for-life federalized airport security (that just walked off the job in Houston), the Republicans missed their post-September 11 opportunity.

Instead of changing the nature of the federal government, the Republican majority in Washington seems to be changing the nature of the Republican Party. The Democrats’ approach to government has been Sorosized, the GOP’s has been supersized. Some choice.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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