In 2000, I cast my presidential ballot for George W. Bush. It wasn't my proudest moment. But it seemed to me that I didn’t really have another viable option.
I'm a libertarian who's not all that enthralled with the Libertarian Party. As I saw them, my options at the time were to:
A) vote for Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, a guy with whom I agreed more than either of the other two candidates, but who couldn’t win and who, I think, most voters see more likely to be outfitted in a tinfoil hat than shaking hands with foreign dignitaries
B) vote for George W. Bush, a guy who seemed likeable enough, but not terribly bright. But, he promised to be a "free trade president," promised tax cuts, favored school choice and recognized the need to give Americans ownership of our accumulated Social Security taxes
C) vote for Al Gore, a guy with whom I agreed on almost nothing, and who is to "personality" what Boons Farm is to "wine."
I chose option B.
I’m no longer sure I made the right choice.
Of course, I knew I'd disagree with the president on some issues, and I’m willing to accept the fact that several of those issues have now played themselves out in his policies. But what’s been particularly frustrating is that President Bush has time and again backed down from those issues with which I agreed with him -- the issues that provoked me to vote for him in the first place.
For example, the president has caved on every school choice measure in his "leave no child behind" plan. The only thing he "won" in the education bill he negotiated with Ted Kennedy was a provision mandating one-size-fits-all national testing, an initiative that would expand, not retract, federal involvement in education.
On Social Security reform, Republicans have run so far from "privatization," I'm surprised the president hasn't pulled a hamstring. In fact, National Republican Congressional Committee leader Tom Davis and the White House have prohibited the word "privatization" from even being uttered in Republican circles. It’s profanity. Republicans bought into Democrat propaganda suggesting that the issue was a loser in the midterm elections, despite polls to the contrary.
However, Republican candidates who stood by their principles (Jim Talent in Missouri, John Sununu in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina) won. Republicans who ran from privatization (Jim Thune in South Dakota, George Gekas in Pennsylvania, and Doug Forester in New Jersey) lost.
And what did the White House learn from these results? Apparently nothing. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has indicated that Social Security won’t even be on the policy agenda until after the 2004 election.
The president has been most disappointing on trade. He extended tariffs on steel imports and softwood lumber to earn political points in battleground states. He hasn’t touched protectionist tariffs on textiles or sugar. He increased foreign aid outlays. He signed a massive, pork-laden, wasteful farm subsidies bill that’s likely to motivate trade repercussions for years to come. President Bush has been so bad on trade that conservative/libertarian columnist Steven Chapman, writing in Slate, declared "if you want free trade, elect a Democratic president."
In a New York Times op-ed last weekend, National Review's John J. Miller criticized libertarians for costing the Republicans as many as four U.S. Senate seats. Miller, like lots of Republicans, see libertarians as extremists, hell-bent on "all or nothing" politics -- either we get privatized sidewalks and heroin on the playground, or we're going to vote for Ralph Nader.
Of course, that's the furthest thing from the truth. My gripe with Bush and Republicans is not that they haven't moved quickly enough to reduce the size and scope of government, or even that they haven't moved at all. My gripe is that they've moved backward. Bush and his comrades in Congress passed a campaign finance "reform" bill that will restrict American political speech. They're preparing to add yet another Cabinet-level department to the executive branch. They've assigned a renowned liar and privacy opponent to oversee a massive database capable of monitoring almost every transaction made by anyone in the country.
What's most infuriating is that John J. Miller and like-minded Republican cheerleaders blame libertarians for the GOP's lack of backbone. He writes:
"Yet Libertarians are now serving, in effect, as Democratic Party operatives. The next time they wonder why the Bush tax cuts aren't permanent, why Social Security isn't personalized and why there aren't more school-choice pilot programs for low-income kids, all they have to do is look in the mirror." (Note how Miller avoids the word "privatized.")
Nonsense. The corollary to Miller's statement is that if the Republicans had won the four Senate seats he claims were lost to libertarian "protest" votes, the next two years would have seen the installation of "personalized" Social Security accounts, school choice and a fairer tax code. Is Miller really naïve enough to think any of these things would have happened? Republicans aren't interested in limiting the influence of government. They're interested only in getting re-elected, as Democrats are.
Libertarians will vote for Republicans when Republicans give them reason to. Republicans aren't "entitled" to my vote any more than Democrats are "entitled" to the votes of African-Americans, or of Greens.
Bush today has a rare opportunity. He is a popular president whose party controls both houses of Congress. He's coming off a midterm election that validated his standing with the American people. His next election is a full two years away. If ever there were a time to eschew politics for principle, that time is now.
You want libertarian votes, Mr. President? Start earning them.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.