Triumph of the Machine

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

August 1, 2005

The campaign for Social Security privatization has degenerated into farce. The "global war on terrorism" has been downgraded to the "global struggle against violent extremism" (pronounced gee-save), which is just embarrassing. Baghdad is a nightmare, Basra is a militia-run theocracy, and officials are talking about withdrawing troops from Iraq next year (just in time for the U.S. midterm elections).

On the other hand, the administration is crowing about its success in passing the long-stalled energy bill, the highway bill and Cafta, the free-trade agreement with Central America. So is the Bush agenda stalled, or is it progressing?

The answer is that the administration is getting nowhere on its grand policy agenda. But it never took policy, as opposed to politics, very seriously anyway. The agenda it has always taken with utmost seriousness - consolidating one-party rule, and rewarding its friends - is moving forward quite nicely.

One of President Bush's great political talents is his ability to convince people who do care passionately about policy that he is one of them. Foreign-policy neoconservatives believe he shares their vision of a world transformed by American power. Economic conservatives believe he shares their dedication to dismantling the welfare state.

But a serious effort either to transform the world or to dismantle the welfare state would require sacrifices Mr. Bush hasn't been willing to make.

On the foreign policy front, the "Bush doctrine" of pre-emption and unilateralism sounded very impressive at first. But Mr. Bush's tough-guy attitude wasn't matched by his willingness to commit resources. His administration sought global dominance on the cheap, with an undermanned, underplanned invasion of Iraq that has, indeed, transformed the balance of power in the Middle East - in favor of Iran.

On the domestic policy front, talk of an "ownership society" appealed to conservatives who dreamed of rolling back the New Deal. But Mr. Bush has expanded, not reduced, middle-class entitlements. Only the poor and powerless have faced cuts. (I don't think those middle-class entitlements should be cut. But Mr. Bush claims to be against big government.)

Social Security privatization was to the crusade against the welfare state what the invasion of Iraq was to G-Save: an attempt to achieve radical goals on the cheap. Rather than openly propose reductions in entitlement spending, the administration tried to sell a phaseout of traditional Social Security benefits in return for the magic of investing. But the public didn't buy it.

So what about those legislative successes? Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip, called the victories "verification that this is a governing party." But governing means more than handing out goodies.

Let's start with the energy bill. Even the bill's supporters barely pretend that it will do anything to reduce America's dependence on imported oil. It's simply an exercise in corporate welfare, full of subsidies and targeted tax breaks.

Then there's the pork-stuffed highway bill. I guess we'll have to stop making fun of Japanese public works spending: now America, too, is building bridges to islands that have almost no inhabitants, but lie in the districts of influential legislators.

Finally, Cafta contains "free trade" in its title, but that's misleading. The administration rammed the bill through the House by, among other things, promising to limit imports of clothing from China; over all, the effect may well be to reduce, not increase, international trade. But pharmaceutical companies got measures that protect and extend their monopoly rights in Central America.

These bills don't have anything to do with governing, if governing means trying to achieve actual policy goals like energy independence or expanded trade. They're just machine politics at work, favors granted in return for favors received.

In fact, you can argue that the administration does a bad job at governing in part because its highest priority is always to reward its friends. Most notably, the Iraq venture would have had a better chance of succeeding if cronyism and corruption hadn't undermined reconstruction.

Still, Republicans should feel good. Those legislative successes show that the political machine can still deliver the goods, even at a time when a majority of Americans disapprove of Mr. Bush's leadership and believe that his administration deliberately misled us into war.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com