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The Repudiation of Bush

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Power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton famously said. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. The voters apparently agreed.

Its reasonable to conclude from the election results that most voters felt the Republicans had been in power too long. The hopeless war in Iraq, the culture of corruption and incompetence, the spending binge (which includes the war), the grating social conservatism, and the autocratic arrogance approaching the dictatorial all culminated in a thunderous repudiation of President Bush and the Republican Party. It couldnt have happened to a nicer bunch.

In the voters view, they had only one group to turn to: the Democrats. But even if this was largely a negative vote, it doesnt mean people wont warm to Democrats activist agenda. Americans, sad to say, are not opposed in principle to activist government. They just dont like the appearance of incompetence, which the Bush team gave them in spades. Most people welcomed Bushs No Child Left Behind Act, an activist piece of legislation if there ever was one, and the Medicare drug program, a massive expansion of the soon-to-be-bankrupt government medical retirement plan. Why shouldnt they applaud the Democrats when the new majority begins promising expanded middle-class entitlements?

Would people have bailed out on the administration if the Iraq war appeared to be going well (meaning minimal American casualties) and FEMA hadnt bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina so badly? Probably not. A CNN poll found that 54 percent say government is too intrusive, but when we get down to specifics, the small-government ranks probably melt away fast. A pragmatic frame of mind, unguided by principles and sound economic theory, can lead to all sorts of impractical outcomes.

President Bush wasted no time in throwing a bone to the voters by dumping Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and naming former CIA chief Robert Gates to replace him. Will this make any difference? Rumsfeld was in charge of carrying out the plan to remake Iraq in Americas image, but he was hardly the architect of that plan. The architects were the utopian neoconservatives who now are jumping ship and blaming Bush and Rumsfeld for bad execution of their excellent idea. Former Bush loyalist David Frum has been quoted saying that Bush never really understood the idea.

Thus cleaning house at the Pentagon will make little difference if thinking hasnt change at the White House. Bush needs to come clean with the American people. Does he see his Iraq adventure as a terrible mistake or not? If not, what kind of changes is he likely to make beyond the cosmetic? Bushs statements at his press conference were not encouraging. He doesnt need a new perspective. He needs to check his premises.

Gates may come from the former President Bushs team of realists, but lets not forget that this team was capable of foreign intervention too. Remember Iraq, Somalia, and Panama. And lets not forget that Bush 41 and his team were part of the Reagan administration, which intervened directly in Lebanon and Grenada, while also meddling in Latin America and Africa. Gates also was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, which circumvented the law by selling arms to the Ayatollah Khomeini and using the money to intervene in Nicaraguas civil war.

Still, we can hope Gates is more realistic on the subject of nation-building than the gang that got us mired in Iraq. Nothing is more unrealistic than to think you can rebuild a society from the ground up. Lets keep our fingers crossed that what some people are saying is true: that the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by another former Bush 41 operative, James Baker, is actually a device to give the current President Bush cover for getting out of Iraq soon.

The voters might have thrown Bush out of office if they had the chance. Maybe that knowledge will motivate the president to begin undoing his many mistakes.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.