December 4, 2006
Washington is eagerly awaiting the report from the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Bush 41 Secretary of State James Baker and Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, to point the way out of the war in Iraq. Sure, there are tens of thousands of years of professional military experience at the Pentagon with every incentive in the world to get things right. But what do they know compared to a bipartisan commission led by such distinguished gentlemen?
On the domestic front, conservative columnist Cal Thomas recently argued that the way for the Republicans to recharge their batteries after losing the majority was to “assemble a bipartisan group of former members of Congress, such as Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn and Missouri Republican John Danforth. They would be commissioned to draft a bipartisan team to find solutions to common problems and challenges.”
The idea that blue ribbon committees of greybeards can come up with novel ways of solving problems that everyone would then agree on has long had great appeal. We’re positively overrun with the Blue Ribbon Panel on This and the Bipartisan Commission on That.
Just a quick Google search reveals the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka “The 9-11 Commission”), the National Commission on Social Security Reform (not to be confused with the 1998 National Commission on Retirement Policy or the 2001 President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security), the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, the Commission on No Child Left Behind, and the bipartisan Commission to Strengthen Confidence in Congress. The gold standard has to be the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which was headed by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. It just doesn’t get any more bipartisan, moderate, and statesmanlike!
It’s intuitively satisfying, after all. Surely, if we would just put politics aside, we’d all agree on the way ahead. Unfortunately, the sage advice of Rodney King notwithstanding, the world doesn’t work that way.
Any solution that Baker, Hamilton, and their colleagues could agree to was destined to be so watered down as to be meaningless. Get more international cooperation! Make the Iraqi leadership take responsibility! Make a more concerted effort to solve the Palestinian crisis! Because nobody currently in office ever thought of those things?
Indeed, snippets of the report leaked over the last few days indicate that, like the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by committee, they are going to recommend a mishmash policy that takes a little bit from everybody’s plan. More troops to secure Baghdad and more troops to train Iraqi security forces—but no overall increase in troop levels! A total withdrawal of combat forces by early 2008—yet with no timetables! As Sen. Carl Levin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, described it with no apparent irony, “It’s a welcome change in course, although it’s not as specific, or it’s not as pointed, or it’s not as clear as I would like.”
This is playing out as these things usually do. We elect leaders to decide important public policy issues. In turn, those leaders pass the buck to blue ribbon panels when there are no easy solutions. This simultaneously allows postponing action until the report comes back and provides political cover for voting for whatever the commission decides.
The 9/11 commission was a classic example of this. After nearly two years of hearings, and almost three years after the terrorist attacks themselves, we got a watered down document that told us what we had long known and essentially advised that we continue doing what we were already doing but with more unity, cooperation, and spirit of togetherness. And, of course, the creation of an additional bureaucracy, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, to help alleviate the problems caused by too much bureaucracy in our intelligence community.
Sure, both parties got some talking points and were able to take great credit for voting to enact the commission’s recommendations. Just in time for the 2004 elections, no less. But is the country any more secure against terrorist attacks as a result? No.
That requires making hard decisions.
The same will doubtless be true for the Iraq War. If there were easy, obvious solutions that had strong bipartisan support, they would have been implemented long ago. Even if we ascribe only base political motives to our leaders, Bush and the Republicans had every incentive to fix an unpopular policy before the midterm elections and Reid, Pelosi, and company would have been glad to take credit for getting us out of Iraq without having to fight off charges of cutting and running.
The same principles apply to domestic policy. Cal Thomas’ premise—that holding power should not be more important to politicians and parties than actually putting one’s policy preferences into effect—is a good one. Inevitably, however, the former takes precedence over the latter once a party has been in office more than a few years. The initial enthusiasm about policy ultimately peters out because the best ideas get adopted early and the hard ones can’t get past political roadblocks. After that, both sides just dig in and attack the other side, hoping the public does not notice that neither party is offering constructive ideas.
The solution, though, is not bipartisan committees of Yoda-like gurus but rather new blood and fresh ideas. Inevitably, the party in power overplays its hand and, as happened to a moribund Republican party recently, is asked by the electorate to some time in the minority.
With exceedingly rare exceptions, it is ideas, not compromises, which spawn great policy achievements. American Independence was achieved by a group of men willing to risk everything to achieve their vision. Slavery was ended only after a new political party rode that issue to the White House and then fought a war rather than compromise. The major social transformations wrought by the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement were not the product of bipartisan panels, either, but bold ideas and bitter political fights.
Both parties have think tanks, magazines, and young leaders waiting in the wings to generate these ideas. That’s ultimately much more productive than dusting off Jim Baker and Sam Nunn every few years.