Neocons vs. Supply-Siders.

Neocons vs. Supply-Siders.

Neocons vs. Supply-Siders.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 9 2003 8:54 PM

Neocons vs. Supply-Siders

The coming war over Iraq.

Yesterday, Chatterbox observed that neoconservatives are struggling to come to terms with the present troop shortage in Iraq. That struggle has created an interesting schism between pro-Rumsfeld neocons (Midge Decter, Max Boot) and newly anti-Rumsfeld neocons (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and possibly David Brooks). The neocon schism will likely be temporary; disagreements among neoconservatives usually are. But, stepping back for a wider-angle view, it's possible to see a much larger fault line among conservatives, one that the Iraq war has widened almost to the crisis point: the schism between neoconservatives and supply-siders.

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The neocons are the party of war, which is the favored path to what Bill Kristol and David Brooks have termed "national greatness." The supply-siders are the party of tax cuts, which is the favored path to prosperity and, for some, limited government. Thus far, the two camps have coexisted more or less peacefully because the two goals have not come into conflict. Or rather, the two goals have come into conflict, but both camps have refused to recognize that. The Weekly Standard has supported Bush's tax cuts; Forbes (whose publisher and pre-eminent columnist, Steve Forbes, twice ran for president as a supply-side Republican) has supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, however, the Iraq war has bumped deficit projections up to roughly $500 billion. Even though supply-siders usually insist that budget deficits bring no harm to the economy, they surely will soon recognize the political reality that it will be hard to legislate additional tax cuts if the books are this far out of balance. Indeed, it's possible that the high cost of regime change in Iraq—in today's Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman, working off figures compiled by Yale economist William Nordhaus (see Table 2, p. 55), states that the $166 billion thus far spent or requested by Bush "already exceeds the inflation-adjusted costs of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War and the Persian Gulf war combined [italics Chatterbox's]"—will inspire Congress to do the sensible thing and roll back the Bush tax cuts it's already signed into law. There's even an (admittedly slight) chance Bush would propose this himself.

Some key players in the conflict:

Former Wall Street Journal editorialist Jude Wanniski, declared war against neoconservatives years ago. Wanniski has long engaged in neocon-baiting courtships with Louis Farrakhan and Lyndon LaRouche and has even made the preposterous claim (here and here) that Saddam Hussein never gassed the Kurds in Halabja. (For Chatterbox's refutation of this last, click here.) Wanniski opposed the war in Iraq because, he said, Saddam didn't have chemical and biological weapons—a position that seemed crazy at the time but looks prescient today. It was the neocons, he says, "who cooked up the war."

Another supply-sider hostile to neocons is Paul Craig Roberts,who was assistant secretary of the treasury during the Reagan administration and is now a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Almost a year ago Roberts warned readers of his syndicated column that "[n]eoconservatives are preparing the groundwork for far-reaching and interminable U.S. involvement in the Middle East." After the war in Iraq started, Roberts called it "a strategic blunder, the costs of which will mount over the next half century," and suggested the only good likely to come from it would be the public's realization "that that the neoconservative agenda of conquest of the Muslim Middle East is beyond our available strength." Yesterday, Roberts wrote that if Bush wants to be a "real leader," he will "fire the neocon propagandists in high government offices who misled both him and the public," which probably refers to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

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Columnist Robert Novak calls himself a supply-sider and once wrote that Wanniski's supply-side primer, The Way the World Works, was one of two books that "shaped my mature philosophy of politics and government." (The other was Whittaker Chambers' Witness.) In his writing and on television, Novak has avoided making direct attacks on neoconservatives as a group, possibly because he contributes now and then to the neocon Weekly Standard. But Novak has been critical of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he tangles frequently with David Frum, a paleoconservative-turned-neocon hawk who helped coin the term, "axis of evil." Last March, in a widely discussed article for the (now mostly neocon) National Review, Frum attacked "antiwar conservatives," a group that mostly consists of supply-siders and a tiny rump of xenophobic paleoconservatives, led by Patrick Buchanan, who these days can be difficult to distinguish from the hard left. (The XPs have a house organ, The American Conservative, but they don't seem to have much influence in or affection for the Republican Party.) Several of Frum's sharpest barbs were directed at Novak, who Frum suggested was anti-Israel. It wasn't the first time Novak had been so accused. If things get a little hotter, Novak could easily lose his self-control about neocons.

The most famous supply-side politician is Jack Kemp, who represented Buffalo in the House, ran for president, and pioneered compassionate (he called it "bleeding-heart") conservatism as housing secretary during the administration of Bush père. Kemp is a neocon-friendly supply-sider; he even shares the directorship of a nonprofit, Empower America, with two neoconservatives (William Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick). Lately, though, Kemp has been thinking hard about how to get out of Iraq:

It is true that we cannot immediately pull our military out of Iraq because it would create a power vacuum and invite the Baathists and radical Jihadists to take control and emulate that which happened in Beirut and Mogadishu. However, if we attempt to impose order by military force, even under U.N. auspices, the level of violence and brutality required will inadvertently create widespread popular resistance to our presence, dehumanize our military and ignite a conflict we will be unable to contain.

This puts Kemp on a collision course with Bennett, a fierce Iraq hawk and scourge of self-doubt.

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One wild card in the coming battle between neocons and supply-siders will be the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Both its former editor Robert Bartley and its current one, Paul Gigot, fit comfortably into both camps. Tax cuts are closer to the Journal's heart than the war on terrorism; it isn't, after all, the Tel Aviv Journal. But unlike Kemp, the Journal editpage is not willing to entertain the notion of American troops pulling out:

The danger now is not that the U.S. will be drawn into some quagmire, a la Vietnam, but that we will show a desire to leave too soon, as in Somalia. Terrorists thrive on such weakness, indeed it is the basis for their current strategy. They think that if they can impose enough casualties, or create enough havoc, the voices of retreat will begin to say once again, "Come home, America."

Chatterbox predicts that the Journal editorialists, perhaps alone within the supply-side faction, will refuse to take up arms against the neocons, even if they come to agree with Kristol that more troops are needed in Iraq. Gigot or Bartley may even try to broker a peace between the two camps.

But what if no peace can be brokered? That would certainly be the case if Bush came to his fiscal senses, scaled back his already-passed tax cuts, and announced to the country that the recovering economy no longer needed stimulus and that it was more important to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, wipe out al-Qaida, and give senior citizens in the United States easy access to pharmaceuticals. (This would be easier to pull off if the recovering economy started producing jobs.) That outcome is what Chatterbox the Policy Wonk wishes for. But Chatterbox the Partisan Hack can also get behind it. Imagine a tax-cutting constituency within the Republican party so furious at being conned—by yet another Bush!—that it drafted a third-party candidate for president. Maybe Forbes would stop supporting Bush on Iraq and jump in for a Perot-style run. Maybe Kemp (who, as noted above, is further along toward opposing the neocons) would run. If the 1992 and 2000 elections were any guide, third-party candidates are death on the mainstream parties with which they're most naturally aligned.

Say hello to President Dean.