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One Can Only Hope

A look at the Ashcroft appointment and Bush's anti-poverty proposal.

by James Leroy Wilson
February 7, 2001

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One Can Only Hope_James Leroy Wilson-A look at the Ashcroft appointment and Bush's anti-poverty proposal. Of the eight Senate Democrats who voted to confirm John Ashcroft, the two to benefit most are Wisconsin's Russ Feingold and Georgia's Zell Miller. Feingold is proving to be a man of high ethical standards, and his refusal to be partisan in the appointment of Ashcroft, whose experience and integrity made him an excellent choice, will not go unnoticed in socially conservative, economically moderate "middle America." Miller goes futher; by supporting President Bush's tax cut plan, he can, in '04, claim that he tried to be bipartisan and work with the administration. Each may be positioning himself to be a Presidential alternative to Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. Lieberman is gutless, afraid of offending anyone, while Clinton has serious ethical questions and a statist political philosophy unappealing to moderates.

In theory, I am not entirely pleased with Ashcroft's nomination and confirmation. He will, I'm sure, run an efficient Justice Departmet and ably enforce the law. But the Attorney General, like all Cabinet secretaries, does more. He helps formulate strategy and policy, and a doctrinaire social conservative is not an ideal choice when it comes to selecting judicial appointments or re-thinking the federal approach toward crime, drugs, and immigration.

What gives me hope is that the Attorney General is a politician, and politics trump doctrine every time. The appearance of doctrinaire rigidity can actually be a sign of strength; it is good for those on the other side to know exactly where you stand before negotiation and change can begin. That was a strength of President Reagan when fighting for tax cuts and dealing with the Soviet Union.

And if President Bush can revolutionize the delivery of social services and education in America, he can do the same with crime. Bush's proposals of funding private - including religious - social service agencies and private school tuitions carry obvious risks. In accepting the funds, the independence of those institutions might be compromised. We might have fights every year, or every four years, about whether to fund this pro-choice agency or that anti-homosexuality group. Organizations might become so dependent on the funding that they might be forced to start obeying certain federal regulations that violate their principles, or run the risk of shutting down. A related risk is seeing these organizations expand to more dubious projects, thanks to the inflow of cash.

Universties play this game. The federal government gives out cash and guarantees loans to students for college tuition. In turn, universities expand (without improving), raise tuition to meet the government-inflated consumer demand, and obey a bunch of academically pointless and socially divisive federal laws regarding race and gender that are all pre-conditions of the aid.

Another risk is that the expected results will not be achieved. As a taxpayer, I want proof that my dollars are actually doing things that help people, but faith-based social work, that is, ministry, isn't about "results" in terms of how many addicts have recovered, how many people have become employable, etc. It is about helping one person at a time.

So even if a subsidized private sector can provide social services and education more effectively, my worry is that public money will be funnelled to statistically poor-performing organizations, and that politics will determine who gets what.

All that said, I do like one thing about the plan. My reasoning stems from five political realities:
  1. Much of the real, long-term poverty in America is not the result of a low minimum wage or racism, but rather of broken families, criminality, and substance abuse.
  2. When poverty is not the result of moral failure, it is usually the result of poor education.
  3. It is therefore foolish to think that the federal government can solve the problem of poverty without getting extremely involved in people's personal lives (such as, forbidding welfare mothers to have unprotected sex.) or micro-managing public education.
  4. Which is offensive to most Americans, who have some degree of the libertarian instinct and would rather have the federal government just leave us alone.
  5. Yet we also expect the federal government to do something about poverty.
The President's plan addresses all five realities. It's not trying to solve the problem by throwing money at it, it's throwing money at people who have solutions to the problem. Risky, yes, but also innovative. Better, it allows innovation by the recipients of the dollars. What works will be imitated by other organizations in other places. And that is actually less risky than a top-down centralized effort to solve a problem.

Which brings us back to Ashcroft. If the goal is not to punish drug use and crime but to decrease them, new approaches must be encouraged. Treatment and prevention would come to the fore. If Bush directs his courage and imagination to our failed "War on Drugs" as he is now doing with our failed "War on Poverty," who better to promote bold new plans than the old, tough-on-crime, zero-tolerant John Ashcroft? After all, as the proverb goes, "Only Nixon could go to China." Say what you want about hard-liners, but when they endorse a change, the change has credibility.

The War on Drugs was not a Presidential campaign issue, but more and more people around the country are increasingly in favor of at least some decriminalization. If Bush fulfills his main campaign promises, which he has a good chance of doing, a good political move for him would be to then focus his attention to reforming federal drug- and crime-fighting policies. And if Ashcroft supports his boss on this initiative, it will succeed. If Bush has everything in mind that I hope he has, we're in for a good four years. And I didn't even vote for him.

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