Domestic Policy a Casualty of War?

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

Domestic Policy a Casualty of War?


Byline: J.T. Young, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Politics could learn a lot from economics when it comes to understanding the true cost of war. The cost of war would hardly appear to be an unknown. The tragic human losses in dead and wounded and the staggering fiscal costs measured in billions of dollars are obvious. However in economics, cost's fullest measure is the opportunity cost those opportunities forgone when a particular decision is made.

In politics, actions translate into policy and choosing one policy inevitably means closing the door on others. U.S. history clearly demonstrates: No policy has a higher opportunity cost than war, and that cost is domestic policy.

No American president in the last 100 years has been able to successfully pursue war and domestic policy. The exemplar presidencies of war's domestic policy costs are Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but they are hardly the only ones.

Both Roosevelt and Johnson had mandates from landslide presidential elections. Both had huge congressional majorities with which to work. Both had expansive domestic agendas probably the most ambitious in American history. Yet both faced wars that eventually ended further pursuit of their domestic agendas.

For Roosevelt, World War II ended the New Deal. Needing unity to wage total war against the Axis powers, he appeased Republicans and conservative Democrats by truncating the most iconoclastic and successful domestic policy agenda in U.S. history. A generation later, Johnson attempted to weave the threads of the New Deal left by Roosevelt into his expansive and expensive domestic agenda: the Great Society. Vietnam starved the Great Society, not only of dollars but of political capital.

Despite having won a landslide in 1964, Johnson didn't even seek re-election in 1968 and virtually only the automatic spending of his entitlement programs (Medicare and Medicaid) continued after him.

War's cost of domestic policy is the same regardless of whether the war is pursued by a president or pushed on him. War eclipses all domestic policies not related to it. World War II was brought to Roosevelt: He had no need to rally public support for it. The Vietnam escalation was essentially brought on by Johnson: His need to retain public support grew rapidly. Yet both found themselves jettisoning domestic policy.

There are several reasons war and domestic policy cannot coexist. The American public has limited patience for government demands and wants to pay little attention to government. This limited taste for government goes back to the nation's Founding, as King George III discovered 230 years ago. At best, the public can be engaged on only one front foreign or domestic at a time. …

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