Selected Skirmishes: Wartime


When administration officials announced that President Bush was going to give his very first nationally televised White House speech on drugs, I was skeptical. But after reading the text, I believe they spoke the truth.

The Bush drug war has, itself, all the superb attributes of any good narcotic. It provides an early rush, at relatively low cost, but the habit builds up momentum. The addict falls into a pathetic dependency, unable to deal with reality.

Already, great compromises on the factual evidence have been made, and the crusade has splintered into the petty political stratagems of the two reigning political gangs. We must prepare for the institutionalization of political substance abuse. Look forward to congressional candidate seminars entitled "The Crack Cocaine Menace: Riding the Drug Crisis to Electoral Success."

The federal drug craze is almost perfectly crafted for political exploitation by the White House. First, it's a galvanizing national issue. Second, it's a great buy. The administration and Congress compromised at about $9 billion: peanuts inside the Beltway.

Third, it cuts across the spectrum. It's the sort of paramilitary endeavor Oliver North Fan Club-types dream about escalating into a real war, while it is virtually the sole ticket that gives middle-aged white guys like George Bush, William Bennett, and Jack Kemp unending photo ops with poor black "crack babies" from the ghetto. Hey, if that's not kinder and gentler, what is?

The Democratic reaction was so perfect as to provoke hints of Republican sabotage. No sooner had the president's trick with the cocaine-filled ziplock baggie faded from the screen than Senator Joseph Biden, himself admittedly well-versed in the evils of narcotic ingestion, and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (yes, the House Appropriations chair) were giddy with the pronouncement that they were fully backing the president on this crusade—backing him, in fact, 128.2 percent (their price tag divided by his). They argued that the real solution to drugs was…a tax increase. (This indicated that the cruel problem of addiction is every bit as serious as the president had been making it out to be.)

The fact that the administration sets very modest 10-year goals, which would appear to obtain if current reductions in drug usage simply continue, indicates that the Drug War has little medicinal value and is proposed merely as a kick-off to "Bush in '92." And who can blame the president for wanting to campaign on drugs? Every administration fumbles around for a war, and this is the best the Republicans can find right now. But we need some front where bullets fly and the Commander leads A Great Nation.

Look at history. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal fat was frying until WWII pulled it out and baked him up a wonderful, heroic victory. The reversal was a huge break for the opportunistic administration, which was wallowing in double-digit unemployment figures as far as the eye could see. But it was a lovely, patriotic war for Americanos, produced a photo opportunity heaven for the administration. FDR ended up in the Presidential Hall of Fame.

Take Lyndon Johnson. One war wasn't enough for his gluttonous political libido. The escalation of the Vietnam effort was joined by the War on Poverty. Twenty-five years thence, it is difficult to judge the greater defeat. But, despite its high government homicide rate of recent years, at least Vietnam is getting off the government dole these days.

Not wanting to hurt anybody, Jimmy Carter was proud to lead his troops into the "moral equivalent of war." Long on national unity and presidential directives, short on bullets and blood. The energy conservation crusade was a terribly costly battle but a lot of fun to watch.

Remember the odd-even gas lines? The initiative to get children to report their parents' excessive heating fuel usage to federal authorities? The billion-dollar solar and shale oil subsidies? Yeah, it was a war—sort of the federal public policy version of F-Troop.

And so the vacuum called Bush needs something. This drug war will be a real shot in the arm, they say.

It will not "cure" drugs, nor will it make America a better place to live and work. As Milton Friedman and William Buckley are now saying with force and eloquence, the demand for narcotics will drive the market; substitutes for Colombian agricultural commodities are to be found in every corner of the world, and will make it to every corner in your town. Unless—unless we are serious about the total, as in totalitarian, commitment a true drug eradication program would entail.

My guess is that if Americans were too libertine to roll over to the Volstead Act enforcers in the 1920s and '30s, we will not be tickled by roadside urinalysis, trebled prison budgets, and police strip searches without cause in the '90s. Moreover, the Big Boys know all that. Which is why the President is asking for token reforms and pledging token progress.

Still, the politics are just too euphoric not to toke up. Ailes to Sununu: "The press releases will really kill you, man. Hey, look at this sound bite. Wow. Good &%$#, dude."

Oh, go on. Just wait till you're president. Then let's see if you can just say no.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.