The Wrecking Crew

Thomas Frank takes on the capitol and a legacy of government as business.

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In 2003, historian-journalist Thomas Frank moved from Kansas to the national capital. In 2004, he published a book about his home state, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

It became enormously successful. It thrashed – some say trashed – conservatives and Republicans in the heartland. It was so well done that it drew raves and blurbs from liberals and even George Will, the conservatives’ icon and Washington columnist. Will’s “Kan­­sas” blurb appears on the dust jacket of Frank’s new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

“Frank is a formidable controversialist – imagine Michael Moore with a trained brain and an intellectual conscience,” wrote Will. (That is from a column in which Will also calls Frank “silly,” “careless,” and “delusional.” Go figure.)

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“The Wrecking Crew” goes after Washington far more ferociously than Frank had on the heartland. Not only the right (“wingers” he calls them) but also moderates and even some liberals. He rounds up the usual suspects for having sucked the blood out of every presidency after Lyndon Johnson’s.

Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes get real poundings. So do Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, among influential wingers outside the White House, other members of Congress, appointees to regulatory agencies, and lobbyists for corporations and advocacy organizations, which have grown like kudzu since the Johnson years.

A recent head count of registered lobbyists put them at 35,000. There are many more not registered. “The standard beginning salary for a staffer fresh from Capitol Hill, is $300,000,” Frank writes. Ex-representatives, ex-senators, and elite lawyers get much more.

What could special interests get for such expenses? Plenty.

For example, Frank cites a 2004 Washington Post article stating that a group of the country’s largest companies reportedly paid lobbyists $1.6 million to get a significant change in the tax code. They subsequently saved $100 billion – “which you and I will eventually have to replace in the public treasury,” Frank writes. “These are the wages of conservatism.”

Could it be that was unusual, atypical? A fluke? No.

Frank points out: “When Reagan took over in 1981, he inherited an annual deficit of $59 billion and a national debt of $914 billion; by the time he and his successor George H.W. Bush had finished their work they had quintupled the deficit and pumped the debt up to $4 trillion.”

And that occurred while federal spending on agencies was being “defunded” so that many federal programs that many Americans relied on no longer had any money.

Frank’s favorite punching bags are the wheeler-dealers of the right, like Gingrich, DeLay, and especially the lobbyists Jack Abramof, Howard Phillips, Grover Norquist, and others.

Phillips was the defunder in chief in the 1970s, named by Nixon to be director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). He purged moderate Republicans on the staff and probably would have killed OEO if a judge hadn’t prevented him. Nixon didn’t seem to care. But, Frank writes, when Reagan was elected, defunding “was dusted off and put into mass production.”

By the second term of George W. Bush, the wingers were poised to make all their dreams come true, from ending many school and health programs, workplace safety, etc., to privatizing Social Security.

But the Democrats’ winning Congress in 2006 apparently has intervened.

An especially enjoyable part of the book is the end notes section. Frank often elaborates on his sources at length, and if he thinks you might want even more, he gives it to you.

An unenjoyable part is that the author is Naderish in his refusal to support Democrats and centrist Republicans. He criticizes President Clinton for balancing budgets, and dismisses him as “the most pro-business Democratic president since Grover Cleveland.” He concludes that conservatives have been “choosing money” over “the common good“ for decades, and “[i]t’s time to make them answer for it.”

I’m ready. But he doesn’t say how.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Fenwick Island, Del.

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