Noam Scheiber has a nuanced take on cronyism in the George Bush and Michael Brown era:
[I]f you happen to think bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people’s lives, and if you have contempt for the kinds of people who reside in them, then you have two choices: You can either slash the bureaucracy and refund taxpayers’ money, or you can reconcile yourself to the existence of bureaucracy and run it as a patronage operation. (If, by definition, a bureaucracy can’t get any less competent, you might as well make appointments that benefit you personally or politically.)
He notes that all administrations have some degree of cronyism—every president brings in close friends and trusted advisers to the White House, because they need people they can rely on. What distinguishes the Bush administration, and what distinguished the Reagan administration, was what Scheiber calls “outer-circle cronyism”:
The focus here isn’t so much on handing out jobs to dubiously qualified friends and associates–that is, to one’s own cronies. It’s on handing out jobs to cronies of cronies, which increases the scale of the cronyism exponentially. The Clinton administration was relatively free of this pestilence. (Clinton’s appointments were largely meritocratic even when they involved people in his extended social network.) The Bush administration is infested with it.
I think he’s being too easy on the Clinton adminstration (see this piece for some Clinton crony nostalgia), but “infested” is apt for the current regime. One big fear here is that enough ineptitude among government bureaucracies will make enough people believe, eventually, that government bureaucracies simply can’t work, and that “slash the bureaucracy ” is the way to go. Not everyone thinks this is the likely outcome of the Bush era: In the Wall Street Journal today, Stephen Moore argues the party of Reagan is fast becoming the party of Roosevelt and big-government liberalism: “FEMA, despite its woeful performance, will grow in size and stature. So will the welfare state. Welcome to the new New Dealism of the GOP.” It’s a common prediction, and it has some validity—after Bush’s Katrina speech, any conservative who advocates scaling back government will be situated far outside the political mainstream—but I worry that the eventual fallout from all this cronyism and dysfunction will be yet another Reagan-esque backlash, similar to the small-government backlash that came after the Nixon administration. The backlash is never sustainable in the long run—people fundamentally like having the government do stuff for them—but in the short run it pushes the country ever further to the right.