The intensification of the internecine wars among the Democrats and the Republicans throughout the 2008 primary process has raised my eyebrows a bit, and not in a good way.
On the Dem side, the battle seems to be less about ideology — there’s really not a dime’s worth of difference between Clinton, Edwards or Obama, philosophy-wise — than about personality. Specifically, Hillary’s personality, and that of her co-president, Bill. The pundits are making hay about the tarnishing of her aura of inevitability, but in truth, the Democratic Party faces a real challenge that tends to get short shrift among the commentariat: What type of politics do they want? Not, what type of political agenda do they want; it’s clear that all of them fall to the center-left in terms of outcome, if not in tactics. Rather, this race is shaping up to be a generational, philosophical dispute between the Liberal Boomer crowd (with the Clinton dynasty at the helm, and their “politics of meaning” coupled with an FDR-esque belief in the ameliorative power of government) and the younger, more progressive bunch — the Obamamaniacs, and devotees of Michael Moore — whose statism is a byproduct rather than the centerpiece of their distrust of non-elective (economic, social) power in hands other than their own, and focused on pursuits other than those of which they approve.
Who will prevail? That remains to be seen. The Clintons are superlative politicians, and their pragmatic centrism after the collapse of Hillary’s healthcare reform initiative, even at the expense of their neo-Great Society ambitions, demonstrated a lust for personal power that outweighed their commitment to core ideological principles. Exhibit A: welfare reform. Although there is a certain amount of Clinton fatigue that still permeates the electorate (or so it’s said), the policy objectives of, say, John Edwards are untenable to the Democratic Party elders who decide who decides. Perhaps in time, the “politics of hope” might prevail, but for now, the deep-seated anger and the strategic irresponsibility of the MoveOn.org gang makes their political success both unlikely and dangerous. And I suspect that many senior Democrats know that; certainly, Joe Lieberman does.
More interesting is the Republican side. With Fred Thompson’s tumble, the role of ideology in the nomination process has become more intense, and as such, the traditional civility of intraparty debate has begun to fray. Noticeably.
Witness the sniping in recent weeks between Rush Limbaugh and David Brooks. Or among the National Review bloggers. Or between Bill Kristol and whoever he happens to disagree with that week. What used to be at least polite debate among the major players is becoming increasingly strained, and the reason has to do less with the Republican Party per se and more with the future of conservatism as a coherent political-philosophy program in U.S. politics.
Part of the issue seems to rest with Reynaldus Magnus himself. Reagan inherited a Republican Party that was dominated by the Northeastern elites, who tended center-left on social issues, were strong on national defense and anti-communism, and advocated greater fiscal discipline … but, significantly, lacked the courage of their convictions to do anything other than serve as the loyal opposition to the reigning Democrats.
Reagan’s achievement — which had its roots in Goldwater’s campaign — was to bring in the evangelicals and other latent-but-apolitical social conservatives into the Republican Party fold and thus build an electoral coalition that was finally able to completely knock the Democratic Party out of national power in 2000. He did this by emphasizing a policy approach that, in its heyday, could win the support of a wide swath of the electorate, but partly by promising much yet delaying gratification for another day. Supply-side economics in the post-Carter years had a practical effect more profound than the Bush tax cuts of today; Reagan’s opposition to the Soviet Union, which was echoed by Margaret Thatcher and John Paul the Great, allowed for a burst of national pride and military resurgance after the Vietnam humiliation. Reagan’s easy personal style, after the haughtiness of LBJ, the deviousness of Nixon, and the outward weakness of Ford and Carter, inspired confidence among middle Americans. In short, Reagan could prevail because America was in relatively bad shape in the late 1970s, and he did an admirable job of changing course not only in real terms, but in the fuzzier realm of the hearts and minds of average citizens.
Reagan was succeeded by George H.W. Bush, who was the epitome of Northeastern liberal Republicanism. Bush’s success was tempered by two major problems — his partial abandonment of supply-side economics, and his excessive multilateralism in the Persian Gulf that left Saddam Hussein’s regime to fester for another decade, to disastrous result. Bush was championed by Republicans, but his conservative support wasn’t at 100 percent, especially after stopping the push to Baghdad.
The Great Clinton Interregnum between the Bush presidencies allowed conservatism to flower in a way that it couldn’t for almost a century. The 1994 sweep of Congress put Newt Gingrich in the Speaker’s chair, and turned the Senate into the hands of the GOP. This was the era of social conservatives — the apogee of evangelical power, and the Time of Troubles for Democrats during Clinton’s impeachment debacle. Conservative Republicans passed welfare reform, lowered taxes, cut spending, and stymied the remaining leftist ambitions of the administration.
Then came George W. Bush. Actually, the first sign of trouble came with the nomination process in 2000 — the contest was between Bush, the Texas governor, and John McCain, the Arizona senator. In that mix, a serious conservative contender in Reaganesque garb never appeared. In a close election, Bush prevailed over Al Gore, but the Republican Party under Bush began a slow degeneration into cronyism and incompetence mirroring that of his administration. Principle was shunted for partisan advantage, particularly after many of the major policy goals of the Republican coalition were met, and people winked-and-nodded as loyalty was promoted over innate ability. This ongoing shift away from the Reagan legacy was masked by 9/11 and the rhetoric of the War on Terror; conservatives of every stripe (except the paleocons and various holdouts at NR) could rally around terrorism — conveniently elevated to the status of a civilization-defining clash — and make it the sole litmus test for the still-intertwined conservative movement and Republican Party. But important issues apart from the War on Terror festered, and came to a boil in 2006.
Peggy Noonan wrote in last week’s WSJ that the real problem underlying the current sniping among the GOP punditocracy is the unwillingness of various commentators to honestly acknowledge that political conservatism was severely damaged by Bush himself. She wrote: “George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues.”
The lady has a point.
The Maja Rushie has made it clear he’s no longer carrying the GOP’s water; he is a conservative, and he’s fighting for the movement first and the party second. In Limbaugh’s view, the present Republican field is not deeply conservative, and he hasn’t spared words of disaffection for McCain and Huckabee, especially, regarding their relative infidelity to conservative principles. Yet, Sean Hannity seems to think that all the leading contenders are adequately conservative. National Review’s editorial board supports Mitt Romney; the pro-lifers best candidate was Fred Thompson. John McCain gets the nod from the Boston Globe and Sam Brownback, while Rudy Giuliani picked up Pat Robertson’s endorsement. What’s the average conservative to think?
Part of the problem is that the conservative movement is segmenting, even if not wholly fragmenting. Limbaugh is probably correct; the Reagan coalition is in danger of fracturing, and Noonan has upped the ante by noting that George W. Bush is a major (but not sole) reason for this. The pending possible conservative schism was illustrated most succinctly by the trite-but-not-quite-wrong piece by David Frum that appeared in Friday’s NYT. He argued that economic, social, and national-defense (neocon) agendas are now in competition; the economic conservatives lament the growth in spending and earmarks, the social conservatives believe their chief aims have not been put on center stage despite the boots-on-the-ground way they pushed the GOP into power in 1994, and the neocons argue that we’re not serious enough about the war or the War and that all else is a distraction.
Of course, none of the candidates is the ideal choice for all three major conservative constituencies. McCain and Giuliani do well enough on national-defense and economic issues, but leave the social conservatives cold. Huckabee makes the social conservatives chortle with glee, but his economic and foreign-policy platforms make the economic and national-defense conservatives choke with gloom. No candidate is poised to unite the three major legs of the GOP stool.
Noonan’s assertion about the overblown character of fears that the 2008 race spells the demise of the GOP or the conservative movement, is well-founded. Frum is right that the competing constituencies are less likely to accede to a suboptimal, compromise choice if their own pet causes continue to get short shrift. Limbaugh is indisputably true in his observation that a conservative in the Reagan mold has not appeared in this election cycle.
We must now ask Lenin’s question: What is to be done?
There is a temptation among some conservatives to let the GOP be handed its ass on a platter by Hillary Clinton; the thinking seems to be that a solid defeat and four years of another Clinton administration will somehow magically make the next Reagan appear. This is wrong-headed; defeat — especially when you throw the race out of spite — merely intensifies internal bickering and reduces, rather than increases, the odds that a unifier will appear on the stage and bask in the warm glow of happy fraternity.
Perhaps the best thing that the GOP can do is to examine its core philosophical beliefs, and perhaps consider returning to them. The Party took the conservative movement for granted, with GOP elites in Washington doing the very sorts of ingratiating activities — getting cozy with lobbyists, pork-barrel spending, logrolling — that caused the backlash against the DNC in 1994. If a Republican candidate with the authority to leverage the Party and the movement tries convincingly to end earmarks, to keep taxes low, and to aggressively cut spending, he will earn the support of economic conservatives. If this candidate wins Iraq and applies tough but multilateral pressures against rogue regimes across the world, while increasing America’s military readiness and securing the border, he will get the respect of foreign-policy conservatives. If this candidate takes a strong line in defense of unborn human life and political and religious liberty — especially through judicial nominations — he will purchase the goodwill of social conservatives.
The formula is simple: Spending restraint, low taxes, a strong national defense, tough but multilateral foreign policy, a commitment to pro-life and family-friendly policy, closed borders, and the spread of liberty at home and abroad. And to advocate these things consistently and proudly, without coming to the light the weekend before filing papers with the FEC.
None of today’s GOP candidates are preaching this formula. But surely most movement conservatives can agree to it as a package, and to refrain from catty infighting even as we recruit and grow candidates who do match this model. We might have to suffer imperfection until the next best choice appears, but for now, a Romney or McCain candidacy will not be the end of the party, the movement, or the world.
Unless, of course, conservatives allow it.