April 28, 2005

Practical Conservatism

Dan Drezner had a post yesterday on "Rethinking Conservatism" that I feel obligated to link to, only because I was responsible for putting the Eggs Benedict joke on his discussion thread about the new Pope the other day.

Dan and Andrew Sullivan have been having a discussion on American conservatism that reminds me of why "academic" is one of my least favorite words. It's not so much that their respective arguments are wrong, but rather that they are prone to regard the real as an annoying distraction from the philosophical.

Let's talk about real conservatism in American history for a moment. The first thing to observe is that it is a tremendously flexible concept. The Revolution was fought to preserve traditional liberties against usurpation by the British Crown; Abraham Lincoln accepted the most devastating war in our history and ultimately the abolition of slavery to preserve the Union. Theodore Roosevelt worked to defend the Republic against the dangers of concentrations of private power. Republicans of the interwar period campaigned against binding foreign entanglements, while the Nixon administration worked to preserve and expand them. Republicans in the 1980s championed radical tax reform as a way to defend the tax code from being overwhelmed by the claims of special interests, and from the mid-1990s onward have repeatedly championed measures to defend special interests from being burdened by the tax code. And of course modern Republicans have both campaigned against large federal deficits and insisted on them.

At each point arguments could have been (and usually were) made that the course being followed was not truly conservative. Moreover, anyone familiar with the Democratic Party's long history of dependence on slaveholders and segregationists or its slide from Achesonian internationalism to woolly McGovernism will recognize that such arguments are not unique to the Republican Party or uniquely about the meaning of "conservative." Ideological confusion in America is nothing new, and is one reason this country has been spared most of the horrors that ideological clarity and coherence have inflicted on Europe, Asia, and Africa over the years.

The second thing to consider is the idea that we can separate how we think of what being conservative means from public personalities. In the real world, we can't do this because most people don't do this. Republican Party politics in particular have two imperatives for men aspiring to be President: they must appear as strong leaders, and they must stand up to the Democrats and the liberal media. ("Stand up," by the way, is one of those flexible political terms. "Fight" is another one. Standing up to a party or interest can mean anything from entering a staff-written statement into the Congressional Record to denouncing one's adversary before one's own supporters to getting legislation enacted. Usually it is used in a way consistent with "Madonna politics," where the important thing is to strike a pose).

The most successful Republican politicians act on these imperatives without qualm or hesitation. Once they are accepted by Republican voters they have considerable flexibility to define what "conservative" means for Republicans -- and therefore for the rest of the country, since non-Republicans and especially the media think of Republicans as the conservative party. Polls of Republicans at the height of the Nixon, Reagan, and younger Bush Presidencies would have showed overwhelming faith that each of these men were conservatives despite their many differences; conversely GOP leaders seen as less than strong (Ford, the elder Bush) or too ready to cooperate with Democrats (Dole) are invariably seen by many within the party as insufficiently conservative and have attracted challengers for that reason.

But if "conservative" is a flexible term to begin with, and if some of that flexibility has to do with the ability of conservative leaders to drive its definition in the direction they want it to go, what happens when you have a leader of conservatives who either has no strong view of what conservatism ought to mean or for whatever reason takes it down a dead end?

This is a timely question. President Bush may often use language with an identifiable ideological provenance, but he is no ideologue. He is instead a product of modern campaign politics, acutely attuned to the mechanics of the permanent campaign and (as we discussed yesterday) so enthusiastic about campaigning itself that he continues to do it even when it appears not to be accomplishing anything. He is not alone; prominent Republican politicians from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on down are much more tightly focused on the requirements of fundraising, organization and stoking the enthusiasm of their most fervent supporters than they are on any policy initiative or direction.

This orientation can lead to a vacuum, and filling vacuums has been one of the leitmotifs of Bush's Presidency. After the fall of the Taliban next steps against terrorism were either unclear or prosaic; the Iraq invasion was something dramatic to fill the vacuum. Without plans of his own for organizing homeland security after 9/11 or much interest in investigating what went wrong, Bush filled the vacuum by adopting Congressional ideas for a Homeland Security Department and a 9/11 Commission. We saw yesterday how much his campaign for changes in Social Security is influenced by the lack of other potentially popular domestic policy ideas. Like the interminable list of micro-initiatives that came out of the Clinton White House beginning in 1997, this kind of improvisation leaves no clear trail for partisans to follow. Democrats today never talk about emulating their erstwhile leader's courage on the school uniform issue; Bush's seat-of-the-pants improvisations are unlikely to leave much more of a legacy for Republicans.

Then there is the dead end problem. I don't mean to suggest in any way that Bush was not intent from the beginning on cutting taxes. He is rich, most of his family and friends are rich, his most important political supporters are rich. I have every reason to believe that support for cutting the taxes of people in the higher income groups is for Bush a matter of deep conviction. With massive deficits projected far into the future, the costs of the baby boomers' retirement not yet fully accounted for and the alternative minimum tax problem still not dealt with, however, the tax cut highway has just about run out of pavement. Similarly, democratizing the Arab world however noble a cause is a cause being paid for -- every cent of it -- with borrowed money. That can't continue indefinitely either.

I said before that Republican voters demand of their leaders that they appear as strong leaders and stand up to Democrats and the media. To leave a lasting imprint on the definition of conservatism, though, they need to actually be strong leaders, not just appear that way. Goldwater, through his clarity of expression, was; Nixon certainly was before he destroyed himself in the Watergate affair; Reagan was.

George Bush is not. Republican politicians mimic his campaign tactics and methods (it is, incidentally, a mistake to assign credit for these entirely to Karl Rove. Had Bush been foreign born or otherwise ineligible to run for the Presidency himself he could have made a good living as a campaign consultant), but as President his policies don't leave them much to excite activists in their future campaigns.

In an irony, this vacuum is being filled by organized interest groups, moving the Republican Party in a direction Democrats will find familiar from their own party's history. This is the significance of what for some Republicans was the humiliating Schiavo stampede, in which the leaders of some evangelical organizations demanded federal action to overturn repeated rulings of Florida state judges in a matter that had been adjudicated for years in Florida courts. Republican politicians led by Frist leaped to obey, and were genuinely nonplussed to find that most of the public thought their reaction inappropriate.

This kind of thing has been happening to Democrats for many years, especially in Presidential campaigns. Democratic candidates campaign for months to assure specific interest groups of their enthusiastic loyalty; the candidate who best succeeds at this gets nominated and proceeds to lose in November, baffled at having failed to persuade voters that he is after all a strong leader. Of course a strong leader, one who might slight their concerns or even ignore them once elected, is the last thing "the groups" (as Zell Miller calls them) want. Republicans are heading down that same road now.

Now, there are some people -- organized interest groups on the Democratic side, people like Andrew Sullivan focused on just one issue, and a number of commentators who are easily frightened -- who see in evangelicals' political activity an attempt to assert the dominance of a "conservatism of faith." The word theocracy has even been mentioned, along with lurid and unflattering comparisons of American evangelicals to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

This is all nonsense. What evangelicals are evolving into is another organized interest group. Like other groups they have their priorities and agenda, and like other interest groups they -- or more accurately their leaders -- will dictate to politicians and demand 100% loyalty if they are allowed to get away with it. Politicians who deal primarily with group leaders, seeking their support in low-turnout elections that can easily turn on the votes of a relatively small number of activists, will be inclined to let them get away with it, and indeed may see no alternative.

But on the national level Republican candidates have always had their greatest success when they have appealed to national values, and spoken to the members of interest groups over the heads of the groups' leaders. It is no accident that the most politically successful Republican Presidents of the last century included two war heroes and a celebrity from the entertainment industry: people who could speak not as representatives of conservatism in any of its forms but as Americans who chose conservatism because they thought it right.

Dan Drezner may be able to explain what this has to do with Thomas Hobbes. I confess to his having lost me on that connection the first time around. Obviously I am less interested in philosophical foundations than in finding a path for practical conservatism in a political environment dominated by the permanent campaign, in which over time organized interests will come to represent the same dominant influence within the Republican Party that they long have in the Democratic.

Posted by at April 28, 2005 05:12 PM | TrackBack (21)
Comments

The Revolution was fought to preserve traditional liberties against usurpation by the British Crown

c'mon. First off, the "liberites" that the Revolutionary War was fought for were far from "traditional"; if anything, secular democracy is probably the most radical single political idea in history.

Throughout the post WWII era until Bush came along, "conservative" meant "small government and responsible fiscal policies." All of the domestic policies ('states rights', low taxes, anti-communism, etc) advocated by "conservatives" were defined by those two principles.

ALthough I'm far from a "conservative", it is easy to recognize that there is a rational basis for "traditional" conservative policies --- they weren't the best policies (IMHO), but at least they made sense. (Even Reagan's ridiculous "supply side economics" was based on the premise that it was "responsible fiscal policy").

The modern Republican party no longer has any moral or ethical foundation --- it has its roots in Nixon's "Southern strategy" which was possibly the most amoral and cynical political strategy in American history, insofar as it was specifically designed to appeal to racists solely because their votes were up for grabs. The "new GOP" sees the accumulation of power as an end in itself; and sees anything that limits the exercise of its power as "wrong."


Posted by: p.lukasiak at April 28, 2005 10:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A weak leader would have found a way to have bailed out from Iraq by now. Bush has not done so. Meanwhile, the Democrats were screaming "exit strategy" throughout the 2004 election campaign, the classic mark of the man fighting not to lose. The conduct of war is the acid test of leadership, and so far, Bush is continuing to prosecute the war in Iraq as well as the larger GWOT despite the casualties and the criticism from the Left.

The notion that Bush is not a strong leader because he does not fit your notion of what a conservative should be is fatuous.

Posted by: Section9 at April 28, 2005 11:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Section9, "stubborn" and "strong" are not synonyms.

An "exit strategy" wasn't necessary in WW2, but in a conflict without clearly defined enemies or goals, it's a valid concern. We ostensibly fought this war to eliminate Saddam's WMD's bring liberty and democracy to Iraq, and our beneficiaries are certainly VERY interested in our exit strategy, and whether we let the door hit our asses on our way out.

As for "the conduct of war is the acid test of leadership"---considering the extensively documented bungling of this war, that is a very odd thing for a Bush supporter to be saying.

Posted by: Anderson at April 28, 2005 11:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

(Strikethrough tags for "eliminate Saddam's WMD" inoperative, alas.)

Posted by: Anderson at April 28, 2005 11:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The modern Republican party no longer has any moral or ethical foundation --- it has its roots in Nixon's "Southern strategy" which was possibly the most amoral and cynical political strategy in American history, insofar as it was specifically designed to appeal to racists solely because their votes were up for grabs."--p.lukasiak

The GOP "Southern strategy", such as it ever was, in connection to an appeal to an allegedly racist segment of the electorate, is surely a thing of the past, and it is as erroneous to impugn the modern-day Republican party with such a charge as it would be to tarnish the Democrats with same.

After all, who were Southern racists voting for before they decided to support the Republicans? The Democrats, of course. No one could accuse the Republican party of the Civil War era (or for some 100 years thereafter) with having a "Southern" strategy, unless it was an appeal to disaffected blacks in the South. Then, it was the Democrats who effected a Southern strategy, I suppose.

But even in the time frame referred to by p.lukasiak (the Nixon era) things were never as clear cut as he suggests. You might think, on the basis of his comment, that George Wallace's highly successful campaign in 1972(!), prior to his being shot, was for the Republican nomination. Instead, he ran as a Democrat.

As to the charge that the contemporary GOP has no moral foundation...

Under the leadership of the President, the GOP is now the party that stands for the promotion of what p.lukasiak terms "the most radical single political idea in history", i.e. secular democracy, throughout all the world.

President Bush has oft repeated the thought that "freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty's gift to all mankind", thereby aligning himself with the rhetoric of Jefferson in the Declaration.

The Republican party has for years opposed abortion, asserting that the Creator's endowment of a right to life (again, to use Jefferson's phraseology) must be respected as much in the case of the unborn as of the born.

If there is a party in America today that advocates living in accordance with a moral law, surely it is the GOP, since most Democrats seem to disdain and even fear the very idea of there being any moral law whatever, and surely not one that stems from a "Creator", as Jefferson maintained.

Now, disagree if you will with the moral foundation of the GOP, but please don't tell us that it has none.

Posted by: Jen at April 29, 2005 12:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Re p.lukasiak's point :

"c'mon. First off, the "liberites" that the Revolutionary War was fought for were far from "traditional";"

That is not the point. You may well be right. But a common argument at the time /was/ that ancient liberty was being usurped. This is an battle cry that gets repeated throughout history - new "innovations" versus our "ancient rights" (viz. "Norman Yoke", enclosure, ship tax in England etc.).

Excellent post Joseph.

I think a similar warning was issued in the recent book "The Right Nation" [1], in particular about the dangers of the Republican's being caught in the "special interest" web. K Street springs to mind I believe.

[1] Highly recommended book

Posted by: Alastair Sherringham at April 29, 2005 12:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

p.lukasiak - got yourself banned from Winds of Change (http://www.windsofchange.net/archives/006718.php) and thought you'd troll here, eh? Don't waste these guys time making them set up marshals to "carry... your cyber-ass out of here feet first."

Posted by: Tina at April 29, 2005 01:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Alas, Tina - it's like any other virus: some damn link or another brought him here. Most likely from the portal that greg opened to the "arsenal of democracy" last month.

Oh, well.

Posted by: Tommy G at April 29, 2005 01:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Tina: As far as I am concerned you are the real troll, bringing the internal business of another website over to this one. I for one don't care one whit what took place on the comments section at Wingnuts of Change.

Tina & Tommy G.: Why don't the two of you do us all a favor and head on over to Wingnuts of Change where you can comment in a "safer" and more structured environment, under the watchful and protective eye of Joe Katzenberger and his stupid little "posse" of blog-comment "moderators".

Posted by: Art at April 29, 2005 01:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Guys, I don't mind criticism, and I'm sure posters on this board don't either. But you all know boards on other sites have deteriorated when posters start indulging in content-free abuse of one another. That's not going to happen here. Watch it.

Posted by: JEB at April 29, 2005 02:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The GOP "Southern strategy", such as it ever was, in connection to an appeal to an allegedly racist segment of the electorate, is surely a thing of the past, and it is as erroneous to impugn the modern-day Republican party with such a charge as it would be to tarnish the Democrats with same.

After all, who were Southern racists voting for before they decided to support the Republicans? The Democrats, of course. No one could accuse the Republican party of the Civil War era (or for some 100 years thereafter) with having a "Southern" strategy, unless it was an appeal to disaffected blacks in the South. Then, it was the Democrats who effected a Southern strategy, I suppose.

its unfortunate that many Republicans are in denial about the Southern strategy --- and pretend that it doesn't still exist and is effective.

The Confederacy lasted for about 5 years. Yet tens of millions of white Southerners still define themselves in terms of the Confederacy, and more importantly celebrate what they should be ashamed of. When a presidential candidate kicks off his campaign in South Carolina at a college that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 1960s three decades after the nation had reached consensus on Civil Rights, you are looking at the "Southern Strategy" in all of its "glory." And when states continue to use the Stars and Bars as part of their symbolic identity, you know why the "Southern Strategy" is still effective.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at April 29, 2005 11:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here's hoping that JEB will keep a place that's open to debate.

The cunning realist (http://cunningrealist.blogspot.com/) said recently that there are times when being conservative is not congruent with being a Republican, and that now is one of those times.

I think we're starting to see the limits of lock-step loyalty to one man. Part of that is structural; he's a lame duck after all. Part of that has to do with party alignment in Congress; there are fewer Ds to give bi-partisan cover to R ideas because many of the seats that once crossed the aisle are now held by Republicans. Part of that is separation of powers; we are currently finding out if Senators will stand up for their institution or if the temporary majority of Republicans will succeed in its attempt to foist parliamentary rule on the United States. Part of it has to do with the fights that the present administration has chosen to pick; Social Security is something they chose to do, for instance. And part of it really does have to do with principles; tax cuts forever in the face of deficits as far as the eye can see is not conservative, prudent fiscal management.

It will be interesting to see how Republicans, elected and voting, deal with these problems.

Posted by: Doug at April 29, 2005 11:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JEB:

The way for "practical conservatism" is to find a billionaire to adopt the philosophy as his own, and be willing to fund it through think tanks, support of candidates, etc. That's going to be difficult. Billionaires who get intoxicated with politics (Soros) often get rather extremist in their views, because they have no reason to modify them.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at April 29, 2005 03:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"... and more importantly celebrate what they should be ashamed of"?

Yikes - more mind reading. But at least now it can be told. 50 some odd citizens pulled the lever for the president because they were unknowinf racist, cleverly manipulated by Mr. Rove.

Brilliant analysis, Lukasiak. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

Posted by: Tommy G at April 30, 2005 02:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Take 2...

"... and more importantly celebrate what they should be ashamed of"?

Yikes - more mind reading. But at least now it can be told. 50 MILLION some odd citizens pulled the lever for the president because they were unknowinf racist, cleverly manipulated by Mr. Rove.

Brilliant analysis, Lukasiak. Thanks for clearing that up for us.


Posted by: Tommy G at April 30, 2005 02:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Anderson,

Unlike some others here, I'm not a mind reader, so I can't tell if your silliness is inadvertant or deliberate. Either way:

1. There's ample documentation that all the non-wmd issues were an important part of the justification for Iraq; indeed WMD was added to the mix somewhat late. If you can't find examples of this, or can't read or understand what you do find...

2. Your concern about "extensively documented bungling of this war" might have something to it, if there were the slightest evidence that the war was different, in this aspect, from every single previous war in history. Really, the ball's in your court on this one: demonstrate away, if you can!

Posted by: cp at April 30, 2005 10:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

cp: Just for the record, no historian uses the fact that most wars in history see things go wrong to excuse Burnside at Fredericksburg, MacArthur's blind charge to the Yalu or Westmoreland's attrition tactics in Vietnam. It's true that some things in war cannot be foreseen, but that is not to be used as an excuse for failure.

Posted by: JEB at May 1, 2005 06:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Fantastic commentary.

Posted by: REL at May 2, 2005 09:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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