saving conservatism

MSM Notes New Currents on the Right.

In an "Ideas and Trends" piece appearing in the New York Times today (July 20), Patricia Cohen reports on matters germane to the very essence of TheNextRight; the evolution of American conservatism in the era after George W. Bush. Some familiar names appear, such as that of David Frum, Christopher DeMuth, and Grand New Party authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. Ms. Cohen aptly describes the issues faced by the conservative movement going forward:

Today, all of these policy cooks — as well as others who sit in nearby offices — are pushing wildly different ideas about which direction the party should take. A.E.I., like so many other bastions of the intellectual right, has returned to the kitchen to whip up a fresh menu of possibilities for disaffected conservatives looking for solutions to emerging problems like energy, the environment and immigration, as well as a way to comfortably fit these new ideas into a conservative ideological framework.

Ms. Cohen even quotes Mr. DeMuth as aptly saying:

We’ve been extremely discouraged by the policy trajectory of the Bush administration, with big increases in unfunded entitlements, big increases in deficit spending, considerable growth in government regulation

Indeed, the ideas piece linked to above goes on to note the division apparent on the Right on even such questions as the legacy and relevance (or lack thereof) of President Reagan to the future and success of conservatism. But, even as the NY Times piece notes, this debate will continue well beyond November 4:

Election day would seem to be the pivotal moment in this debate. Adam Bellow, a conservative book editor, recently argued that “the G.O.P. will not be revived through the efforts of intellectuals but by a talented politician who can build a new majority coalition. When that happens, as eventually it will, the intellectuals will be there to translate his or her political instincts into a new conservative ideology.” But as Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, long a flagship of the right, said: “Whether or not McCain wins, there is going to be a lot of rethinking among conservatives.”

Emphasis mine. Do we yet know the identity of such a politician, or has such a figure yet to emerge? Discuss.  


On Torching the Village

An insidiously stubborn idea has taken hold in some corners of the conservative movement as the Republican Party sets off on its quest to rediscover its identity.  Apparently, after too many hours in the sweat lodge, some conservatives have emerged having experienced apocalyptic visions leading them to believe that in order to restore the true, natural order of things, the conservative movement must set itself ablaze in the hope that new life will spring forth from the ashes.  In order to start the fires, they believe that conservatives must withold support for John McCain and allow Barack Obama to be elected to the White House.

Given the current sorry state of the Republican Party and seeming aimlessness of the conservative movement, I must admit that the imagery conjured up by such thoughts does make it a tempting idea.  But, for the reasons I lay out below (and many others I've yet to consider, I'm sure), it's a bad idea.

The Economy:  The marauders of conservatism believe that John McCain's opposition to the Bush tax cuts in 2001, and his use of what they quite reasonably believe is class warfare rhetoric, prove that he is not an economic conservative.  This leads them to conclude that once in office, McCain will pursue an agenda that will do serious harm to the economy, leading conservatives and the Republican Party to be saddled with the blame, permanently damaging the conservative movement.

So, in order to prevent this damage from occurring, they reason that by allowing Barack Obama to be elected, he will be able to implement an economic policy with the help of a Democrat-controlled House and Senate that will be so disastrous that voters will be chastened by their decision to put them in power, and will never make such a stupid mistake again.  As someone recently put it to me, if the economy is going to tank, it would be better to "let the Democrats take the hit."  This relies on a couple of variables that are far from certain at this point.

First, you have to assume that the economy will actually tank, which given its cyclical nature, is an even bet at best.  In 1992, when Bill Clinton managed to get himself elected to the White House, the economy had already begun a recovery from one of the briefest recessions in the nation's history.  And, while it's true that two years into his administration he managed to lose both houses of Congress, giving control to the GOP for the first time in forty years, it wasn't as a result of the economy's performance so much as it was a visceral rejection of an agenda that tacked far more harshly toward the left than the public was willing to tolerate.  Also, there was a stench of corruption that hung over the administration, as well as a series of embarrassing failures in staffing the cabinet and enacting the Clinton agenda.

So, while it may seem strategic to ghoulishly hope for the collapse of the economy under an Obama administration, it's far from a sure bet.  And, to use the experience of past Democratic administrations as a template is to assume that all of the unpopular, and none of the popular characteristics of those administrations will show up in Obama's.  Furthermore, even in the rosiest (as it were) of scenarios, where the wheel come off the entire operation in the first two years, you have to assume that the Democrats will be blamed and that the GOP will benefit.  Again, this is far from certain, given the success that the Democrats will likely enjoy in the upcoming Congressional elections, despite spiraling gas prices and the struggling economy that have come about during its tenure.

But all of this doesn't in itself point to a rationale for actively supporting John McCain's candidacy.  It only spells out the reasons why conservatives shouldn't bank on Democrat ineptitude as a herald for a conservative resurgence.  So, you may ask, why should conservatives support McCain?

Well, for beginners, McCain has already pledged to maintain the Bush tax cuts beyond their sunset in 2010.  His reasoning for doing so is that he would view their expiration as a de facto tax increase, in which case he is right and there's hardly a conservative who would argue against that point.  So, while many economic/fiscal conservatives may be apprehensive about McCain's enthusiasm for tax cuts, particularly for those in higher brackets, there is at least some solace to be found in his hostility for tax increases.

But, there is also reason for conservatives to support McCain as a tax cutter.  While some may still be dismayed at his past rhetoric in opposition to tax cuts for the highest earners, there is good reason to believe that it was largely politically strategic rather than an expression of deep-seated populist inclinations.  After all, one would be hard pressed to find a single populist in history who favored reducing corporate tax rates from 35% to 25%.  And, one would be even harder pressed to find an economic conservative who wouldn't favor such a cut, which would bring the US closer to corporate tax rates employed by our trading partners and competitors. 

So, while it is unclear that an Obama administration will necessarily bring about economic calamity of such magnitude that it will guarantee a resurgence of conservatism, it seems abundantly clear that McCain's proposed cuts in corporate tax rates, as well as his proposed tax credits for research and development and the first-year deductibility of investment in equipment and technology will provide significant benefits to the economy.  This would certainly have better long term impact than Obama's promise to roll back the tax cuts which President Bush enacted and McCain now pledges to extend.

National Security:  While some conservatives have grown weary of America's involvement in Iraq as a consequence of a poorly managed post-war insurgency, the vast majority still view victory as ultimately attainable and necessary.  Some may argue that America has already lost too much in the pursuit of establishing a democracy in a place where democracy isn't a deeply ingrained tradition and has shown itself to be a rather iffy proposition in the past.  This is a fair point, but in the end, it is not the sole point of the exercise.

Our current presence in the region is largely a consequence of failures in previous administrations to show resolve in America's defense of its interests abroad.  A series of flaccid-to-non-existent responses to challenges and attacks by terrorist groups and a lack of retaliation of any kind against their state sponsors understandably led hostile regimes and their terrorist proxies to feel comfortable that attacks on our interests would bring more benefits than costs.  Therefore, America came to be seen as a weak-willed, impotent behemoth tied down by the lilliputian forces of Islamic fundamentalism and its own fear of ruffling the legalistic feathers of our erstwhile diplomatic allies, as well as our own State Department.

This feckless vision of American foreign policy has already reared its head in Barack Obama's campaign in both its incoherence as well as its reflexive inclination toward appeasement.  Already, we have seen shifting definitions of "pre-condition" and "preparation" along with an overall predisposition toward dialogue with heads of state whose stated desires include the complete destruction of one of our greatest strategic allies, Israel.  Worse still, the dialogue being sought centers around the acquisition of nuclear technology that would no doubt be used to bring about that destruction.  This is akin to police negotiating with a hostage taker over what sort of weapons he is allowed to use and what demands he will be allowed to make before he takes the hostages.

John McCain recognizes this, and has stated flatly that he will not be a party to negotiations with rogue nations until they have demonstrated a cessation of their pursuits and a recognition of Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation.  He understands that sitting across a negotiating table from dangerous thugs only grants them a air of credibility and legitimizes their most nefarious aims.  Barack Obama, on the other hand, would grant a morally level playing field to some of the most repugnant dictators and fanatics the world has ever known on the fatuous assumption that there is some common ground to be found.  History has demonstrated the disastrous folly of granting legitimacy to the aims of those who seek the domination of other nations in pursuit of power and grandeur.

Conservatives who fail to recognize the gravity of the differences between John McCain and Barack Obama on this issue have lost sight of the immense toll that appeasement imposes on nations through the interruption and loss of life.  And, while it may be tempting to hope that the fallout of wrongheaded foreign policy will only be felt by the party that perpetrates it, the potential global devastation that could come as a result of it far exceeds not only the political gains that could possibly be realized from it; it would likely exceed the devastation of any war the world has ever known.

The Courts:  Of all the issues that have take precedence within the conservative movement over the past thirty years, none has been more hard-fought than the shape of the federal courts.  While at times I've been skeptical of the overall influence that the conservative legal community has held over the larger agenda of the movement as a whole, it is undeniably a crucial component of reining in the power and scope of the federal government, which is ultimately the goal of conservatism.  This could very well be the biggest obstacle to conservative support for John McCain, given his history with the Gang of Fourteen and McCain-Feingold.

And, while the issues underlying these matters are of great importance to conservatives, I would submit that the fallout from them is less grave than McCain's most vociferous critics contend.  In the case of the Gang of Fourteen, there is a case to be made that its emergence has been to the overall benefit of conservatives.  While many conservative legal activists were spoiling for a confrontation over the legitimacy of judicial filibusters, it's far from certain, given the composition of the court at the time, that the outcome would have favored Senate Republicans.  Furthermore, given the political climate at the time, it's even less certain that it would have been an issue that reaped any benefits.  And, not to put too fine a point on the matter, considering the composition of the Senate as it currently stands, not to mention as it likely will be come November, the idea of judicial filibusters looks much more palatable than it did a couple of years ago.  McCain's efforts in that regard guaranteed the confirmation of some excellent judges, which is undeniably a good thing.  Sadly, it left a lot of nominations in limbo, but there was no guarantee that many -- if not most -- of those nominations woudln't have simply been rejected.  I would also submit that there is even less certainty that the courts would have intervened in Senate business due to the separation of powers, but that's a debate for another day.

With regard to McCain-Feingold, I was staunchly opposed to its passage just as most conservatives were.  I do feel that it was an unnecessary restriction on free speech rights, and that it was an overreach by the judiciary.  But, the fact remains that the President signed it into law, and the Supreme Court held it to be Constitutional.  Still, that's not the end of the story, as courts have already held that some provisions go to far, and there's no reason to believe that the battle is over on the issue.  Many conservatives question whether or not McCain would be willing to appoint justices who would undermine his signature piece of legislation, and that's a legitimate question in my mind.  However, he has pledged to appoint justices in the mold of Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and he has surrounded himself with some highly respected legal advisors in his campaign.  There is reason for optimism that he appoint solid conservative judges irrespective of how they feel about his campaign finance reform legislation.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has shown absolutely no predisposition toward appointing judges who are even faintly acquainted with the concept of judicial restraint.  In fact, has explicitly expressed a disdain for judicial restraint and shown an inclination toward activism when Justice Alito appeared before the Senate for confirmation:

"Both a [conservative Justice Antonin] Scalia and a Ginsburg will arrive at the same place most of the time," he said during the Roberts confirmation hearings. "What matters at the Supreme Court is those 5% of cases that are truly difficult. In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction will only get you through 25 miles of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works and the depth and breadth of one's empathy.

"In those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge's heart."

Given the sentiments Obama expressed during Alito's confirmation, is there any doubt as to the sort of judges he will seek out in staffing the nation's courts?  And, given the fact that there will likely be two, possibly three, retirements from the Supreme Court in the course of the next four years, how wise is it for conservatives to hope for the worst in order to usher in the best?

The makeup of the court will likely be set for a generation in the next four years.  For conservatives to relinquish the chance to mold the Supreme Court into a more originalist shape in a pique of ideological disillusionment would not only constitute a missed opportunity, but would compound the problems that we face today, and perpetuate them for another 20 - 30 years.  Given the resources that have been expended on this front, and the enormity of the consequences of surrender, it would seem unthinkable to any conservative to cede this unique opportunity to place conservative justices on the court, rather than allow another generation of judicial activism to take hold, possibly never to be undone.

So, while many conservatives are dismayed with the Republican Party as it now exists, there is no benefit to be gained by sentencing another generation to a life of unfettered liberal activism in the courts, the consequences of an incompetent, incoherent foreign policy, and the confiscatory taxes and ever-increasing burden of entitlement spending that will be foisted on it by a Democratic president seeking to undo what precious little has been accomplished in our most recent squandered opportunity.  Now is not the time to punish America in the quest to mete out recriminations against politicians, no matter how badly they betrayed us.  It's a time to plow forward and redouble our efforts in bringing honest, genuine, principled conservative governance to the people.  As bad as things may seem in the village today, burning it down is not going to save it.

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