With CPAC upon us, I had wanted to write a state-of-the-movement piece, and describing what I felt had gone wrong. But I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw this:
It could have been like any other of the hundreds of pieces I had seen in the last few months touting Joe's latest exploits. Joe the Plumber -- a one or two day campaign gimmick -- has become a poster boy for conservatism. To say that the McCain campaign milked Joe Wurzelbacher's story and then some would be the understatement of the century. Now, conservatives are making him a foreign war correspondent and he is sure to be feted at CPAC -- so I'm sure to get a certain amount of grief for what I'm writing now.
If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was.
A movement self-confident in its place in American society would not have made Joe the Plumber a bigger story than he actually was. Since its very beginnings as a movement, conservatism has bought into liberalism's dominant place in the American political process. They controlled all the major institutions: the media, academia, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, large segments of the Republican Party, and consequently, the government. Liberalism's image of conservatives in the '50s and '60s as paranoid Birchers gave birth to a conservative movement self-conscious of its minority status. As in any tribe that is small in number and can't fully trust its most natural allies (i.e. the business community or the Republican Party), the meta-debate of who is inside and outside the tribe is magnified exponentially.
The legacy of that early movement -- alive and well at CPAC and in the conservative institutions that still exist today -- is one driven inordinately by this question of identity. We have paeans to Reagan (as if we needed to be reminded again of just how much things suck in comparison today), memorabilia honoring 18th century philosophers that we wouldn't actually wear in the outside world, and code-word laden speeches that focus on a few hot button issues that leave us ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively on 80% of issues when we actually do get elected.
This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority's main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile. The one that spawned the Cult of Joe the Plumber was the meme that Republicans want tax cuts only for the rich and that we don't stand for working Americans. When find a highly visible figure who contradicts this notion, we swing into action. And we go on to press the argument to the point to absurdity, replete with plungers and custom "Joe" yard signs to prove our working class chops. These are the not the marks of a movement that assumes it operates (or should operate) from a position of political and cultural supremacy.
This is so different than the psychology of the left. The left assumes that it is culturally superior and the natural party of government and fights aggressively to frame any conservative incursion on that turf as somehow alien and unnatural. (The "Oh God..." whisper being the perfect illustration.) They dominate Hollywood not by actively branding liberalism in their movies, but by cooly associating liberal policy ideas with sentiments everyone feels, like love (gay marriage) or fairness (the little guy vs. some evil corporate stiff). Though I think Andrew Breitbart is spot on in raising a red flag on the threat we face in Hollywood, I fear that the conservative movement of today would only produce a response as agitprop and sarcastic as the Joe the Plumber phenomenon. In other words, some amusing slapstick comedies but not sweeping cultural epics that will be remembered 50 years from now. When you assume liberals are dominant culturally, you tend toward sarcasm or one-off gimmicks to knock the majority of its game -- but never an all encompassing argument for conservative cultural and political relevance -- something we have lacked for a long time, since Buckley was in his prime.
Conservatives should not need Joe the Plumber to prove their middle class bona fides. We are naturally the party of the middle, and we don't need gimmicks to prove it. Demographically, Democrats rely on being the party of the upper sixth and the lower third, while Republicans tend to do better with everyone in between. When we start losing the middle class and the suburbs, we lose big like we did in 2008.
Put another way, Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans -- the people in the middle culturally and economically. This is true of our leadership as well -- we have a history of nominating figures who came first from outside politics. Our base is the common-sense voter in the middle who bought a house she could afford and didn't lavishly overspend in good times and who is now subsidizing the person who didn't.
When you think about it, a majority built around this solid middle-American base should beat the disjointed liberal rich/poor coalition. This sense of frugality, orderliness, and personal responsibility is something everything aspires to in difficult times. This is why Obama's pitch is fundamentally off-key if framed correctly. People's first instincts in a recession are not to overspend, but to tighten their belts. Obama's address last night assumed that no one is responsible for anything, except maybe corporate CEOs. The banks as institutions are not ultimately responsible. People who took out risky mortgages are not responsible. The Administration is not responsible for sharing in the pain by postponing longer-term projects like health care. And even if they are, everything in a recession is subsumed to the need to throw money at the problem in an attempt to stabilize the system. The risk for Obama in embracing the bailout mentality is that it catches up to you: this is not how ordinary people act in their daily lives without major consequences down the road.
In these serious times, conservatives need to get serious and ditch the gimmicks and the self-referential credentializing and talk to the entire country. If the average apolitical American walked into CPAC or any movement conservative gathering would they feel like they learned something new or that we presented a vision compelling to them in their daily lives? Or would it all be talk of a President from 25 years ago and Adam Smith lapel pins? This is why I love Newt's emphasis on finding 80/20 issues and defining them in completely non-ideological terms. We need to advance our ideas without ever once saying the word "conservative" or "Republican" in a speech. We need to define these ideas not as conservative, but as American. We need to be confident, like the left is, that we are the natural governing party because our ideas are in alignment with basic American principles, and quit treating middle class, working class, or rural Americans like an interest group to be mollified by symbolic, substance-free BS.