Romney’s caricatured, unreconstructed, ingenue conservatism confronts McCain-Huckabee-Giuliani’s Conservatism 2.0
Now, point and counterpoint.
Point: […] “Much of this chaos [of the primary contests] is attributable to the fact that this is a very flawed field, or at least one ill-suited for the times we’re in,” writes Jonah Goldberg in a WaPo editorial titled Cloudy fortunes for conservatism
If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then this year’s Republican field looks downright dromedarian. This slate of candidates has everything a conservative designer could want — foreign policy oomph, business acumen, Southern charm, Big Apple chutzpah, religious conviction, outsider zeal, even libertarian ardor — but all so poorly distributed. As National Review put it in its editorial endorsement of Romney (I am undecided, for the record): “Each of the men running for the Republican nomination has strengths, and none has everything — all the traits, all the positions — we are looking for.”
But conservatives should contemplate the possibility that the fault lies less in the stars — or the candidates — than in ourselves. Conservatism, quite simply, is a mess these days. Conservative attitudes are changing. Or, more accurately, the attitudes of people who call themselves conservatives are changing.
The most cited data to prove this point come from the Pew Political Typology survey. By 2005, it had found that so many self-described conservatives were in favor of government activism that they had to come up with a name for them. “Running-dog liberals” apparently seemed too pejorative, so the survey went with “pro-government conservatives,” a term that might have caused Ronald Reagan to spontaneously combust. This group makes up just under 10 percent of registered voters and something like a third of the Republican coalition. Ninety-four percent of pro-government conservatives favored raising the minimum wage, as did 79 percent of self-described social conservatives. Eight out of 10 pro-government conservatives believe that the government should do more to help the poor and slightly more than that distrust big corporations.
There’s more evidence elsewhere. As former Bush speechwriter David Frum documents in his new book, “Comeback,” income taxes are no longer a terribly serious concern among conservative voters. Young Christian conservatives and others are increasingly eager to bring a faith-based activism to government. As the conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru recently noted in Time, younger evangelicals are more likely to oppose abortion than their parents were, but they are also more likely to look kindly on government-run anti-poverty programs and environmental protection. Even President Bush (in)famously proclaimed in 2003 that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
This is a far cry from the days when Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and vowed to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment.”
Today the American public seems deeply schizophrenic: It hates the government — Washington, Congress and public institutions are more unpopular than at any time since Watergate — but it wants more of it. Conservative arguments about limited government have little purchase among independents and swing voters. This is a keen problem for a candidate like Romney, because it forces him to vacillate between his credible competence message — “I can make government work” — and his strategic need to fill the “Reaganite” space left vacant by former senator George Allen’s failure to seize it and Thompson’s inability to get anyone to notice that he occupies it. Worse, the conservatives who want activist government want it to have a populist-Christian tinge, and that’s a pitch that neither McCain nor Giuliani nor Thompson nor Romney can sell.
Many of the younger conservative policy mavens and intellectuals have also become steadily less enamored of free markets and limited government. Post columnist Michael Gerson, formerly Bush’s chief speechwriter, has crafted a whole doctrine of “heroic conservatism” intended to beat back the right’s supposed death-embrace with small government and laissez-faire economics. He relentlessly calls for moral crusade to become the animating spirit of the right. But he’s hardly alone. “Crunchy conservatism,” the brainchild of Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher, is also a cri de coeur against mainstream conservatism. And both of these derive from the kind of thinking that led George W. Bush to insist in 2000 that he was a “different kind of Republican” because he was a “compassionate conservative” — a political program that apparently measures compassion by how much money the government spends on education, marriage counseling and the like […]
1. The emerging conservatism—or at least the new center-right—is an emerging conservatism of the state. Only—as is always the case—the political has developed in advance of the theoretical or intellectual. The concepts, and rationales have yet to be worked out; the arguments await clarification.
The issues, the stakes, the decisions—all of it awaits specification at the point of application in law, policy, or legal review—it even awaits clarification by candidates on the ground attempting to connect with the lived experience of voters. But this is as it should be as the emerging conservatism has yet to have confronted any real test on the ground.
2. To a Reagan coalition actor like Goldberg—and to the institutions of the center-right, e.g. talk radio, think-tanks, foundations—the notion is simply incoherent, borderline unintelligible. Hence: They greet it with hostility. And rightly so. New criticisms always begin in precedent and presumption, which flows from what exists. What exists is the Reagan coalition, although it exists in tatters. The new conservatism has yet to prove that it can provide the basis for a governing coalition.
3. Our conservatism—i.e. our meaning me, Gilad D.—discovers its premises in more ancient sources than Pres. Reagan, Speaker Gingrich, or Pastor Falwell. But we have problems of our own with the new regime. Regard:
(a) How would center-right of Sen. McCain or Gov. Huckabee would be functionally distinct from e.g. the center-right governments of the European peninsula. We need someone to explain this to us.]
(b) How is using the instruments of national power to pursue conservative policy functionally different from using the instruments of national power to pursue left or center-left policy? How would this not result in a race to the bottom where those in elected office use the power of the state to enrich their friends and secure their rule? How is this distinct from our criticism of Democratic Party rule?
(c) Part of what it means to be a conservative—or so we have always held—is to insist on the objective and empirical limits of political agency.
We are limited beings. We can agree on rules (that try to specify outcomes in advance) or standards (that are more open ended), and we can attempt to adjudicate among rival claims in our legislatures and our courts, but we can no more plan an economy than we can plan the weather. Nor can we fairly or equitably decide who gets what or on substantive grounds or e.g. decide on a definition of poverty—there are simply too many factors, too many bases of comparison to ever yield consensus. Hence: conservatives favor individual or free-association agency operating in blind systems like the marketplace or a civil society—the primary unit of which being the family—that is distinct from the state. We favor emergent systems constrained by rules, standards, and precedents, as opposed to the arbitrary wills or whims of human agents.
This suggests the question: How is e.g. Gov. Huckabee’s “right-wing populism” anything other than a declaration of faith in the efficacy of political agency, or an extension of the franchise of what may count as a political question?
Answer: We don’t know yet.
Questions. So many questions.
In other words, we have our own issues with conservatism 2.0. But we are not willing to dismiss it out of hand. Besides, in politics, demography is destiny, and the Republican party is skewing younger and lower in income. So: We await clarification as it emerges from the facts on the ground.Here would be the counterpoint to Goldberg:
[…] “FOR THE FIRST time in decades, the GOP has fielded a strong roster of candidates, at least four of them with a real chance to win the nomination,” writes Lawrence Henry from North Andover, Massachusetts, in a Spectator.org article titled Creative Destruction in the GOP
The party hasn’t shrugged up somebody like Bob Dole. The nominee hasn’t been settled early. No party machine has anointed anyone.
The party has dealt out a thorough mix of issues and people, with issues and people matching up in entirely new ways. And no one has any idea yet who — or what — will predominate.
To make the picture more complicated, emotional perceptions enter in. I once heard someone say, back in the nineties, “I like Bill Clinton because he really cares about me.” And he meant it! Like this man, many voters are very stupid, and many voters cast stupid votes. They all count.
So not only are Republicans choosing a candidate based on what that candidate really believes and really can and will do, they’re choosing a candidate based on what that candidate is perceived to be. For an extra layer of complication, add media bias in portraying those candidates.
On top of all that, we live in a media-hyped age where only the quickest and most effective of perceptual tags seems to get through: Holy Mike Huckabeee, roguish Rudy Giuliani, lazy Fred Thompson, manic John McCain, perfect Mitt Romney. See what I mean?
Mixed up though it is, this campaign is a good thing, not a bad one. It has just gotten interesting. It is going to stay interesting for a long time and, if we’re lucky, we’ll emerge from it with a newly defined and newly invigorated Republican Party. If we’re unlucky, the country will nominate some image monger with nothing real to say […]
An image monger with nothing real to say?
That would be Romney.
The larger question: Creative destruction, or just destruction? For us the answer hinges on the person and character of Romney.