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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Conservatives and Corruption

Rick Perlstein, author of Before The Storm, the fine 2002 book about the 1964 Goldwater campaign, is getting some blogospheric buzz after posting a speech he did to a conservative confab at Princeton. In his acerbic remarks, which undoubtedly discomfited hosts who expected him to regale the group with AuH2O war stories, he examined the parallels between the Goldwater zealots who got caught up in the manifold ethical and legal problems of the Nixon administration, and those who today are distinguishing themselves likewise in scandals and other violations of conservative principle, such as fiscal profligacy.Rick’s observations about the corruption of conservative ideologues into what they once disparaged as mere “Republicans” are acute and on-target, but I’d add an additional thought about the second-generation conservatives who are now running and ruining our country.I wrote a review for Blueprint magazine earlier this year that compared and contrasted Perlstein’s book with Craig Shirley’s hagiography of Reagan’s failed but seminal 1976 campaign, Reagan’s Revolution. And Shirley’s book made it plain that most of the people who now control Washington made their bones in that and subsequent Reagan campaigns, not in Goldwater’s or Nixon’s efforts.If you compare the Goldwater and Reagan generations of conservatives, the first thing that jumps out at you is that the latter became convinced that conservatism needed for political reasons a much sunnier disposition, and a more popular agenda, than that offered bt the dour but principled Arizonan. The second thing that jumps out at you is that Reagan himself won the GOP nomination and the presidency after embracing a supply-side economic doctrine that made it easy to be conservative, offering tax cuts that paid for themselves without forcing any real decisions about the role of the federal government in national life.This doctrine has largely been discredited economically, but it’s had a sensational and still-vibrant run as the political underpinning of Republican fiscal policies that promise to square every circle, and invite every corruption of traditional conservative principles.The transition from supply-side theory to corrupt practices has been devious if predictable. But the big jump was supplied by Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast” concept (the phrase itself borrowed from Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, who ultimately deplored the idea), that conservatives should embrace tax cuts without worrying about spending cuts, since the former would eventually force the latter. In my own article about Norquist’s significance, I described “starve the beast” as offering Republicans the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe: you could support both tax cuts and spending increases, and use both to buy votes and reward favored constituencies, because it would all come out in the wash someday, when future administrations and Congresses would be forced to balance the books.The ready embrace of “starve the beast” ideology by the Republican Party of the W. era has also exposed another rotten underpinning of conservatism in power: if you don’t believe in the actual ability of the federal government to do anything of real value, then why not turn federal agencies into patronage machines and well-paid holding pens for rising young ideologues?This question, I suspect, explains how you get from Reaganesque critiques of bureaucratic incompetence to Brownie, in less than a generation.In other words, I believe the endemic corruption of conservatives in power we are witnessing today is not just a morality play about power’s corrupting influence, or about the descent of ideologues into the practical swamps of politics. Worse than that, it’s about the consequences of entrusting government’s vast power to people who can’t think of it as a force for the common good, and thus, inevitably, treat it as a force for private gain.

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