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.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.