Note: this item was originally published on November 11, 2008
For those Democrats who were settling down with a bag of popcorn to watch an orgy of ideological strife among Republicans, it’s beginning to become apparent that the war may be over before it began. Sure, there’s plenty of finger-pointing and personal recriminations over tactics and strategy, some of it focused on the McCain-Palin campaign, and some looking back to the errors of the Bush administration. There’s clearly no consensus on who might lead Republicans in 2010 or 2012. But on the ideological front, for all the talk about “movement conservatives” or “traditionalists” at odds with “reformers,” it’s a pretty one-sided fight. And one prominent “reformer,” the columnist David Brooks, pretty much declared defeat yesterday:
The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the G.O.P.
They are going to win, first, because Congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven’t been conservative enough.
Second, Traditionalists have the institutions. Over the past 40 years, the Conservative Old Guard has built up a movement of activist groups, donor networks, think tanks and publicity arms. The reformists, on the other hand, have no institutions…..
Finally, Traditionalists own the conservative mythology. Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.
Now there’s nothing particularly new about this dynamic. It’s exactly the way conservatives reacted to the 2006 debacle, and in fact, to virtually every Republican defeat since about 1940 (with the exception, of course, of 1964). They’ve never been shy about saying that “moderate” or “liberal” Republicans are not only wrong, immoral and gutless, but are in fact losers. And there’s nothing new as well about their take on George W. Bush; it’s pretty similar to their ex post facto take on Richard M. Nixon: a potentially great leader surrounded by venal hacks who sacrificed principle in an illusory search for short-term political gain and personal riches and power.
There are, however, two aspects of contemporary conservative self-justification that strike me as somewhat new.
The first is the iron conviction that there is a popular majority for core conservative policies at the very moment when they have been repudiated. Sure, conservatives have long postulated “hidden majorities” that can only be tapped by a more rigorously ideological approach, but only in the context of long periods of Democratic ascendancy. There was nothing self-deceptive about the conservative belief in the 1970s and 1980s, up through 1994, that large numbers of conservative Democrats, particularly in the South, could be picked off in an atmosphere of ideological polarization. But that realignment has clearly run its course. Just as importantly, the big conservative victories of 1980 and 1994 were pretty self-evidently based on a popular desire to restrain or reform the governing Democrats, rather than representing a referendum on conservative ideas. I say that’s “self-evident” because both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich got into immediate trouble when they promoted a truly conservative vision of what government ought to do and not do.
Maybe Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress will quickly overreach and produce an opportunity for this sort of negative victory in the near future (though there simply is not the kind of low-hanging demographic fruit to pick that benefitted past conservatives). But it’s hardly the moment for loud-and-proud conservative governance. After all, many of the scandals and failures of the regime of George W. Bush (like Nixon before him) flowed from the natural corruption and misgovernment that so often befalls conservatives who are forced to operate public-sector programs and agencies that they don’t actually believe in.
Furthermore, Karl Rove’s famous strategy for building a permanent Republican majority, which relied on strategic public-sector activism deisgned to attract Latinos (immigration reform); seniors (Medicare Rx drug benefit); and married women with kids (No Child Left Behind), was based on the recognition that there simply wasn’t a majority for hard-core small government conservatism. That all these initiatives became major grievances for conservatives is a sign of political self-deception. Conversely, conservatives don’t seem to have internalized the fact that every major conservative assault on the heart of the New Deal/Great Society legacy (Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s efforts to “reform” Social Security, and Newt Gingrich’s drive to “contain costs” in Medicare) has failed dismally in the court of public opinion.
In a parallel development, during both the Reagan and Bush years, public support for conservative efforts to make the tax system more regressive has declined steadily once the free-lunch assumptions of supply-side economics proved to be a fraud. And there has never, for a moment, been anything like a popular majority supporting the sort of broad-scale reductions in government services that could eliminate the fiscal problems associated with the conservative tax-cutting agenda. There’s a reason John McCain’s campaign based his fiscal-discipline message on the small but symbolic issue of appropriations earmarks, rather than the big-ticket “entitlement reform” that virtually all movement conservatives support. And for that matter, George W. Bush’s “Big Government Conservatism,” like its Reaganite predecessor, was an accomodation to public opinion rather than a gratuitous betrayal of conservative principle.
If today’s conservatives succeed in convincing each other to embrace a more forthright message assaulting entitlements, progressive taxation, public education, regulation of corporations and Wall Street, just to cite a few domestic policy examples, they are almost certainly cruising for more electoral bruising.
Aside from self-deception about the popularity of their core ideology, today’s conservatives seem to be deceiving themselves as well about how to deal with Democrats in a way that maintains some credibility. Compare how they talk and think about Barack Obama to how they talked and thought about Bill Clinton. Throughout the Clinton administration, conservatives constantly alternated between attacking Clinton as a liberal disguising his true intentions, and as an unprincipled trimmer who was “stealing conservative ideas.” The latter impulse largely prevailed. Throughout the impeachment crisis, Republicans trying to drive Clinton from office were cooperating with him on a considerable array of domestic and international initiatives, and begging him to lead the country into such perilous waters as Social Security “reform.”
It seems to me that conservatives today have almost completely internalized their own rhetoric about Obama’s “radicalism,” “socialism,” “anti-Americanism,” and so forth. If you have read or listened to movement conservative pundits recently, it’s hard to avoid the impression that they truly think this temperate man pursuing Clinton-style centrist policies is determined to enact “socialized medicine,” create vast new “welfare” programs, legalize infanticide, surrender to terrorists, and use the power of the state to censor or perhaps even jail his opponents.
Perhaps both these phenomena are at least partially attributable to the rise of conservative ideological media networks that enable their consumers and producers alike to live in a parallel universe that is largely impervious to adverse information. That’s a problem for some people on the Left (e.g., those who are convinced that Bush and Cheney will stage an “emergency” and launch a military coup to thwart Obama’s inauguration) as well as the Right. But there’s a reason that so many folk on the Left like to call themselves “the reality-based community,” just as there is a reason that leftbent Democrats cut Barack Obama a lot of slack during the presidential campaign while movement conservatives hobbled John McCain with an endless series of demands and complaints that arguably guaranteed his defeat.
If I’m right, or even half-right, about this, Barack Obama, Democrats, and progressives may have a large window of opportunity to build a majority against an opposition party that’s drunk on the locusts and wild honey of the political wilderness they inhabit.