alien & sedition.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
  Conservative Summit, Part 3: Mr. Huckabee Goes to Washington

Sunday, January 28

I skip the first debate. Saturday was long, and this morning the organizers promise only “continental” breakfast, not the bacon and eggs we got yesterday. I’m not getting out of bed early for a croissant. I believe this is a properly conservative attitude.

Still, it sounded interesting, and I do make it in at the end, just in time to hear Tamar Jacoby insist that Republicans “are digging our grave as a political party by how we talk to immigrants.” Mark Krikorian answers furiously that the GOP is in fact digging its grave by allowing all this immigration – “admitting all these natural Democrats!” He is enthusiastically applauded. Those croissants really got everyone going, I guess.

10:00 am
“From Hope to High Ground” by Gov. Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee, though, comes not to bury the conservatives, but to praise them. He has arrived directly from the NBC studio, where he announced for the presidency on Tim Russert’s show. Huckabee is the other Man from Hope. The Man Really from Hope. He jokes that when people ask him what he’ll say about being the second presidential candidate to run from that storied little burg, he answers, “Give us one more chance.”

It’s one more chance than anyone will be giving Crawford, that’s for sure.

He’s handsome in a small-town Jacyee kind of way; he speaks easily, naturally, with an accent that just gets to down-home without tipping on over into redneck. And his name is Huckabee, for Christ’s sake. He’s the human Apple Pie.

We need optimistic conservative leadership, he tells us. “The greatest generation is yet to be born.” This line is so beautifully calibrated to win conservative hearts: the appeal to history and our honored elders (‘the greatest generation’), the Reaganite optimism, and the clear but unstated anti-abortion logic – for how could we kill the greatest generation before they’re even born?

Then comes the up-from-poor-roots story, and he tells us how his father once took him to meet the Governor of Arkansas, and told young Mike to remember this moment, because you’ll probably never meet a governor again. His father passed away only months before Huckabee was sworn in as Governor himself. People are crying. Hell, I’m crying.

“We are not finished as a nation,” he says. And he goes on to talk about the present woes of the conservative movement. This is masterful: he is playing on the right’s need to see its own fortunes and the fortunes of the Republic as one and the same. People rejected the GOP, he says, not because they were rejecting conservatism but because they were frustrated – frustrated “by the greed of Wall Street, the corruption of K Street, and the complete ignoring of Main Street.” Conservatives, he says, win when they do what they’re supposed to do: balance budgets, keep taxes low.

“I’m an optimist,” he says. “The heart and soul of who we are has not been lost – it needs only to be regained.” Again, for ‘we,’ you can read ‘conservatives’ or ‘Americans.’ Brilliant rhetoric.

After some comments on the war, which fall safely within the ‘Iraq=War on Terror’ bamboozlement paradigm (“if the war is lost, our civilization is lost with it”), he turns to domestic matters. He deftly connects the personal to the historical, and then to the political, telling stories of the woes of ordinary Americans.

My God, I realize, he’s feeling our pain.

And he throws the crowd a bit of deliciously red meat: “The flat tax is an idea whose time has come. I think Steve Forbes was right.”

Wild applause. He’s the only speaker at the conference to openly embrace the definitively conservative tax proposal. If he should win the nomination, it’ll be fun to watch as he’s forced to answer for this profoundly regressive idea, but it’s a great shot in the arm for him until then.

Finally he tells us the story of Martha, a school teacher in Little Rock, who took all the desks away from her students one morning and said she wouldn’t give them back until they figured out how they’d earned them. Nobody could come up with the answer, and the story grew throughout the day, until by the afternoon the news media were camped out in the classroom with the puzzled students, and Martha opened the door and in walked 27 veterans, each one carrying a desk, and Martha says this is how you earned them; never forget those who were willing to shed their blood for you. And here Huckabee’s voice cracks a little and a shiver runs down my spine. “We must never forget,” he says. “We must never forget how we got here.”

Standing ovation.

Not once has he mentioned gays or abortion – he doesn’t need to. Where Romney pandered, Huckabee inspires. Later I’ll learn that he has committed his own great sin against conservatism, raising taxes as Governor, and this may be harming him in his presidential ambitions. Still, it’s hard to believe he’s considered nothing more than a dark horse. Keep a wary eye on Mike Huckabee. Conservatism thrives not by the strength of its ideas, but by the strength of its storytelling. That’s why Reagan was the greatest conservative politician of them all. And it’s why Huckabee, the Baptist preacher, seems touched by a little of the Gipper’s magic.

10:30 am
Debate: Resolved: The Federal Government Should Act to Reduce America’s Dependence on Foreign Oil
Jerry Taylor vs. Director James Woolsey

Conservatives are still irritated by President Bush’s reference, in the 2005 State of the Union, to an “addiction to oil.” The reasons seem to run from finding it overly simplistic to just not wanting to talk about it. But now they’re talking about it. And, oddly, it’s the fiercest debate I’ll see at the conference – more contentious even than the one over Iraq.

Woolsey, the former CIA director, is here to make the case that only Federal action can break up America’s strategically disastrous relationship with foreign oil. Taylor, of the Cato Institute, is here to say Woolsey’s full of it.

There is precedent, Woolsey points out, for Federal government involvement in matters of serious national interest: he cites the construction of the trans-continental railway, and the space race. This fits the bill: not only is our economy vulnerable to terrorist attacks on oil infrastructure or regime change in petroleum-exporting countries, we’re paying for the jihad that’s being waged against us. He cites Tom Friedman: “the price of oil and the path of freedom run in opposite directions.” This is a national security matter, and the Federal government must take action.

Taylor’s having none of it. In that particularly smug tone so common to a certain type of libertarian economist (or maybe it’s economists generally), he argues that we import oil because it’s cheaper, which is a good thing, that oil companies factor the cost of terrorist attack into their prices already, that reducing imports doesn’t insulate us from price shocks abroad, that anyway consumers are willing to pay for oil, so what’s the trouble, that only the market can develop viable alternatives to oil if any exist, and that there is no correlation between oil and terror anyway. On this last point, he mentions that he and his economist colleagues ran a regression proving that despite low oil prices in the 90s, terrorism was developing anyway. I laugh to myself. He ran a regression. Well, that solves that.

Woolsey laughs too. “A regression analysis!” he spits. I don’t think I’ve heard three words expressed with such contempt in a long time. All the money supporting terrorists is oil money, he points out. The Saudis are funding wahhabism all over the world with it. The idea that there’s no relationship between oil and terrorism is absurd. Woolsey quotes Orwell: “you’d have to be an economist to believe that. No ordinary person would.”

The debate goes on for a while, fruitlessly. It’s an interesting parallel to the argument over Iraq I saw yesterday. Once again, a former high-ranking national security official, a realist, is banging his head against the wall out of frustration with conservative ideologues. It’s another little window into the ways in which conservatism, which consists of elegant theories about the world, seems to fail when it brushes up against the responsibilities of government. But that’s not stopping these folks.

11:30 am
Presentation: A Conservative Agenda on Domestic Policy
Dr. Charles Kesler, Charles Murray, Ramesh Ponnuru.

Conservatives are funny people. Judging by my experience at the Summit, they’re people who’ll applaud wildly as speakers rail against the “liberal elites,” then turn to each other to discuss their houses in the Hamptons and what a shame it is that “our class” have to pay taxes to subsidize health care for all those poor people, who don’t even pay tax. (I’m serious – I overheard these conversations.) Similarly, they seem to have trouble squaring the circle they create among ideology, self-interest, and the notion that what they do politically maybe ought to actually help people besides themselves. Sometimes they can express the formula quite coherently. Other times it seems to break down under its own complexity.

All weekend they have been insisting that Republicans lost in November because they failed to be properly conservative. All weekend they have dealt with the cognitive dissonance of knowing that, if conservatism is defined by its allegiance to “small government,” then no American government since the Depression has been conservative, and likely no government ever will be. All weekend they have obsessed after their real white whale – not, as Sager says, the Hispanic vote, but rather “small government” itself. They have assumed the American public to be equally dedicated to this pursuit; they have told themselves that when the public abandons them, it’s only because conservatives have let the whale slip too far beyond the horizon.

But only in an incidental fashion have these conservatives considered whether Americans really perceive any benefit from this hunt at all.

Ramesh Ponnuru, NR editor and author of a book that I haven’t read but that I’m going to go ahead and call execrable, stands up and gives a very smart talk. He begins with health care, where he notes that “conservatives have tended to minimize the anxiety people feel about our health system.” 70 million Americans, he observes, are without health insurance at some point in any given year. Besides the human cost, it’s “a serious problem for our economy,” burdening businesses and holding people back from a willingness to seek out new and better jobs. This situation, he points out, is going to lead us to a single-payer health care system if conservatives don’t do something about it first.

Ponnuru criticizes the health care plans proposed by Republican governors Schwarzenegger and Romney. He likes Bush’s proposal, and he likes the old conservative favorite called “Health Savings Accounts” (one day soon I’ll post on this ‘ownership society’ wedge idea). Whatever conservatives propose, he argues, must emphasize the notion of “portability of care” – the assurance that wherever you go, your health coverage will follow.

He’s walking the line, now, between policy as a tool for achieving conservative ideological ends, and policy as a tool for improving people’s lives. He follows that line into a discussion of taxes, making his point clearer as he goes. He argues in favor of a “child tax credit” as an alternative to the politically unrealistic notions of a flat tax or national sales tax. The point is that tax cuts are an area in which conservative policy can have a real, direct benefit on the lives of ordinary Americans. Conservatives, he tells us, cannot politically survive unless they provide policies that directly benefit people. So much of what conservatives propose is said to have the potential for indirectly benefiting ordinary folks, but the public good is never really the main idea.

And here he drops the bomb.

Conservatives are not going to regain power by slashing spending. Look at the electoral results, he says. Conservatives still vote Republican in the same numbers as ever before! “Republicans got slaughtered among independent voters.” For the first time in this conference, somebody is bursting the bubble that says Republicans lost because they weren’t conservative enough. Republicans lost, Ponnuru points out, because Americans don’t believe that conservative ideas benefit them.

But this crucial observation quickly disappears right back into the rhetorical ether. Speaking next, Kesler does ask conservatives to consider what they mean by “limited government.” Do they mean just limiting the growth of government? Actively shrinking it? Or forcibly downsizing it by constitutional means? Kesler criticizes “compassionate conservatism:” compassion, he argues, is not a virtue at all. It can attach to anything, virtuous or not. One can feel compassion for people who do not deserve it. Justice, Kesler says, is the real political virtue. And, by leading people away from “just” understandings of society – who really deserves what – Bush’s ‘compassion’ has constituted a “public abandonment of the conservative principle of limited government," and undermined the fusionism between social and economic conservatism that has sustained the conservative movement.

We are right back in the hunt for the white whale. The real problem, according to Kesler, is the “inevitability of the welfare state.” Perhaps the only way to reverse it might be through ‘constitutional’ methods. What this could mean, we’ll have to find out.

Murray speaks last. He cites the two great conservative electoral victories of the post-war era: the election of Ronald Reagan, and the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. In each case, Murray asserts, voters elected Republicans who explicitly promised to shrink the size of government (Murray’s version of history may be revisionist, but follow the direction of the rhetoric here). Then, in recent years, Republicans “lost their way.” They fell victim to what Hayek called “the fatal conceit:” the notion that social engineering is okay as long as it’s Republicans doing it.

Murray calls for a version of Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, “on steroids.” Go back to Reagan, he says. Go back to the Contract with America. Like Olasky, Murray cites Hurricane Katrina as a lesson that government doesn’t work. “The competence of government,” he says, “is inherently limited.”

Ponnuru’s warning has evaporated. Once again conservatives lash themselves to the mast and pursue their elusive quarry, the maddening objective they call “small government.”

Going unsaid is the lesson most Americans may have learned in the wake of Katrina, Iraq, and every other blunder of the past six years. It’s not that the competence of government is limited. It’s that the competence of conservative government is inherently limited – by conservatives’ own refusal to believe that government can be competent.

And on the conservatives will go without acknowledging this truth, and if they are called to account they will suffer for it in elections, and yet still they’ll pursue their white whale, and they’ll burst their hot hearts’ shells upon it.

12:30 pm
Lunch: Remarks by Tony Snow

Tony Snow is a master at his craft. On the stage, after the chicken course, Snow spins artfully for our entertainment; his lies and distortions and appeals to false principle are every bit as slick as one would expect from the mouthpiece for the most powerful executive in the world. It’s a long way to here from the rough-hewn, down-home mythmaking of Mike Huckabee. But conservatives tell good stories, and there’s every chance that one day the stories Huckabee tells will be just as powdered and polished as those Snow weaves around the Bush administration.

We all know what Snow is going to say. He’s up there to give the Bush line, whatever its hypocrisies, whatever betrayals the conservative idealists in the audience believe it represents. But he does say one interesting thing.

He repeats the famous quote from Bill Buckley, founder of the National Review, who in the magazine’s very first issue defined conservatives as those who were “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” Not anymore, says Snow. “Now, we are the agents of history, and we ought to be standing atop it yelling ‘Go!’

The past quarter century has given us many reasons to believe Snow’s claim. It does seem that in America the conservatives have seized control of our political destiny and shaped it according to their own ends. But history is a funny thing, especially in a democracy. It has a way of evading those who most arrogantly believe that they can change its rules.

It has a way of getting even.

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Damn fine writing - I've loved this series.

Out of all the speakers you've profiled, I've got to agree with Ramesh Ponnuru's point the most. Republicans will lose until ordinary people feel that the GOP is can benefit them. Whether this benefit comes through protection from terrorism or relief from taxes - turning government into an exercise of realizing conservative philosophical goals is not enough. As a liberal, I tend to think that conservative politics are inherently biased against ordinary people, but with all the Republicans' talk of killing the federal government, it's like they're not even trying to connect. The type of attitude that leads someone to think that the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina was an example of the federal government's inherent inability to solve problems borders on lunacy, because ordinary people are not going to leave people like that in power very long.

You're right about history, because in a democracy, the people have a way of getting even.
I give Ponnuru credit. He's smart. But he's attached to a movement that really can't help people beyond throwing them the occasional tax cut (which more often than not ends up hurting them in the end). He's part of a movement that specializes in helping elites, no matter what kind of happy face they want to put on it, no matter how ferverently they believe otherwise.
Superb. Thank you.
Really, Really good series. Dare I say it reminded me of The father of Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson? Maybe Hunter when he's not on the drugs, but still damn fine reporting!

I am in awe. I owe you a couple of beers, too.
Bravo! Well written.
Beers? I'll take beers! :-)

Thanks all for your kind words. Stick around, I promise at least some more decent stuff.
"This situation, he points out, is going to lead us to a single-payer health care system if conservatives don’t do something about it first."

I don't think Ponnuru got the memo. The limousine Repubs are going to sell out the cloth coats again over health care because private insurance is an expense that big business can spin off to the government. Kind of like Disney does hiring all part-timers so government picks up the tab for health care for their workers. That's why I think single-payer health care will be here sooner than a lot of people think.
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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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I Was a Mole at the Conservative Summit, Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Wars of Perception, Part One
Wars of Perception, Part Two

Conservative Futures
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