Falwell Dead; Conservatism Ailing
One could cut and paste today's New York Times headlines into a pretty instructive narrative about the state of American conservatism today. Something like this:
First, The death of conservative evangelicalism
. Okay, not the death
-- that's far too optimistic. But the passing of Jerry Falwell is symbolic of a shift in the politics of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Falwell, by founding the Moral Majority in 1979, founded the modern Christian right. Too often these days we forget that evangelical Christians have by no means always been a conservative force in American politics. In other eras they've been progressive forces -- even radically progressive; in still others they have simply been politically disengaged. The equation "evangelical=fundamentalist=right-winger" is very much a creation of Jerry Falwell and his allies. As the Times obit puts it, the Moral Majority's "very name drew a vivid line in the sand of American politics."
But now the line is blurring, as moderate evangelical leaders
guide their flocks away from conservative dogma, and as the conservative movement's elites and intellectuals are emboldened to advocate for abandoning core Christian right priorities. It's more than cosmic coincidence that Falwell died only days after the frontrunning candidate for the GOP presidential nomination openly embraced a pro-choice, not-anti-gay line. So have you checked out the National Review
lately? It's full of conservative pundits spinning away on Rudy's behalf. Falwell is dead; his movement may be going to the grave with him. What that means for the Republican Party is yet to be seen.
Second, Republican candidates cling desperately to war and terror
. The conservative elites' eagerness to embrace Giuliani has much to do with the perception that his electability is based in the very issues that, in recent history's most operatic irony, have been both the GOP's greatest strength and its great downfall. War and terror are Republican specialities; if they do not own war and terror, they own very little in a country whose electorate moves inexorably into the progressive column on issues of government, economics, and teh gays. Having brought the public far more war and terror than anyone ever really wanted, along with their incompetence, their mendacity, and their cronyism, the Republicans can only hope to reinvigorate the brand. The various candidates' enthusiasm, during last night's debate, for more
Gitmo!, might be understood as rather confused efforts to do just this. But it was Giuliani who best defined himself, precisely as his supporters have hoped he would, as the Candidate of War and Terror -- But Better This Time!
, when he seized an opportunity to blow-torch a straw man dressed up to look like the inimitable Ron Paul. We'll let the National Review's Byron York
tell the tale:
It all started when Paul was asked how September 11 changed American foreign policy. “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us?” Paul answered. “They attack us because we’ve been over there; we’ve been bombing Iraq for ten years…”
Questioner Wendell Goler, of Fox News, asked, “Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?”
“I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it,” Paul said. “They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there.”
Enter Giuliani. “May I comment on that?” the mayor said, interrupting the orderly flow of things for the first time in the debate. “That’s really an extraordinary statement. That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th.”
The audience loved it. As the applause built, Giuliani added, “And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.”
Paul didn’t back down, but by cutting in, Giuliani had scored some of the best, and perhaps easiest, points of the night.... Giuliani’s aides seemed genuinely happy with his performance Tuesday night, in contrast to the way they seemed to be faking their happiness in California. “He was better,” said Jim Dyke, a top Giuliani adviser. “9/11 is very personal to the mayor. You can’t coach something like that.”
Giuliani, of course, "lived through" the attacks of 9/11 much as I "lived through" them -- by being in the city at the time. The idea that he was some sort of hero that day, or in the days thereafter, is a myth. But it's not the myth that matters here -- it's the conservatives' need to believe in it. It appears to be all they have. And for its sake, they'll abandon the coalition that made them what they are today (or at least, what they were before last November's elections).
Finally, the crony capitalism machine churns on
. I mentioned this in a previous post, and I should continue to emphasize it. As giddy as we can be over all the various acts of immolation and cannibalism on the conservative side, let's not forget that, in perhaps its most essential function, their movement has continued to hum along quite efficiently. My own thesis, advanced many times, is that since conservative principles for government don't work, conservatives wind up governing without principles. And so you get things like this:
A senior lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers nominated by President Bush to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission will receive a $150,000 departing payment from the association when he takes his new government job, which involves enforcing consumer laws against members of the association.
As chairman of the commission, Mr. Baroody’s salary would be $154,600. With the severance payment and an additional lump sum of $44,571 for unused leave time, Mr. Baroody would receive $349,171 this year. That amount, which excludes Mr. Baroody’s pension and retirement payments, nearly matches the $344,607 salary that Mr. Baroody earned as the second-highest-paid executive at the association last year.
The nomination of Mr. Baroody, executive vice president at the association, has provoked heavy criticism from Democrats and consumer groups. He is the latest in a line of industry officials and lobbyists to be given senior jobs by Mr. Bush at federal safety agencies that oversee matters like workplace and mine safety and transportation as the administration has sought to roll back hundreds of regulations that businesses viewed as excessive.
Of course, you could argue that there is
a principle at work here, and you wouldn't be wrong. There are more than one, I'd say. "Reward your friends, punish your enemies" is a principle that seems to crop up a lot in this administration. It's not much, as principles go, but it's a good general rule of thumb for, say, a street gang. On a larger level, there's "keep those meddling bureaucrats from messing with American business." That's a principle that could almost, if you argue it right (and conservatives are very good at arguing things right), derive from a legitimate philosophy, which is that "capitalism works better than government, so don't pollute capitalism with government." That's a numbingly foolish, short-sighted, and simple-minded philosophy, but it is a philosophy nonetheless.
So we can't say the Bush administration operates entirely
without principles (and I won't delve here into a discussion of whether the president's devotion to his war counts as a principle or merely as evidence of insanity), though the few remaining principles in evidence seem to have almost nothing to do with an argument about the good society, and a lot to do with looting the Treasury and gutting the regulatory apparatus before the electoral hordes can finally break down the White House doors.
Modern Republican party conservatism isn't a pretty picture. Denuded of principle, fleshed by mutual purge attempts, insensately clinging to its once-fearsome reputation as the party best able to use violence and the threat of violence to further its own aims, it seems to hurtling toward some kind of reckoning. We can only guess how much of the public interest it will drag along toward that doom.
Labels: Bush administration, conservatives, Jerry Falwell, Rudy Giuliani, War on Terror