alien & sedition.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
  What's Eating the GOP? (Part 2)

Jonah Goldberg says he doesn't necessarily disagree with a lot of what David Brooks is saying -- but you can tell it kind of annoys him. At the Corner, Goldberg registers two objections to Brooks's piece. The first is that "Brooks conflates conservatism and GOP policies," something which has apparently become a "bugaboo" to Goldberg. Now, I recognize that in theory the conservative movement is not the same thing as the Republican party. But let's face it -- the conservative movement has largely conflated itself with the GOP. That's its raison d'etre. Individual Republicans may advance policy ideas opposed by the conservative movement, but there's no question who's in the driver's seat there. For Goldberg, the "lamentable" tragedy is that "conservatism has come to mean defending Bush's policies." Well, yes. It would take a special kind of mendacity to argue that the Bush administration was not the product of nearly four decades of movement-building.

Or maybe it's just wishful thinking. Whatever it is, Goldberg's next objection perfectly illustrates exactly how complaining about compassionate conservatism has become a practice for conservatives seeking to dodge their responsibility for the disasters of the Bush era and to insist that real conservatism has not yet had its day (just as certain Marxists would tell you that there never was a real communist state):
What Brooks sees as a the base's inability to accept change is often, in reality, a burning desire for change. He mocks the clamor for Fred Thompson to run as an "Authentic Conservative" but he fails to see, or at least credit, the degree to which the call for "Authentic Conservatism" is a rebuke of Bush. Compassionate conservatism was the change. And, I would argue, that change has done lasting damage to conservatism and to the GOP. And so now many want something new. The call for authentic conservatism, fairly or not, is not a call for staying the course.

And, one should recall, David's writing contributed a lot of oxygen to the legitimacy of compassionate conservatism. It has now been rejected by substantial quarters of the GOP and the invocations of Reaganism amount to the base's way of saying the experiment failed.
There's almost a logic to this argument: it's true that Brooks argues for Republicans to confront the strategic and policy questions that compassionate conservatism was designed to address. In that respect, one could suggest that Brooksian conservatives should be tagged with the failures of the Bush administration. I'm not in the business of defending David Brooks, so I won't spend any time parsing the difference between "national greatness conservatism" (whatever that is) and the compassionate variety. But what is this "authentic conservatism?" It appears to be something that exists only in retrospect, in the mystic chords of memory. It isn't what Reagan actually did, but what conservatives like to believe Reagan did. Or does authentic conservatism consist entirely of a modest deceleration in non-defense discretionary spending, temporary cuts in marginal tax rates, and defining ketchup as a vegetable?

Ross Douthat, responding to Goldberg, sees this problem more clearly:
Reaganism ran out of steam in the late 1990s: It had succeeded on many fronts, been co-opted by the Democrats on others, and run up against a wall of pro-welfare state public opinion on still others. "Compassionate conservatism" was an attempt to address the new political landscape by promising to reform government in a conservative direction, rather than simply slashing it to the bone; it was a terrible slogan, to my mind, but the underlying idea was basically a good one.
As Douthat observes, compassionate conservatism was never meant to be anything other than a road to a kind of "authentic conservatism" -- one that took into account the fact that the American system and the American public have proved pretty strongly resistant to those authentically conservative ideas.

Douthat blames the failure of compassionate conservatism on the Bush administration's blundering, which is understandable given the obvious fact that the White House has indeed made an art form of blundering. And Douthat is invested in finding a way around that failure, since his own ideas are based in very similar considerations to those that drove compassionate conservatism. It's a battle worth fighting: as I've suggested before, somewhere in that confused conceptual stew are the ideas that will ultimately offer the most promise for conservatism going forward.

But let's take a moment, then, to reflect on just how remarkable the failure of compassionate conservatism has been. By 2002, the Republican party had utterly destroyed the liberal establishment and the Democatic party as political forces. It had the national media at its feet. Disagreement was quite openly -- and effectively -- equated with treason. Bush's public approval ratings were robust and his party was in hero-worship mode. Never -- not even during the Reagan administration -- was there a moment more favorable for an ambitious conservative policy agenda. And yet it all ended in disaster for conservatives and the GOP. You can blame that on Bush's poor communication skills, as some conservative pundits have done. But I'm inclined to believe that such a massive failure is pretty difficult to ascribe to stuttering and malapropisms alone. It seems rather likely that there was a structural problem.

The evidence, to me, suggests that it's damn near impossible for "authentic conservatism" to succeed on its own, nor is it possible to arrive at authentic conservative ends by compassionate conservative means.

I don't mean to imply that the Bush administration accomplished nothing. That's an easy mistake to make. On the contrary, it succeeded wildly in some respects. It got itself re-elected, which is the prime directive of any political machine. It was able to raid the Treasury on its allies' behalf, and reward its friends in big business by gutting the federal regulatory apparatus (though, as this article points out, it never did manage to solve the riddle of the Securities and Exchange Commission). And, of course, it got its war.

These may not have been the goals conservative intellectuals had in mind. I have no doubt that many of them -- those who aren't merely astroturfers -- have an authentic desire to remake America according to their own bright ideas, for the good of the Republic and apple pie. But the failure of their ideas left a void at the heart of their party's governing wing, into which rushed the hacks and the flacks and the money-grubbing opportunists who have for so long recognized the GOP as the party most likely to create just such opportunities. It isn't that conservatives have no principles. But so far, the evidence suggests that their principles don't work. And if this in turn means that their party tends to govern without principles, there are plenty of people ready to take advantage of that fact.

Keep your eye on this battle over the meaning of compassionate conservatism. It has a great deal of significance for the future of the conservative movement and the Republican party. In the meantime, though, as long as Republicans are in power, you might want to keep your other eye on what the party's less-principled hand is doing.

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

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