Twilight of the Idols
So I did at last get around to reading the entirety of Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker piece
on the "Republican Implosion." It's certainly worth a read, especially from a schadenfruede perspective.
As an analysis of the state of affairs in the GOP, the article is pretty straightforward. Goldberg interviews four of the men who have brought the party to where it is now: Karl Rove and the three fallen Congressional leaders, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Dick Armey. They are all famously at odds with each other these days, like Beatles circa 1972, sniping and slashing and making you wonder how they ever managed to work together in any sort of harmony. Goldberg does a good job of letting their own ego-saturated words tell the tale of Republican discontent; there's also the obligatory Richard Viguerie quote as well as a purity check with a Republican Study Committee
member (Jeff Flake
, who also name-checks conservative favorite Mike Pence
Everyone interviewed seems to grasp that in the 2008 election conservatism will in some sense be on trial; nobody agrees as to what that means. DeLay, resolutely and cheerfully clueless, seems to think he can return from Elba and take up the war right where he left off. Flake and his compatriots, who have convinced themselves that Republican corruption is just another manifestation of the evils of Big Government, are content to spend some time in purifying exile, waiting for Democrats to "overreach."
Rove is tired of hearing denunciations of "big-government conservatism":
When I mentioned Flake’s objections to Rove, he said, "I don’t accept the label 'big-government conservatism.' I think the object here is how do you fundamentally reform the big institutions of government in a way in which you drive them toward market choice, to the individual, to decentralization." He went on, "Flake is one of the few people who are consistent. Because he will say, 'Not only should we not have the prescription-drug benefit but also we shouldn’t have Medicare, either.' But most members of Congress, virtually every conservative member of Congress, has said, 'Look, we’ve settled that issue; we’re going to have Medicare.'"
Flake, in return, insists that "If we could stick to our principles, we could be a natural governing majority."
The idea of the "natural majority" is a vexing one to conservatives, who have long told themselves that that is precisely what they represent, yet who have never really arrived at a comfortable sense of exactly what they mean by that. It's not a claim that is generally supported by issues polling, nor does it jibe with the conservative impulse toward counterculturalism.
Of all Goldberg's interlocutors, it's Gingrich, unsurprisingly, who best grasps that 2008 will be a change election. And Gingrich, citing the example of Nicolas Sarkozy -- who managed to run as a "change" candidate despite having spent years in the cabinet of an unpopular incumbent -- thinks he knows just how to approach it. Goldberg reports that Gingrich was frustrated by Rove's purported refusal to frame the 2004 election as a starkly ideological contest:
"All he proved was that the anti-Kerry vote was bigger than the anti-Bush vote," Gingrich said. He continued, "The Bush people deliberately could not bring themselves to wage a campaign of choice" -- of ideology, of suggesting that Kerry was "to the left of Ted Kennedy" -- and chose instead to attack Kerry’s war record.
The activist in me loves Gingrich's approach: charge right for the ideological battlefield, highlight the clash, and fight it out -- may the best ideas win. Here's Goldberg's account of Newt's recent debate with John Kerry over global warming:
Very few Republicans these days talk about global warming as a reality, the way Gingrich does. Before a recent debate on Capitol Hill with John Kerry (reporters were promised a "smack-down"), Kerry seemed flustered when Gingrich shifted the debate from the basic science to a discussion of market-based solutions to the problem. Gingrich explained it this way: "here’s a short-term way out of this and a long-term way out of this. The long-term way is to create a new intellectual battleground, which you can’t do if you start out by saying 'No, no, no, no, no.' But if you say, 'O.K., let’s talk about, for example, how you best have conservation in America, do you think trial lawyers, regulators, bureaucrats, and higher taxes are the answer, then you ought to be with Al Gore. If you think that markets, incentives, prizes, and entrepreneurs are the answer, you ought to be with us.'"
Other conservatives see Gingrich's willingness to talk about global warming as a sign of traitorous left-sliding; Gingrich sees what he's doing as seizing an opportunity to transform an issue and move it from liberal to conservative turf. In this sense, he's very much like Rove.
It's unclear that there are very many substantive ideas underlying Gingrich's bluster; as I discussed with regard to his "green conservatism" (solving global warming with prizes?), his real expertise is not in policy ideas but in communications strategies, and he tends to use the latter to mask his poverty in the former. He is an expert communicator, which makes him dangerous to tangle with, but progressives shouldn't be afraid to do so. We should welcome a war of ideas, because whether we realize it or not, we're much bettter armed for it.
Once again, one gets the distinct sense that the whole conservative ideological edifice could be pushed to pieces by a few bold progressive shoves.
Labels: conservatives, New Yorker, Newt Gingrich, Republicans