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They’d Rather Be Right

As the voting begins in earnest, what are we to make of the Republican candidates? That the “conservative base” is dissatisfied with the GOP field is probably the single most common observation of this presidential campaign season. The second most common observation is probably that the Republican candidate, whoever it turns out to be, is doomed to defeat. National Review ran a recent cover story positing not only that the GOP is likely to lose the presidency in 2008, but that the loss may mark the beginning of a long period of wandering in the wilderness as the party gropes to redefine itself after George W. Bush’s calamitous tenure. Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry write:

Conservatives tend to blame their travails on Republican politicians’ missteps and especially on their inability to communicate. But the public’s unhappiness with Republicans goes much deeper than any such explanation. A mishandled war, coupled with intellectual exhaustion on the domestic front, has soured the public on them. It is not just the politicians but conservative voters themselves who are out of touch with the public, stuck in the glory days of the 1980s and not thinking nearly enough about how to make their principles relevant to the concerns of today. Unforeseen events could yet change the political environment radically. As it stands, Republicans are sleep-walking into catastrophe.1

What would be a rational Republican response to this grim state of affairs? Given both the apparent ideological heterogeneity of the candidates and the soul-searching taking place even in the pages of National Review about how badly conservatism has failed the country, one might think that the GOP in 2008 would disclaim at least some of its current radical conservative positions and inch back toward the political center.

David Frum, the conservative analyst who formerly wrote speeches for Bush, proposes something along these lines (although he prefers calling it conservatism updated for the twenty-first century rather than centrism) in Comeback. To help the GOP recover from its present shabby state, for example, Frum preaches a “Green Conservatism” in which the GOP fights the Democrats for the allegiance of environmentally minded voters, going so far as to endorse a carbon tax. He also advocates a conservatism for the middle class that actually wants to do something about the problem of uninsured middle-class Americans. He even calls for a conservatism that respects the rights of prisoners, including “conjugal visits” and “enjoyable food.” He combines these with newfangled defenses of traditional conservative positions—for example, a softer opposition to abortion that emphasizes “education and persuasion rather than coercion, changes in attitudes and beliefs rather than changes in law and public policy.” More than once while reading Comeback, I nodded, thinking that the GOP could do worse than to listen to him. In urging a new course, he joins other conservative writers like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who argued in The Weekly Standard in 2005 for a “Sam’s Club Conservatism” that makes economic appeals to working-class voters.

Whatever Frum may hope for, however, we have to deal with actually existing Republicanism, as it is being played out in the current race. And that Republicanism is quite the opposite: on nearly every issue, the major candidates have run hard to the right, exceptions (John McCain on immigration) being vastly outnumbered by the rule. All of the major candidates agree, among other things, on policy toward Iraq and Iran, on judicial appointments, and on low taxes for the well-off.

Conventional wisdom would assert that they have done so simply to pander to Republican primary voters, and that the nominee will move toward the center for the general election. He may well do so as a matter of political calculation. Just one or two slightly heterodox positions that reduce well to journalistic shorthand—on education, or, as Frum suggests, on the environment—should do the trick.

But the important question is not how the nominee will position himself next fall. Think, after all, about Bush’s talk of “compassionate conservatism” in 2000 and about how the national press fell for it. The important question is how he will govern should he win. And the generally ignored story of this race so far is that in truth, dramatic ideological change among the Republicans is highly unlikely. Despite Bush’s failures and the discrediting of conservative governance, there is every chance that the next Republican president, should the party’s nominee prevail next year, will be just as conservative as Bush has been—perhaps even more so.

How could this be? The explanation is fairly simple. It has little to do with the out-of-touch politicians and conservative voters Ponnuru and Lowry cite and reflects instead the central hard truth about the components of the Republican Party today. That is, the party is still in the hands of three main interests: neoconservatives; theo-conservatives, i.e., the groups of the religious right; and radical anti-taxers, clustered around such organizations as the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Each of these groups dominates party policy in its area of interest—the neocons in foreign policy, the theocons in social policy, and the anti-taxers on fiscal and regulatory issues.2 Each has led the Bush administration to undertake a high-profile failure: the theocons orchestrated the disastrous Terri Schiavo crusade, which put off many moderate Americans; the radical anti-taxers pushed for the failed Social Security privatization initiative; and the neocons, of course, wanted to invade Iraq.

Three failures, and there are more like them. And yet, so far as the internal dynamics of the Republican Party are concerned, they have been failures without serious consequence, because there are no strong countervailing Republican forces to present an opposite view or argue a different set of policies and principles.

The two major American political parties have always been amalgams of factions, especially the Democratic Party, from its early tensions between Jacksonian frontier populists and Adams-descended Northern reformers up through the late-nineteenth-century disputes between the mercantilist “Bourbon Democrats” and the prairie populists led by William Jennings Bryan. Then came the uneasy New Deal coalition of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists, and finally, in our time, the sometimes bitter feuds between liberals and centrists. The Republican Party’s history is slightly less convulsive, partly because its initial factions such as Whigs and Free-Soilers found unity under Abraham Lincoln on the central question of slavery. But in time the Republican coalition came to include both staunchly pro-business and trust-busting interests; nearer our own era, there was also room enough within the party for domestic conservatives and moderates, supporters and foes of the New Deal, and foreign policy internationalists and isolationists.

Today’s Republican Party is different. It is essentially a faction: the conservative movement, which consists of the various branches described above, each with its different priorities. (We may lately add a fourth offshoot, the nativist anti-immigrant tendency, which embarrassed Bush last spring when it blocked the reasonable and comprehensive immigration bill the President supported.) Those branches, which of course overlap, are not sharply at odds with one another over fundamental questions, as the Democrats’ factions are on, say, trade, and where they disagree, they tend not to air those disagreements publicly, especially at election time.3 There are a handful of vestigial Republican moderates; but they have no national power at all. The man who might have been able to change the party, the governor of the nation’s largest state, cannot by accident of birth run for president, so he has gone as far as he can. In Congress, Republicans who are the least bit out of step with the goals of the conservative movement, people who in a different party might have made attractive national candidates (most notably Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel), are simply jumping ship and retiring, unable any longer to fight the obvious truth that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are one and the same.

The disarray following a loss next year might well embolden the moderate forces to stage a comeback. But suppose the Republican nominee wins next November, a possibility that is not as far-fetched as it may seem, particularly if some development in the Middle East or a national security threat were used to scare voters. No matter what the polls say today, a campaign built around scaring Americans into thinking that the Democrat will not protect them is one that always stands a chance of working, especially if that Democrat is a black man or a woman. Should that happen, there is no credible reason to believe that the neocons, theocons, and anti-taxers will hold any less power in the new administration than they have in Bush’s.

On foreign policy, despite the Iraq war, the neoconservatives still hold tremendous sway in GOP circles. Jacob Heilbrunn, a former New Republic writer who has written incisively about the movement over the years, explains why in They Knew They Were Right, his excellent new history of neoconservatism. Heilbrunn adroitly surveys the movement’s history, from the Trotskyist alcoves of the City College cafeteria up to the present day. With respect to the future, he argues that the neocons’ main potential competitors, the foreign policy realists, have not prepared for long-term battle the way the neocons have:

So it will take an insurgency inside the GOP itself to dislodge the neoconservatives. But whether the old guard in the GOP has the mettle for that battle is dubious. There has been no real attempt to create new generations of realists to replace the Scowcrofts and Bakers and Schlesingers. The contrast between the Nixon Center event honoring Brent Scowcroft in 2006 and the [American Enterprise Institute] dinner for Bernard Lewis was striking. At the former, elderly veterans of the Nixon, Ford, and Bush administrations reminisced about their glory days…. Meanwhile, at the AEI dinner, none of the neoconservatives displayed much doubt about their own influence. Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg, for example, was dumbfounded by neoconservative serenity….

The extent to which the major Republican candidates, with the partial exception of Mike Huckabee, have backed the neocon worldview is striking. Exhibit A is of course Rudy Giuliani. The former mayor has organized his campaign around the fight against terrorism and to that end has assembled a hard-line foreign policy team led by Yale professor Charles Hill, a noted neoconservative and member of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the group that pressed Bush to invade Iraq after September 11. (Nine days after the attacks, Hill signed a PNAC letter arguing that refusal to invade Iraq “will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”4 ) Norman Podhoretz, who has a prominent spot on the Giuliani team, is still agitating for war with Iran, even after the early December release of the National Intelligence Estimate that demolished any rationale for such a strike. Podhoretz writes of his “dark suspicions” that the intelligence community was both seeking to undermine Bush and rushing to judgment on the basis of scant evidence.5

  1. 1

    The Grim Truth,” National Review, November 19, 2007.

  2. 2

    Big business, the traditional linchpin of the GOP, is more divided this year than at any time in recent memory. One of many representative pieces of evidence is Jeanne Cummings, “Business Abandons GOP for Democrats,” The Politico, October 15, 2007. Cummings reported that “all 10 of the top-giving industries tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan money and politics watchdog group, are now donating more cash to Democrats than Republicans.” Only the oil and gas sector held firm for the GOP. (On December 11, National Review endorsed Mitt Romney on the grounds that the editors find him most likely to unite and please precisely these three constituencies.)

  3. 3

    There was some dissent on Iraq. Norquist, for example, had misgivings about the war from early on but did not make them public until after Bush won reelection.

  4. 4

    See www.newamericancentury.org/Bushletter.htm.

  5. 5

    From Podhoretz’s blog on Commentary‘s Web site; see www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/podhoretz/1474.

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