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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

Giuliani has written, or at least put his name to, a bromide-laden piece in the September–October 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs—the kind of grand foreign policy statement that presidential aspirants feel obliged to make. The essay, which opens with the sentence “We are all members of the 9/11 generation,” embraces the basic neocon outlook that we are locked in a struggle to the death with forces of “Islamic fascism” whose adherents hate us for our freedoms, and capitalizes phrases like “the Terrorists’ War on Us” (twice in the first seven paragraphs). On Iraq, Giuliani elsewhere says that “I think we should give our troops a chance to succeed in Iraq. Our goal in Iraq is victory.”

McCain has positioned himself as one of the Senate’s leading hawks on Iraq, going out of his way to heap abuse on the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report a year ago, even before Bush made up his mind to reject its findings. In a recent debate, he said that in Iraq “we are succeeding…. Now we have a successful strategy. We can succeed. We will succeed.” His foreign policy team is somewhat more diverse than Giuliani’s (he says he talks to a few realists, such as Scowcroft), but it, too, includes many prominent neocons: William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Max Boot; Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute; and Randy Scheunemann, a former director of PNAC who helped found the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an advocacy group that pushed for war against Iraq after September 11.

Romney’s advisers on foreign policy are less well known. They include Dan Senor, the former spokesman of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and longtime CIA analyst Cofer Black, the point man for the US government’s counterterrorism policy during Bush’s first term, and now the vice-chair of Blackwater USA, the largest of the State Department’s “private security” contractors in Iraq. One of Romney’s more memorable utterances from this campaign was his vow to “double Guantánamo,” made last May at a forum when he was asked about interrogation techniques for terror suspects.

Mike Huckabee, until recently not considered a serious candidate, didn’t have the money in early 2007 to assemble any such team. That may be one reason why he has departed somewhat from the prevailing views. Huckabee’s major foreign policy statement came in an essay in the January– February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs. The article made headlines when it was released in mid-December for its assertion that the Bush administration was guilty of an “arrogant bunker mentality” in dealing with the world. Some Bush foes praised Huckabee’s forthrightness, while other candidates, especially Romney, attacked him.

But the policies he describes would represent less of a departure from Bush foreign policy than his attention-getting phrase suggests. He is far more critical of Pakistan and President Pervez Musharraf than most neoconservatives, and he places somewhat more emphasis on negotiations with Iran than do Bush or Huckabee’s opponents. But he supports the administration’s sanctions against Iran. He endorses the same stay-the-course position on Iraq. And he sees the battle against terrorism in the same kind of cultural terms, although his rhetoric of choice is Southern Baptist rather than chastened leftist (i.e., the neocons): “America’s culture of life stands in stark contrast to the jihadists’ culture of death.”6

As a second-tier candidate, Huckabee was not expected to flash any great expertise on foreign policy, and he apparently didn’t make much of an effort to acquire it. A full day after the Iran NIE was released, Huckabee had to admit to a reporter that he hadn’t heard of it.7 If Huckabee continues to be one of the top candidates, we should pay attention to his foreign policy pronouncements. It’s a good bet that he will undergo some crash tutorials and start to sound more like Giuliani and McCain.

The theoconservatives are thought to be on the defensive this election cycle, with their grip on the GOP loosening. In some superficial ways this is true. There is no candidate who passes every one of their basic litmus test issues, and, if Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination, the party will have selected a pro-choice nominee for the first time since 1976. Still, where is the countervailing force to the religious right in the party? As with the neocons, there is none. (Frances FitzGerald and other writers have observed a more liberal trend among some of the large evangelical churches; but right-wing evangelicals continue to dominate among Republicans.) There are also organizations like the Ripon Society, which tries to press moderate social programs within the party, and there are nominal blocs of libertarians, but these groups are vastly outspent and outnumbered.

The religious right—in the form of its umbrella organization the Arlington Group, formed in 2002—is certainly split and unenthusiastic about the presidential candidates. Pat Robertson has endorsed Giuliani; Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, has said he could never vote for Giuliani and would consider backing a third-party candidate if Giuliani is nominated. So the unanimity on Bush’s behalf we saw in 2000 and in 2004 will likely be gone. But as far as policy is concerned, the Christian right has only one overriding goal: a promise from candidates that they’ll appoint “strict constructionist” judges. And every one of the candidates, Giuliani included, has made that promise resoundingly and repeatedly, in public and presumably in private. As recently as November, Giuliani told the conservative Federalist Society that “we need judges who embrace originalism” and vowed that he would appoint justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.8

That, above all, is what the Christian right needs to hear. It is well worth remembering that when the next president is sworn in, John Paul Stevens will be three months shy of his eighty-ninth birthday. It seems unlikely that he would be able to outlast a Giuliani or Romney or Huckabee or McCain presidency. One more judge like John Roberts or Samuel Alito will mean not only the probable end of Roe v. Wade but of affirmative action (sharply curtailed already), efforts at school desegregation (school systems have resegregated to a surprising extent in recent years), and many other progressive social goals. All of the four major Republican candidates have vowed to see to these outcomes. Paradoxically, the personally pro-choice Giuliani, if elected, could go down in history as a hero to the Christian right—the president who finally ended Roe—in a way that even Ronald Reagan has not.

The candidates’ pledges about judges highlight an important point. Lack of enthusiasm is not the same thing as lack of power, and the religious right still has power in the nominating process. Consider Mitt Romney’s recent speech on religion. In the speech, billed as Romney’s “JFK moment” because he would squarely address issues raised by his Mormon faith just as Kennedy famously did with regard to Catholicism, Romney promised that he would uphold the Constitution, not Latter Day Saints doctrine. But he also seemed to embrace a test for Americanism that stipulated some kind of religious belief, ignoring the long-held principles, to which even George Bush has paid rhetorical heed, that religious freedom includes the freedom not to believe and that nonbelievers can be good Americans, too. Romney found his mark: while the speech registered as perfunctory or disappointing in most mainstream circles, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, called it “magnificent,” “passionate,” and “inspirational.” (Dobson has not yet endorsed a candidate.)

The third leg of the conservative movement is in many ways the most important and comprehensive: all conservatives agree on less government, lower taxes, and less regulation. And all the candidates have pledged to support these goals.

Frum reminds us that in the real world, the salience of tax-cutting as an issue has been steadily eroding in recent years:

When Republicans speak of “tax cuts,” they mean “income tax cuts.” Yet after almost three decades of income-tax cutting, most Americans no longer pay very much income tax. In fact, four out of five taxpayers now pay more in payroll taxes than federal income taxes. Some 29 million income-earning American households pay no income tax at all. By contrast, the notorious top 1 percent of taxpayers pay well over one-third of all U.S. income taxes. The top 1 percent may make a disproportionate amount of money. But they still cast only 1 percent of the votes.

One can quibble that Frum’s math is probably slightly off since higher-income citizens are more likely to vote than poor people. But he is correct that for most Americans there simply isn’t much more income tax to cut, and that poll respondents repeatedly prefer either deficit reduction or particular types of public investment, such as health care.

But the major Republican candidates give no sign that it may be time to shift to a different set of priorities. They all emphasize tax-cutting and deregulation as the centerpieces of their economic policies, including now McCain, who had opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Indeed, one gets little indication from their speeches and platforms that serious domestic needs even exist. In August, for example, Giuliani released a health care plan whose main feature is tax exclusions of up to $7,500 per person and $15,000 per family that buys a health care plan. In order to help a family buy insurance, he proposed $15,000 of its income would not be taxed. But in reality, most uninsured families would derive little or no benefit from this plan because their incomes are already below the taxable level regardless of whether they are taking the exclusion. Even for wealthier households whose tax burdens would be reduced, the savings would certainly not come close to the $10,000 to $12,000 per year that most households would have to pay for family coverage.

So what is the purpose of Giuliani’s plan? The journalist Ezra Klein characterized it with asperity, and accuracy:

Rudy Giuliani doesn’t have a health care plan. What he has is a pretext with which to attack the Democrats. Indeed, just about all you need to know about Giuliani’s thoughtfulness on the issue can be summed up by the following: In the speech introducing and detailing his new health care proposal, Giuliani refers to the “Democrats” six times. “Single-payer” is said eight times. “Socialized medicine,” or some variant thereof, makes nine appearances. “Uninsured” is never uttered—not once.9

The reason Giuliani cannot release a health care plan that makes a genuine attempt at insuring the uninsured is not resistance from “politicians” and “conservative voters,” as Ponnuru and Lowry claim. He cannot do so because the important interest groups—such as the Club for Growth—that influence Republican fiscal policy would write him off, and in fact oppose him vehemently, if he tried to.

As an example of courageous heterodoxy on economic matters, some have pointed to Huckabee, whose record as governor of Arkansas, when he increased some taxes and spending on education, did indeed place him at loggerheads with the Club for Growth, which is distrustful of his record. But this is fantasy. Huckabee—as he hastens to point out when pressed on this matter—was compelled by state law to balance the budget (state governments can’t run deficits or print money), and he was under court order to increase spending on education.

For the nation as a whole, Huckabee proposes a regressive and onerous national sales tax. Called, with the usual spin, the “fair tax,” Huckabee’s tax plan would add about 30 percent (by conservative estimates) to the purchase price of durable goods, many household items, and even automobiles.10 It is arguably the most regressive tax plan put forward by any candidate. It comes as no surprise that despite the Club for Growth’s remonstrations, Huckabee is in good standing with Americans for Tax Reform, whose famous “pledge” not to raise taxes under any circumstances he has agreed to.

It is tempting to think that the Bush years have represented an apotheosis of conservatism, and that a future Republican administration would surely bring a kind of Thermidorean adjustment. It is also the case, obviously, that none of these men is George W. Bush and that each of them, as president, might at least be less stubborn, more interested in the details of policy, and less hostile to empirical evidence that does not support his preconceived notions.

But at the same time, one must remember that as far as movement conservatives are concerned, Bush has been something of a disappointment, and vast chunks of their plan for the country remain unrealized. The neocons will not quit wanting a preemptive strike against Iran, something the December NIE has seemingly ruled out for the rest of Bush’s term; they will welcome a fresh opportunity to push their case with an administration the public has not yet learned to distrust. The theocons still want Roe overturned, along with some other Warren Court precedents (watch, if the next president is a Republican, for a fresh assault on Warren-era decisions on criminal and civil procedure, for example Miranda v. Arizona). And for the radical anti-taxers’ tastes, the federal government is still far too large, its regulations far too numerous, and income tax and capital gains tax rates, even at their already reduced levels, far too high, not to mention the continued existence of that pesky Social Security system.

The Republican nominee, once he is named next spring, will undoubtedly tack toward the center during the general election campaign. But again, the important question is how he would govern. Presidents respond to the constituencies that put them in office, and a Republican president elected in 2008 will have been put in office by the factions that control his party. There is no reason to expect that he will defy those factions. Let us hope that in the long run, the Republicans outside them will decide to challenge their power.

—December 19, 2007

  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.

  6. 6

    America’s Priorities in the War on Terror,” Foreign Affairs, January/ February 2008.

  7. 7

    See Rick Pearson, “Huckabee Says He’s Unfamiliar with Intel Report,” Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2007.

  8. 8

    See David G. Savage, “Giuliani Says He’d Pick Conservative Justices,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2007.

  9. 9

    See Ezra Klein, “A Man with a (Non-) Plan,” The American Prospect on-line, August 2, 2007.

  10. 10

    The Huckabee campaign has described the national sales tax, which would amount to $30 on a $100 purchase, as a 23 percent tax, but the figure is misleading, since it is based on the new total price—$30 is 23 percent of $130—rather than on the original purchase amount that is being taxed. In fact, the additional tax would be equal to 30 percent of the purchase’s pre-tax value of $100.

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