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11/20/2004
TOWARDS CONSERVATIVE GOVERNENCE
CATEGORY: General

Light posting today. Significant Otherhawk has ordered me to keep my feet up due to swelling. Apparently, when one sits for 12-14 hours at a computer desk, one retains water in the feet (better there than my head).

I first posted this last month and it received perhaps the most hits of any posting I’ve had.

Friday, October 22, 2004
TOWARDS CONSERVATIVE GOVERNANCE

I’m exhausted.

This race, with its ups and downs, surges and collapses, resembles not so much a rollercoaster but rather a modified version of the rack with John Kerry tightening the screws one day and George Bush the next.

Today, I’d like to get away from this torture and delve into something I’ve been thinking about for going on well nigh 25 years; the idea of conservative governance.

What brought this on was a thoughtful article by Mark Schmitt who writes for his blog “The Decembrist,” named for a group of early 19th century liberal Russian aristocrats who briefly rebelled against Tsar Alexander I. Scmitt is a former aide to Senator Bill Bradley, another thoughtful man (who proved to be just a little TOO thoughtful to be President).

The thesis of Mr. Schmitt’s article is that the Presidency of George Bush has destroyed modern American conservatism. This is a large indictment for so small an article. And while Schmitt makes many interesting points about the fumblings of Bush and his advisors with regards to budget busting social programs and intrusive federal social engineering projects, I believe Mr. Schmitt is looking in his rear view mirror rather than at the road ahead. The ideas of Hayek, Buckley, Goldwater, and to a certain extent Reagan, have crashed on the shoals of real politik formulations in foreign affairs as a result of 9/11 (an event Mr. Schmitt deems not important enough to mention) and, more importantly, the political necessity of governance in a liberal democratic society. All of this begs the $64,000 question:

Can conservative ideas and values achieve majority status in a nation governed for nearly 100 years by liberal ideas and values?

Mr. Schmitt starts off his article by pointing to three well-known conservatives on various pegs of the conservative plinko board who will not be voting for President Bush on November 2. Since elections are about choice, one shouldn’t begrudge people their opinion of who will serve best as a vessel for their ideological predilections. Hence, while revealing an interesting schism in current conservative thinking (that everyone EVERYWHERE believes will erupt into a full blown war after the election, Bush win or lose) it’s hardly a basis for trumpeting the end of conservatism as we know it.

Mr. Schmitt then delves into what he sees as the essence of conservatism and its cohesive nature:

“For the last several years, liberals have bemoaned the idea that conservatives seemed to have a coherent, relatively simple philosophy: small government, low taxes, free trade, strong defense but non-interventionist foreign policy. But what is left of conservatism now except tax cuts, especially tax cuts that benefit particular financial interests? Tax cuts are not conservatism. They are not a coherent worldview.”

“Non-interventionist foreign policy?” I had to scratch my head and wonder where Mr. Schmitt may have been hibernating for the last 25 years. In order; Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. (The latter two interventions not possible without STRONG conservative support in Congress). The list does not include the odd MIG shot down over the Gulf of Sidra or the occasional cruise missile lobbed in the direction of Mr. Bin Laden. Leaving all that aside, the major argument that Mr. Schmitt and many conservatives seems to be making is that George Bush has abandoned the principle of small government. There’s a very good reason for this:

The principle of small government is as dead and outmoded as the horse and buggy.

President Reagan, God rest his noble soul, was perhaps the last Republican President to actually believe he could completely roll back the idea of of a large, centralized government. Unlike the crash-and-burn, do-or-die Goldwaterites of the 1960’s, Reagan, according to his hagiographer Dinesh D’Souza, believed the key to victory was a “wily and opportunistic” effort in “finding issues that allow(ed) him to neutralize his strongest opposition and allow(ed) him to find his greatest common ground with his popular constiuency.” This common ground included, but was not limited to restoring America’s national defense posture and status as the preeminent superpower on the planet.

Reagan’s national security stance drove a stake through the heart of the old Democratic Party coalition by stealing white urban ethnics from key battleground states. These working class voters were opposed to Mr. Reagan’s economic policies but disgusted with the McGovernites who had captured the party and turned it towards pacifism and surrender. Most of these ethnics were first or second generation immigrants from Eastern Europe who were outraged at what they saw as the Democratic Party’s abandonment of their friends and relatives in Warsaw Pact countries. Reagan appealed to these voters with a combination of patriotic sentiment and realistic confrontation with the old Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, these ethnics returned to the party of their fathers and helped elect Bill Clinton to the Presidency. By necessity, the Republican party was forced to change tactics and try to appeal to some of these same voters while trying to expand a narrow base of so-called “Main Street” Republicans, whose bread and butter issues were economic, and social conservatives, whose activism on issues like abortion and school prayer scared the bejeebeez out of many potential voters who ordinarily would lean Republican.

Enter Newt Gingrich. It’s a shame that Mr. Gingrich was such a polarizing figure. Blessed with a first class mind, Mr. Gingrich was cursed with a partisan streak a mile wide. It was his partisanship that doomed his attempt to try and fashion a governing majority of conservatives housed under a big tent Republican party. This partisanship, while it led to a political majority in Congress, proved to be an impediment to fashioning a one party super-majority of conservatives that could implement the kind of radical restructuring Mr. Gingrich had envisioned.

Mr. Schmitt rightly questions the last 10 years of Republican majority rule in Congress by asking the “what if” question of a Bush loss:

“If Bush loses, serious conservatives, with the possible exception of extreme social conservatives, will have to ask themselves what they gained from four years of unfettered power, and ten years of domination of American politics. Government is “bigger” by every measure, and more intrusive. A pet idea, Social Security privatization, was actually discredited by their president’s incompetence. Younger voters are increasingly turned off by the social conservatism, so the movement is not expanding its base. A huge new entitlement was created. The federal role in education expanded.”

All of the above is true. And what Schmitt calls “Bush-DeLayism” (an odd but revealing combo given that Schmitt passes over mentioning the Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert who is known for his efforts at cross-party coalition building while highlighting the lightning rod DeLay) has failed utterly and miserably to restrain the growth of federal spending while using high-handed partisan tactics (reminiscent of tactics used by Democrats in the 1980’s) to ram through the Republican’s agenda.

But what Mr. Schmitt fails to realize or refuses to acknowledge is the truly transformational nature of Mr. Bush’s policy proposals. What he so blithely dismisses as a “contrivance,” the idea of an “ownership” society is a truly radical departure from the idea of “dependency.” It is an attempt to overturn and radically alter the social contract in America that exists between the governed and the governors. Mr. Schmitt doesn’t think so:

“Bush-DeLayism’s greatest betrayal of conservatism is in its rejection of this modesty about social scheming. Because of its corruption and incompetence, their practice has consisted of ever more complicated schemes of incentives and penalties to change behavior: No Child Left Behind, for example, whose main flaw is not that its underfunded, but that it tries to micromanage local schools through pokes and prods from a set of rules set in Washington. The Medicare bill and the Bush health plans, which attempt to incentivize one thing or another, and are horribly contrived even if you believe that the combination of Health Savings Accounts and catastrophic plans will improve American health care and not destroy it.”

I reject Mr. Schmitt’s gratuitous use of the words “corruption and incompetence” as they relate to the Bush administration’s efforts to fix an educational system near total and complete collapse as a direct result of his party’s being beholden to the most radical group of social engineers in the country today; teachers and their bloated and misguided unions. As far as Medicare reform, all one can say is that it’s a small step towards much-needed reform. Beyond that, may I request of Mr. Schmitt that he at least wait until the damn program is fully up and running before he judges it a failure? And if he has a crystal ball that allows him to see the future so clearly , perhaps he’d allow me to borrow it for a few days as I wish to purchase some stock options.

Whither then conservatism? I’m not alone in believing that George Bush is a transformational figure in American politics. Norman Podhoretz’s September, 2004 “Commentary” article entitled “World War IV” not only gives the best rationale for the war in Iraq I’ve seen to date, but also lays out a compelling argument that, forced by circumstances following the attacks of 9/11, Bush transformed American foreign policy by radically altering the conditions and intellectual underpinnings regarding the use of American power to the point that future President’s will only be able to change this policy in the margins, not overturn it.

Kerry can brag all he wants to about coalition building. But, to borrow a recent line from one of his campaign speeches, “Look behind you, Mr. President…there’s no one there.” It is beyond belief that Mr. Kerry actually thinks he can revive a moribund trans-atlantic alliance as long as France, Germany, and Russia work towards an EU (or somebody…anybody) that can act as a counterweight against American power. It is, to my mind, delusional. “Old Europe” as Donald Rumsfield indelicately called them, will cooperate with the US as it suits their national interests, and not much beyond that. It would take someone with considerably more charm and diplomatic skill than Mr. Kerry to alter this. For the forseeable future, our allies will be found in tradition (England and Australia) and in the emerging democracies of eastern europe and Asia.

As for domestic policy, Mr. Bush’s prescriptions presage broader reform involving not only health care and education, but also housing, welfare, scientific research, and perhaps social security. I’m surprised Mr. Schmitt did not mention social security, given that the President’s proposal to allow younger workers to invest part of their contribution in private accounts is perhaps the most radical of all Bush “ownership” society ideas. Budget shortfalls as a result of such a change in the retirement system may doom its passage…but that doesn’t mitigate it’s revolutionary nature.

Finally, Mr. Schmitt closes with an apology of sorts:

“I recognize, though, that I am not a conservative, and have about as much right to offer my opinion about what American conservatives should think or say as I do about whether the Catholic mass should be in Latin or English. But I’ve learned a lot from conservative writing and thinking, and I am very serious in believing that we will be worse off without its insights.”

Mr. Schmitt’s ideas and criticisms are always welcome. Reasoned discourse among people is what’s missing from today’s political climate. Schmitt, who has a first class mind, is I believe, wrongheaded in his thesis. But his civility is a breath of fresh air in the poisoned partisan atmosphere that permeates the body politic.

CORRECTION:

I stated incorrectly that Mr. Schmitt did not mention social security reform in his article. Mr. Schmitt used the phrase “social security privatization” and says that it’s discredited.

I don’t think any responsible politician has advocated scrapping the current federal retirement system for wholesale “privatization.” The rather modest proposal regarding younger workers would be voluntary and has hardly been discredited.

By: Rick Moran at 5:23 am

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