Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Conservatives forgot their history, not their "principles"

With the disaster of the last general election, conservatives are taking stock of their future prospects for success — or at least they think they are. But as things stand now, get ready for the same old, same old.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in a recent piece, the traditionalist school believes that conservatism lost because of its hypocrisy, preaching “smaller government and lower taxes” while spending gobs of public money on even their own pet projects and becoming entrenched in the ways of Washington.

That sounds good, except for one thing: It isn’t true.

What really killed the conservative movement was that its tactics of divide-and-conquer, reducing campaigns to class and culture wars as far back as the Nixon years but which found the motherlode in 1980, finally stopped working. Its political class from the start acted as though power and authority were its birthright, and its propaganda machine was exposed about a decade ago. In short, it never intended to answer to anyone else, let alone the public — and that cultural arrogance brought it down.

In fact, what we call modern conservatism had four distinct pillars that normally didn’t mesh: 1) libertarians, who really do believe in less government; 2) social conservatives, including the “religious right”; 3) business groups; and 4) neo-conservatives, including Cold Warriors. That coalition hung together as long as the Federal government remained the target, but things started to crumble with the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

As a result, libertarians became at odds with the neo-cons, who were often former liberals who believed in using governmental power to promote conservative ideals; the business groups, who contributed highly-paid lobbyists to subvert the process; and the social conservatives who, they believed, wanted a theocracy. Corporate honchos ran afoul of the social conservatives because of their tomcatting. And so on, and so on…

That’s why Bill Clinton became a threat when he ran for president in 1992.

Chairman of the business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton managed to shear off the business wing of the Reagan coalition, causing no end of consternation for the conservatives desperate to regain dominance. They thought they had succeeded with the gimmickry of the 1994 “Contract On” — whoops — “With America” during the midterm election and became sure that they could build on it. However, the next year Clinton booby-trapped the freshman House Republicans in a showdown over the Federal budget, offering a balanced budget but saving the social programs they wanted to be cut, the standoff leading to two government shutdowns for which the GOP was blamed. That skirmish ensured Clinton’s reelection and prompted the conservative apparatus to trigger a failed impeachment, in part because it now understood that the populace really wanted Social Security and Medicare, among other programs. Eventually, thanks indirectly to Hillary Clinton’s complaint about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” (which was true for the most part), the right-wing media machine was exposed.

Ultimately, however, it was conservatives’ failure, especially under George W. Bush, to govern properly that has driven them into exile — the debacle of the war in Iraq and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, plus the Jack Abramoff-fueled lobbying scandal and James Dobson’s ineffective “Stand for the Family” rallies in battleground states during the 2006 general election. Still reeling, the early “October surprise” of the September financial meltdown not only finished off John McCain but, perhaps more importantly, gave more seats in both houses of Congress to the Democrats.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum was quoted in an article, “The Fall of Conservatism” published in May in The New Yorker, as saying that “the problems in the Republican Party will not be fixed.” I think he’s right, because the political right is now in denial — trying to figure out how to sell its ideology to a public that has clearly rejected it. Incredibly, congressional Republicans have hunkered down and remained committed to the cause, evidenced by their unanimous opposition to the financial bailout — but for the foreseeable future they will continue to be little more than irritants with no real power. Serves them right.

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