Monday, December 31, 2007

Conservatives in 2008 and Beyond

It's pretty well the consensus opinion that conservatives are in disarray, and that election 2008 is the Democrats to lose.

The point is stressed in
Michael Tomasky's new essay on the conservative movement at the New York Review of Books. Here's the introduction:

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.
You can see where this is headed, Tomasky being hopelessly liberal. He's often wrong as well, for example, when he made a rookie error in an essay awhile back stating that California had 57 Electoral College votes (it's actually 55).

In the current essay Tomasky - arguing from a pre-surge mindset - calls Iraq a "failure." This is not surprising considering the media elite's tremendous resistance to reporting increasing progress in the war (
Iraqis are celebrating New Year's Eve this year, for example).

Tomasky does provide an interesting breakdown of the GOP's partisan coalition, noting that the GOP is: 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. Each has led the Bush administration to undertake a high-profile failure: the theocons orchestrated the disastrous Terri Schiavo crusade, which put off many moder-ate Americans; the radical anti-taxers pushed for the failed Social Security privatization initiative; and the neocons, of course, wanted to invade Iraq....

Today's Republican 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. 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.

Tomasky suggests that should the GOP win next November (a good possibility, he notes), there's little likelihood the party will move to the moderate center. The neocons will be too powerful for that:

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.") 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.

I wrote on Michael Desch's demonization of Giuliani's neoconservative brain trust yesterday.

Tomasky doesn't go so far, but he's working in the same neighborhood - although he does sink to a conspiritorial tone when labeling Giuliani's stated foreign policy principles as part of the "the basic neocon outlook."

After a cursory discussion of the foreign policies of the remaining GOP candidates, Tomasky mentions how the "theo-conservatives" will influence the party, and then shifts over to the GOP's tax-cutting base:

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.

[David] 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.

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.

Tomasky's basic point of criticism mimics the hard-left's: That health care provision ought to be a public entitlement rather than a personal responsibility.

In his conclusion, Tomasky seems to have prepared a bit for the possibility of a GOP comeback in 2008, but he's relieved that a new Republican administration won't likely replicate the take-no-prisoners style of the George W. Bush years:

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 [of the current GOP field] 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.

Tomasky finds the George W. Bush administration to have been a monumental disaster.

I don't. Tomasky's view will be proven wrong by the record of history, although California will have 57 Electoral College votes some day.


UPDATE: Ross Douthat, over at The Atlantic, criticizes Tomasky's essay in terms of the conservative tripartite coalition's propensity for internecine warfare (via Memeorandum):

He [Tomasky] treats the alliance between the three interest groups listed above as a near-immutable fact of conservative politics, and argues that any realignment of the GOP must, perforce, be driven by Republicans who are "outside" the conservative movement. (He offers the names Chuck Hagel and Arnold Schwarzenegger as examples of the sort of politicians he has in mind.) Tomasky acknowledges the unlikelihood of this "revolt of the moderates" scenario; what he doesn't acknowledge, I think, is the growing likelihood of fissures within the conservative movement reshaping the ground of GOP politics.

It's true that the current conservative intelligentsia, forged in the crucible of Ronald Reagan's successes, is heavily invested in keeping the triple alliance intact - hence the Thompson bubble, the anti-Huckabee crusade, and the "rally round Romney" effect. And it's true, as well, that if the Republican Party recovers its majority in the next election the alliance will be considerably strengthened. But such a recovery is unlikely, and already, in the wake of just a single midterm-election debacle, it's obvious that the Norquistians and neocons and social conservatives aren't inevitable allies - that many tax-cutters and foreign-policy hawks, for instance, would happily screw over their Christian-Right allies to nominate Rudy Giuliani; or that many social conservatives don't give a tinker's dam what the Club for Growth thinks about Mike Huckabee's record. (So too with the neocon yearning for a McCain-Lieberman ticket, which would arguably represent a far more radical remaking of the GOP coalition than anything Chuck Hagel has to offer.)
That's a slick take on things. I love the idea of a McCain-Lieberman ticket myself, but as I noted in the previous post, my concern is for the GOP to decide on a standard-bearer quickly, enabling Republicans to unify strongly around the nominee and fight aggressively to win in the general.