Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Digging out

What does American politics hold in the next couple years, as the Bush era (mercifully) limps to an end? The GOP's degeneration in the last eight years has been astonishing - if Bush is not the worst president ever, this is definitely the worst GOP ever. Neither liberal nor conservative, it's become a bad - incompetently, if unintentionally, bad - parody of liberalism.

I could spend this posting telling you about what 2008 will be like ... so you can roll over and go back to sleep. The Republican nominee will probably be Rudy, although Romney has a significant chance as a darkhorse - and would make a better president than Giuliani. The Democratic nominee will almost certainly be Hillary. It might thus be a cross-town World Series for New Yorkers, with Rudy the more likely to win.

But that would be trite crystal-ball gazing. Let's instead survey the forces and dynamics and apply the kinematics and boundary conditions as best we can.

The Republicans: confused and in disarray. The "disillusioned conservative" trend ("conservative" not to be confused with "Republican") has grown from the cottage industry of 2002-03 to boom times. Well-known conservatives like William Buckley, George Will, Robert Novak, Christopher Caldwell, Irwin Stelzer, Andrew Sullivan, Tucker Carlson, P. J. O'Rourke, and Peggy Noonan have been expressing their dismay and displeasure for several years running. A more recent crop of the disillusioned are now cranking out books: they include Bernard Goldberg's Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right, Richard Viguerie's Conservatives Betrayed, Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory, and Bruce Bartlett's Impostor. The most striking thing about the post-1998 years, as Bartlett acutely points out, has been the sharp decline of ideology and serious policy debate, as evidenced by the silence of the Washington think tanks (except for Cato - see below). The liberal-conservative debate about the proper scope of government that reached fever pitch in the 1960s and 70s - and dominated through the 90s and a Democratic presidency - has vanished. The danger that the then-approaching GOP majority posed was predicted more than 12 years ago by David Frum in his Dead Right, just before the Republicans took control of Congress: Republicans would learn to love big government - for ostensibly conservative purposes - and lose sight of any larger goals, especially pruning and reforming the welfare state and readjusting America's foreign commitments post-Cold War. Instead, he suspected they would develop a strong taste for big government, as long as they were running it. The conservative movement was even then (in 1994) confused about the difference between the conservative message and being Republican partisans. And in 1994, no one foresaw, say, Jack Abramoff's future career or the explosion of earmarks and pork-barrel.

The Republicans faced a difficult choice in 1995, one that becoming the majority party forced on them: after talking conservative for years, they had to put or shut up. Four years later, in 1998-99, we got the answer. Newt resigned and the conservative era came to an end, with some accomplishments (welfare reform, reigning in farm subsidies) that would soon be partly undone. The Republicans then drifted into a new direction. Unwilling to really be a conservative party, they stumbled into the big government Republicanism that Frum predicted: socially conservative, patriotic, mildly authoritarian, more government - and more pork. They settled on a presidential candidate (Bush) answering to this description, and a campaign strategist (Rove) determined to permanently win over the Catholic and white southern vote for good with big government. With a Republican White House and Congress, everything seemed set. Congress would not interfere with Bush, and Bush would sign everything Congress sent him - including two new major middle-class entitlements (Medicare D and Leave No Child's Behind). Congressional Republicans would vote themselves enough pork to guarantee their re-election in perpetuity. A new era seemed at hand - the new politics was anti-ideological, but intensely partisan. In place of small-government conservatism or the liberal Republican devotion to "good government" would come "loyalism" and vote-buying: government as frat house.*

Unlike liberalism, conservatism did not die a natural death. And conservatives didn't disappear either. Instead they were marginalized by the only force that could marginalize them - the Republican party itself. Conservative fixtures of the House and Senate retired from politics, their place taken by right-leaning Democrats newly converted to the GOP. The conservative base became confused, hesitant, then more and more angry. Something had gone wrong.

The Democrats: desperate, still a bit unhinged. They want the White House back so badly, it hurts. Many still suffer from Bush-derangement syndrome. Now that they control the Congress, controlling all the elected branches of government again would be sweet - not that they deserve to. The modern Democratic party went off the rails in the 1960s and 70s and has never recovered. The distinction between the left fringe and the mainstream has become more and more blurred - it's the Democratic party's biggest long-term vulnerability. And the real problem with that left fringe is not that they're stupid and juvenile (they are); it's that they crave power but no longer know what it's good for. The implicit signal they emit is very obvious: they don't like or understand power, and they don't know what to do with it. Voters have been picking up this message for more than three decades and reacting accordingly.

And this from the party that invented modern big government to serve broad public goals - it's no longer sure what the public good is or whether it even exists. Only special interest group and identity politics push their buttons now. The Democrats have been politically, morally, and intellectually braindead for thirty years, and they lack coherent rationales for the very things they invented - the modern welfare state and an interventionist, globalist foreign policy. A striking example of their incoherence is immigration; see Mickey Kaus' discussion for more about the Democrats' apparent indifference to all the worrisome trends of the last 15 years: rising inequality, state and local government bankruptcy, and the failure of sovereignty. It shows that while the US is not in the dire straits of denial that Europe is in, it's not all smooth sailing here. The religion of political correctness is powerful in the US as well, as is the role of elites in suppressing politically touchy but critical issues.

This bankruptcy was again on display in the Democrats' 2006 campaign themes: no mention of the desperate need for entitlement and welfare-state reform, for curbing Congress' appetite for pork, or changing the entrenchment of incumbency. Of the three serious Democratic candidates, only Hillary has any realistic awareness of these issues, and what she will make of them is anyone's guess - she'll be coy about them for as long as she can. Forget about Obama: he's callow, too young, and has no experience. The Democratic candidate with the most depth (Richardson) has no chance of being nominated.**

For the Democrats, 2008 promises to be their last hurrah for the forseeable future, so they should make the most of it. Against a background of disillusionment with Bush, their victories in 2006 were due far more to Republican confusion and cluelessness (and conservative voters staying home) than anything else. Once Bush & Co. are gone, it will be springtime for Republicans, who are more likely than not to retake the Senate in 2008. But it will not be a new conservative era: the 20-year era of conservative ideological dominance, from the late 70s to the late 90s, will probably not return in our lifetimes. Everyone now loves big government. Only the doughty libertarian Cato Institute has had the balls to consistently sound the alarm, best seen in their two major studies of the Bush years, Buck Wild and Leviathan on the Right.

Will the liberal Republicans ride to the rescue? Maybe. Liberal Republicans like politics and don't suffer from the conservatives' fatal ambivalence about being in charge of modern government. And unlike Bush, they value competence above machine politics and loyalty. They also lack Bush's faith-based, blindfolded, trust-walk style, and are not tainted with same. Although liberal Republicans are the smallest faction of the Republican party, they sit the closest to the center of gravity of American politics - unlike the conservatives or the Bush fraternity house. To update what I said last year: the future of the Republican party, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to them.***
* Rove is the bespeckled, geeky schemer that many frat houses seem to have.

** Note to Hillary: Richardson would make an excellent VP choice.

*** Apparently the New Republic is now saying the same thing.

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