Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Running on empty

PRE-POSTSCRIPT: Another thought about Ron Paul, this time from former Reason editor Virginia Postrel. Those of us over a certain age know about the "paleocons"; under a certain age, and you don't know about them. It's not your fault. And if you are a cosmopolitan, you needn't be rootless - another political joke from us old fogeys - guess you had to be there :-0

Postrel rarely comments on politics these days, at least directly; when she does, pay attention.
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Does Iowa mean anything? And what's up with New Hampshire? The ugh of politics returns.

It was nice to see the party establishments get it in the eye, with the rejection of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani - they deserve it. But what did Iowa caucusers pick and what does it mean? Overall, Huckabee and Obama are bad omens.

The parties have far less influence over voters' choices now than they once did. The media filled the void for more than a generation, but increasingly, no one fills that role - more and more people are tuning the media out (not a bad thing in many ways). So what we're getting is the bulk of voters less informed than ever, leavened with a small group of politics junkies. After seven years of complaints about Bush's inexperience and being domineered by an older and more experienced Vice President, we're getting the youngest and least experienced candidates. Whatever their rhetoric, they reflect a deep ignorance and indifference to serious political issues (especially foreign affairs) that have been growing since the end of the Cold War.

Another striking fact is the apparently complete changeover of the Republicans into a big-government party. In spite of his and the Congressional Republicans' love affair with growing government, even Bush didn't have what it takes to pull this off, and he's spent the last two years backtracking on the federal budget and foreign trade. But Bush and Rove made Huckabee possible. Make no mistake: that's his real significance, not the 20% or so of Republican voters who are evangelicals. Although Fred Thompson and Ron Paul still appeal to a strong remnant of small-government conservatives, that faction seems to make up no more than about 25%, a striking change from a generation ago. That's the impact of all those ex-Democrats now fully rebaptized as Republicans. The party transformed them; but they also transformed the party.

This development also explains another important fact. Although we live in a center-right country, and self-described liberals are shrinking as a proportion of voters, Republicans have been unable to translate these trends into a stable partisan majority. They reached their peak in 2002. The real winner of the last 15 years of political evolution has been "None of the Above." Voters who 10 or 20 years ago seemed to be headed toward becoming Republicans are now filling the ranks of independents, the only political grouping still growing in the United States. They make up almost 40% of voters and more than half in some states (including liberal strongholds like Massachusetts and California).

It is this development that has deprived the Democrats of the chance of becoming a majority party again, while at the same time preventing the Republicans from taking their place. Now that the Republican party is, in many ways, a party of conservative and populist Democrats ("compassionate conservatives," "neoconservatives," populist evangelicals, etc.), the right-leaning independent vote seems to be lost to them for good. That gives the Republicans a solid plurality (well over a third of voters), but not a majority. In a winner-take-all system such as ours, that creates a permanent problem: Republicans barely winning and barely able to govern; then conservative and independents abandoning the Republicans, the Democrats winning by default as a plurality but definitely unable to govern.

What do we have on the Democratic side? Candidates with little experience, struggling to increase the breadth of their appeal, with little depth. Obama right now acts more as a Rohrschach test than anything else, something he's clearly determined to maintain for as a long as he can. While he's cleverly fallen back on the Kennedyesque idealistic rhetoric of the pre-1965 era, what political beliefs he has are all post-1965. Meanwhile, there is a blatant contradiction between what Obama believes (racism is rampant, fight the Man) and what he is (a successful black politician for whom race is not that significant). Obama's friend Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, suffers from the same problem, disappointing everyone by turning out to be an empty suit.

It might be better if we abandoned the two-party system as an obsolete relic at this point and had candidates just run as free agents. It seems crazy, but with both parties now permanent minorities, maybe it's not so crazy. Neither party can muster solid majorities. Instead we end up with Republicans struggling and never quite reaching majority, and Democrats elected as a minority by default when the Republicans can't put together a majority. The last two Democratic presidents were minority presidents.

Finally, it will be a wonder if the US emerges from this campaign as a serious country: winners barely out of their diapers, populism, tearing up trade agreements (how about some more unilateralism?), and semi-isolationism seem to be the order of the day.* The populism monster is the main practical thing that has undercut Republican efforts to put together a majority. The Republicans were damaged this trend once before, in the early 90s, with the rise of Perot. Do we really want to keep punishing our most experienced leaders, while falling for callow candidates who are quickly in over their heads? It's true that Obama is less experienced and has accomplished little, less than Hillary (after all, he's never been First Lady). But there's not a lot more to be said about Hillary.

Herewith, predictions. I don't know who's going to win in New Hampshire. If Romney doesn't, or at least tie, he's finished, which is too bad. If Thompson or McCain don't place first or second somewhere by March, they will drop out, which is also too bad, since they're decent candidates. The Democratic race is topsy-turvy, but Edwards might come in second. I can't see his candidacy going much further though; he'll probably drop out before the end of February. It will be Clinton and Obama. I doubt if Obama will win more than a few states, and he can't win the general election. But if Clinton doesn't win in New Hampshire, she will emerge as a seriously wounded candidate and in no shape to win in November.

All in all, the general election is shaping up as expected: definite advantage to the Republicans. But the wild card remains: who will their candidate be?

POSTSCRIPT: Ron, we hardly knew ye. And what's up with that Ron Paul guy? Is he a racist or not? Who knows? We can't read his mind. All we can do is look at his history.

Although Paul has tried to present himself as a libertarian or small-government conservative, anyone who knows anything about him knows that he's part of the self-labelled "paleoconservatives," whose best-known representative is Pat Buchanan. (The only Goldwater-Reagan style candidate running this time is Fred Thompson.) Over the years, Paul has been associated with some offensive ideas and causes. Whether he believes in them now is anyone's guess. Maybe running for president means that he's left behind the strange and parochial paleocon subculture. Just keep in mind that these are the people who were ejected from the modern conservative movement back in the 1950s, mainly by William F. Buckley, Jr., and his National Review: they include the gold standard obsessives, the anti-Zionists, the conspiracy kooks, etc. The Democrats, last time, had their own version of such crazies ("netroots") adding unwelcome baggage to one of the candidates (Dean). This time, "nutroots" has been marginalized, thankfully.

By the way, you can read what some real libertarians (David Boaz and Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute) think of Huckabee's Christian-tinged nanny-statism and (more ambivalently) about Ron Paul as a protest candidate - which has been his main role this election cycle.
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* While we're wallowing in this silliness, some pretty serious things are going on in the rest of the world - in Pakistan, Kenya, and the Persian Gulf, for example - while no one in the campaign (Thompson excepted) is talking about the entitlements crisis now only a few years away.

It's hard to escape the impression that American politics has become a frivolous exercise in self-indulgence, an indoor sport for couch potatoes, with little connection to reality. It does make good television, which, I suppose, is the point.

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