Friday, February 15, 2008

I am vast and right-wing, hear me roar

PRE-POSTSCRIPT: Megan McArdle does it again: finally, an explanation for our campaigns.
The agony and the ... well, no ecstasy yet. Conservatives are in a funk about McCain winning the Republican primaries and the smooth walk he apparently has ahead of him to the Republican nomination. Conservatives deserve a Valentine. So here's a belated one.

How did he do it? Independents, my dear. They can vote in most primaries, and they've recently been the fastest-growing group in American politics. McCain plays well among them. Conservatives are in conniptions, and rightly so, about some of McCain's politics - his support for restrictions on campaign donations and speech (which are unconstitutional, shut out challengers, and have done serious damage to our politics), and above all, his questionable views on illegal immigration, which, for state and local governments, has become a major welfare-state crisis that national politicians, who set the policies or lack thereof, pay no price for.

McCain, like Romney and Giuliani, is a liberal Republican. (Romney spent a lot of time and money unconvincingly presenting himself as a conservative - which is too bad, because he would have done himself and everyone else a favor by just being himself.) Liberal Republicans are the smallest of the three factions of the Republican party (liberals, conservatives, and populists). But they are critical: they are the closest to the center of gravity of American politics, somewhat to the right of center. They do not share conservatives' fatal ambivalence about modern government, but they are also free of faith-driven big-government populism - you know, where miracles are more important than math.

Conservatives should not have been surprised by this. While waiting in vain for a viable conservative Presidential candidate this year, many conservatives are still mentally stuck in the 90s. Conservatism lives on as an ideology, as an intellectual movement, and as an attitude. But as a politics, it's been dead for almost a decade. Conservatives who thought there would be a conservative comeback this year were always deluded. Conservatism didn't die a natural death, of course. It was shunted aside, by the Republican party - it was in the way. The irony is that, the Republicans would be in far better shape now if they had stuck consistently to their earlier conservatism. Like Nixonism, the Bush-Rove-ism approach was too clever by half.

So conservatives are going through separation trauma. They once had enough confidence in themselves that, in the late 70s and the 80s, they were able to take over the Republican party. But the last 13 years have not been kind to them: the Republicans lost their ideological moorings. Conservatives overidentified with the party, which became less and less conservative while becoming more and more partisan. Now conservatives have to go back to where they were in the 1950s and 1960s: they need to disentangle themselves from the Republican party and revisit the basics. They can start by mending fences with libertarians. And they need to figure out what they have in common with the "good government" liberal Republicans. (Hint: nowadays, "good government" usually means "smaller government.") For electoral politics, they need to face what I wrote here last year:
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 ....

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 [it]. 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 .... the future of the Republican party, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to them.
Conservatives need to grasp that the game this year is, not pick a viable conservative candidate, but pick an acceptable liberal Republican. Now the primary voters have done that for them and picked McCain. If conservatives don't like the result, they should have been stronger in the primaries for Romney or Giuliani. Instead they were twiddling around with Ron Paul or Fred Thompson.

Conservatives also need to rebuild at the state and Congressional level. They have always had a strong tendency towards ghettoizing their issues as "ideology." They need instead to do what conservatives before the mid-70s did, anticipate and understand what the big governmental crises are going to be, and then be ready when those crises appear. (Back then, they were out-of-control expectations, the post-1965 explosion of federal spending, stagflation, the dead-end of d├ętente; today, they include the coming entitlements crisis, illegal immigration, the possible break-up of the Western alliance system, the rise of the "oil" axis). Conservatives need to disconnect completely from the conventional television media and encourage everyone else to do the same. The news media will do its utmost to obscure important issues and change the subject. Instead of arguing with them, everyone should be ignoring them. If voters do, then the politicians will eventually get it. Those who don't get it, will find themselves less and less relevant.

There is real upside for the Republicans: the cards are still stacked in their favor this year. Bush and Cheney are out of the picture. The negative referendum on them already happened, in 2006. As a proportion of voters, self-described liberals are still shrinking. The Congressional Democrats' poll ratings have been crawling on the bottom since they took over 13 months ago (teens or single-digits) and consistently well below Bush's. If the Republicans are smart, they'll run against Congress. The 2008 presidential race is the Republicans' to lose. The interesting question is whether they have a chance to regain one of the houses of Congress as well.

POSTSCRIPT: Speaking of which - is it all over for Hillary? Peggy Noonan considers. My answer is, obviously not. She's won most of the big states and will probably win Texas and Ohio. The Democratic race is far from over. And given the Democrats' weird superdelegate rules, we may end up with an old-fashioned brokered convention. Of course, it won't be totally old-fashioned: the back rooms will have women as well as men, and they'll be free of smoke.

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