Fissures in the GOP?
Many pundits are already writing the epitaph for President Bush's push for Social Security reform, but it will be many months or even years before the final outcome of that initiative are known. In the mean time, however, this battle has raised fears that the Republican tide has already begun to ebb. E. J. Dionne took a welcome step back from his usual partisan trench warfare to apply his powers of semi-objective political analysis in yesterday's Washington Post. Noting the abysmal esteem the two parties have for each other at present, he observed,
The paradoxical result of this mutual contempt is that each side is simultaneously underestimated and overestimated. As a result, current political arrangements are seen as permanent and the possibilities of political change are missed -- even when change is in the process of happening.
Pretty astute: all the recent petty cacaphony on Capitol Hill and GOP threats of using the "nuclear option" against Democratic obstructionism may conceal the fact that the general public is leaving the politicians behind. Dionne goes on to detail the splits between social conservatives and economic conservatives (or libertarians) in the Republican party, and what that portends. (Hint: He can barely contain his glee.) One leading pundit who shares that assessment of recent trends but is not happy about it, is Andrew Sullivan, who writes:
It's been clear now for a while that the religious right controls the base of the Republican party, and that fiscal left-liberals control its spending policy. That's how you develop a platform that supports massive increases in debt and amending the Constitution for religious right social policy objectives. But the Schiavo case is breaking new ground. For the religious right, states' rights are only valid if they do not contradict religious teaching.
I would grant that a "conservative crackup" is possible, but I don't think it's the most likely scenario. Though Dionne and Sullivan are correct to point out latent tensions among the factions on the Right, I think they overplay it. Personally, I don't share the intensity of feelings about the Terri Schiavo case that many religious conservatives do, but for the most part I respect their position. I certainly don't look down on them, as many elitists do. Indeed, I think the issues raised by social conservatives are often quite valid, but I see the breakdown of values as a direct consequence of New Deal/Great Society programs. That is, most social ills are caused, directly or indirectly, by a clumsy Big Government -- however well-intentioned its bureaucrats may be. Fixing those ills, therefore, does not require draconian new laws but simply the abolition of failing "nanny state" institutions and the dull, mediocre mindset that goes with them. (Obviously, easier said than done!) If enough social conservatives and economic conservatives could only grasp this basic point and see how their long-term goals converge, the Republicans can still hope to maintain a durable coalition of reform. Some of the religious conservatives are despairing right now, but I have a feeling that their cause may yet serve a purpose in shedding light on "What's become of us?"
More generally, all these fascinating cross-currents of American politics highlight the paradox of what it means to be a conservative in a place and time when the status quo is so deeply liberal. Forget what the polls say about Americans' self-identification, we are a lot more like the coddled, complacent welfare-state Europeans than we would like to imagine. Thus, as with many "conservatives" in Europe, there is a strong tendency to play it safe and acquiesce in a statist paradigm, pretending that things will somehow get better on their own. Not bloody likely.
Rogues in the GOP?
What worries me more about the Republicans these days is a seeming reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection. The dominant attitude is a nervous "don't rock the boat." We all know about President Bush's low regard for contrary opinions, which "Doonesbury" has lampooned over the past several weeks. If that sort of thinking spreads, and tolerance for wayward behavior among party members increases, then the Republicans will have lost any chance of becoming the "party of reform" to which they aspire.
For example, Thor Halvorssen (link via Instapundit) notes that Jack Kemp was recently negotiating a major oil deal with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, near the top of Washington's list of foreign rogues. Kemp has also been associated with Samir A. Vincent, an agent of Saddam Hussein who was part of the U.N. oil-for-food scam.
Likewise, in the March 22 issue of New York Times, conservative pundit David Brooks exposes some "Masters of Sleaze" on the Right, folks like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Jack Abramoff. Like the bosses of Tammany Hall in the 19th Century, these policy advocates let success go to their head after the 1995 Republican Revolution and decided to cash in while the gettin' was good. They lobbied on behalf of notorious bad guys such as Angola's Jonas Savimbi and Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko, promoting them as champions of liberty. Brooks writes, "Soon the creative revolutionaries were blending the high-toned forms of the think tank with the low-toned scams of the buckraker." I was never particularly impressed by Norquist's single-minded obsession with cutting taxes without regard to consequences, and the more I learn about him, the less impressed I get.
Another heavyweight giving the Republicans a bad image is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is in a heap o' trouble back in Texas over (possible) campaign finance irregularities and the redistricting controversy. (I drew attention to his dubious role in the Schiavo case on March 22.) I was greatly encouraged when I saw Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute make some scathing criticisms of DeLay in a television commentary. It needed to be said by someone of Ornstein's stature and impeccable conservative credentials.
Another recent breath of fresh air in Washington is Karen Hughes, the capable and forthright former Bush White House adviser who returned to Texas two years ago, an apparent victim of "mastermind" Karl Rove. She just returned to Washington to become an Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy. I tend to be skeptical of "winning hearts and minds" around the world, but she is probably one of the best suited for that extremely challenging job. In sum, the cause of mainstream, sensible, non-hysterical conservatives is not yet lost, but more such leaders need to step up to the plate.