Conservatives in Denial
The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 15, 2006; Page A21
On their journey through the stages of grief, conservatives don't yet seem to have gotten past denial.
Republicans may have lost, conservatives argue, but only because they misplaced their ideology. "[T]hey were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism," George F. Will, conservatism's most trenchant champion, wrote on this page last week.
Their mortal sin, in this gospel, was their abandonment of fiscal prudence.
They doffed their green eyeshades and gushed red ink. "The greatest scandal in Washington, D.C., is runaway federal spending," said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the true-blue conservative who is challenging Ohio's John Boehner for the post of House Republican leader.
Holding conservatism blameless for last week's Republican debacle may stiffen conservative spines, but the very idea is the product of mushy conservative brains unwilling to acknowledge the obvious: that conservatism has never been more ascendant than during George Bush's presidency; that the Republican Party over the past six years moved well to the right of the American people on social, economic and foreign policy; and that on Nov. 7 the American people chose a more pragmatic course.
After all, it wasn't just the president's war that was driven by right-wing ideologues. Particularly in the past two years, Republican economics, too, was shaped by ideology. The president's proposal to privatize Social Security was the brainchild of right-wing think tanks and the financial institutions that yearned to sell all those annuities. It never penciled out, and all sober analysis concluded that its chief effect would be to imperil retirement security itself. By nonetheless making it the signature domestic issue of his second term, George Bush again stamped himself a true believer and as indifferent in economic policy as he was in foreign policy to such vulgar trivialities as facts.
Of course, one way conservatives defend the faith is to argue that the conservatism of contemporary Republicanism isn't really conservatism at all. The invasion of Iraq, in this telling, was the handiwork of Wilsonian interlopers who had strayed unaccountably into Republican ranks one night when the barn door was left ajar. But in fact the invasion of Iraq and the doctrine of preventive war have a sterling conservative pedigree; they were handed down from the right-wingers in the early years of the Cold War who rejected the strategy of containing communism and argued instead for rolling it back (an idea that Dwight Eisenhower considered sheer madness).
As well, conservatives at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue saw the war in Iraq as a way to gain a political advantage over the Democrats, who had backed the war in Afghanistan but who could be pilloried as appeasers for failing to grasp the need to roll into Baghdad. To argue that Iraq was not the conservatives' war requires expunging every congressional vote, administration speech and talk show rant of the past four years.
Besides, when Americans think of isms, they think -- at least they think first -- of how liberals and conservatives stand on social issues. A liberal backs abortion rights and gun regulations; a conservative wants to ban abortions and legalize all guns. By that measure, what has defined conservatism in the popular mind over the past couple of years has been its willingness to enlist government to block stem cell research, stop the teaching of evolution and supersede the duties of Terri Schiavo's husband.
This may be a conservatism that makes libertarians cringe, but it is the conservatism that dominates the Republican Party we have. Republicans generally and conservatives particularly have profited mightily from the rise and politicization of fundamentalism over the past few decades. The decimation of Republican moderates from the Northeast and Midwest in last week's elections came at the hands of centrist and independent voters who'd had it with the Southernized religious conservatism of the Republicans' base -- and with its moderate Republican enablers.
Finally, conservatives argue that the newly elected Democrats are really conservatives, too -- proof that the ideology is in no need of a tuneup. It's true that some of the Democrats take conservative positions on guns and abortion. But it's also true that virtually all the new Democrats look askance at free trade, want to raise the minimum wage and back a bigger role for government in making health care more affordable.
At a time when corporations abandon their employee benefits, globalization depresses wages, and individuals are compelled to shoulder more and more risk, the last thing Americans need is a government that tells them -- as it told their countrymen in New Orleans last year -- they're on their own.
That's why Republicans just ran a campaign devoid of new ideas. In a laissez-faire world that already induces anxiety and that becomes more laissez-faire with each passing day, who needs a laissez-faire party? Conservative, heal thyself.