alien & sedition.
Monday, April 30, 2007
  Novakula Speaks

A couple of interesting tidbits from Robert Novak, who may or may not have been a willing dupe in an effort to out a CIA agent as part of a political smear job:

If, as previously discussed, McCain's breakup with his BFFs in the MSM is likely to improve his standing among the SOBs who vote GOP, things are going swimmingly. McCain is loudly complaining that the liberal media are in love with Romney and Giuliani:
Sen. John McCain, who was the darling of the political press corps during the 2000 election cycle, complains to friends that he is getting much rougher treatment from the news media than his competitors for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

McCain feels that his support for President Bush's Iraq policy has soured his erstwhile reporter friends. Although Giuliani and Romney also have been criticized by the media, McCain privately expresses the view that they have gotten off easy.
In this analysis, the objective for McCain isn't to get better coverage, it's to point out that his opponents are the ones in bed with representatives from the reality-based world (this, remember, is supposed to be a bad thing). It's like a game of Old Maid, and the Senator has just passed on the deadly card.

Also, Novak provides some numbers to back up David Brooks's warning that Republicans are cruising for a bruising in 2008:
Private House Democratic polls of the 50 most competitive congressional districts project a gain of 9 to 11 seats in the 2008 elections that would be an unprecedented further surge by the party after its 2006 gain of 30 seats to win control of the House.

All previous major surges of House seats have been followed by losses in the next election. The 54-seat Republican gain in 1994 that produced GOP House control was followed by an eight-seat loss in 1996. However, the current Republican political slump, fueled by President Bush's unpopularity, would reverse that pattern if the election were held today, according to the Democratic polls.
Yeah, these are Democratic polls, and it's way too early to take them very seriously. But they do suggest that, five months after the midterms, Republicans continue to have a pretty serious brand problem.

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  What's Eating the GOP? (Part 1)

There's a very interesting conversation going in the conservative intellectual blogosphere over yesterday's David Brooks column, in which Brooks warns Republicans that, unless they take the public desire for change seriously, they are headed for an even greater electoral disaster next year than the one they faced last November. Brooks wonders at the "strange passivity" among Republicans who may be personally disgusted with the state of both the nation and their party, yet who seem paralyzed by an inability to offer any creativity or initiative of their own.

Brooks criticizes the current crop of GOP presidential contenders for surpressing what he believes to be their creative instincts in favor of ill-considered efforts to come across as "the next George Allen -- a bland, orthodox candidate who will not challenge any of the party’s customs or prejudices":
Mitt Romney created an interesting health care reform, but he’s suppressing that in an effort to pretend to be George Allen. Rudy Giuliani has an unusual profile that won him a majority of votes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, of all places, but he’s suppressing that to be George Allen. John McCain has a record on taxes and spending that suggests he really could take on entitlements. But at least until last week, he suppressed that in order not to offend the George Allen vote.

And just in case any of these George Allen wannabes weren’t George Allen enough for voters, Fred Thompson may enter the race as the Authentic Conservative, even though deep in his heart he’s no more George Allen than the rest of them.
Why the malaise? Brooks lists a few reasons, including a "bunker mentality" and a mindless "teamism." More interestingly, he suggests that the conservative movement itself is hampering the GOP, locking the party into an orthodoxy enforced by James Dobson's veto over social policy innovation, and the Club for Growth's veto over new economic ideas.

But the most oppressive veto may be the one exercised by Ronald Reagan's ghost. We at A&S haven't been the only observers to note the crippling thrall into which conservatives have fallen when it comes to the Gipper. Brooks describes it particularly well:
Conservatives have allowed a simplistic view of Ronald Reagan to define the sacred parameters of thought. Reagan himself was flexible, unorthodox and creative. But conservatives have created a mythical, rigid Reagan, and any deviation from that is considered unholy.
It's hard not to suggest that conservatives are being damaged by a number of their own political personality traits: their tendency towards hero-worship, as well as their habit of simplifying and personalizing complex issues. Having reached a consensus about the Greatness of Ronald Reagan, and learned to define the virtues of their own movement through what they agree to be Reagan's virtues, they've painted themselves into a rather narrow -- if warm and bright -- historical spot. And it's not one very well positioned in the current political context.

I think Brooks has done well to diagnose much of what ails the GOP at the moment, though I'd add a couple factors of my own. For one thing, Republicans are simply suffering the effects of a bankrupt administration. There's no greater engine for political idea-making in American politics than the White House, which can draw upon the best talent its party has to offer, and can keep armies of wonks employed at agencies and departments across the executive branch. When the Democrats lost the White House, they lost their intellectual center -- the resulting hole in the party can be blamed for a good amount of the political chaos that followed. Republicans, though, are cursed with a somewhat different problem: the Bush administration continues to act as an enormous center of gravity for the GOP, yet it's void of political credibility and hanging obdurately onto ideas that have long since lost their appeal to almost anyone not on the executive payroll. Bush's White House has become a massive intellectual deadweight for Republicans.

The other problem for conservatives, as I tend to bang on about, is that it's unclear that they have any realistic ideas for accomplishing what they have declared, over the past several decades, to be their primary political mission: fundamentally altering the size and the role of the federal government. Their destructive obsession with Reagan is probably both a symptom and a cause -- but only one cause -- of this problem. Compassionate conservatism was meant to be a way around this dilemma, but it has, by all appearances, failed. Still, its legacy lives on for conservatives, who may hate the compassionate conservative brand, but cannot avoid grappling with the problem it was meant to solve -- as we'll see.

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Friday, April 27, 2007
  Now at Large in the Blogosphere...

I've been remiss in not yet linking to the new blogs by Bill Scher and Rick Perlstein, at the Campaign for America's Future. Getting this kind of talent on board was a real score for the new organization.

If you're obsessed with the conservative movement to the point that you read alien & sedition regularly, you'll especially dig Perlstein's blog, The Big Con. The blog is co-sponsoring, with The American Prospect, a one-day conference next thursday on "the failure of conservatism." I'm thinking of playing hooky and heading down to DC for that event, particularly as I don't want to miss the featured debate between William Kristol and TAP's Robert Kuttner. Topic: whether "conservatives be trusted to govern." I know, I know -- they actually have to debate that question?

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  A Plea from the Society for Better Metaphors

I read Naomi Wolf's "Fascist America, In 10 Easy Steps" with great interest. Wolf lucidly recounts a number of the Bush administration's sins against American democracy -- from Gitmo to the politicization of the bureaucracy to the equation of dissent with treason -- arguing that "we need ... to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US." I certainly don't want to discount the seriousness of those events, but I do want to take issue with the use of "fascism" as descriptive term for their cumulative significance.

Norman Geras identifies the flaw in Wolf's argument:
[D]espite her talk of dictatorship and her several allusions to fascism, Wolf has a couple of qualifying sentences registering a different awareness. Thus:
Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.
These sentences might be taken as showing that Wolf doesn't fully believe her own case.
What Geras means, of course, is that you shouldn't call something fascism if you don't believe that it really is fascism. The term has a particular historical and political meaning, and while Wolf correctly identifies a list of outrageous anti-democratic administration practices, she herself seems to recognize that what they add up to is something rather different than what Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were all about.

Given the gravity of the Bush administration's offenses, this may seem like a pendantic point. It isn't. I recognize that hyperbolic rhetoric may be our first line of defense against the erosion of Constitutional freedoms, and if that is therefore the rhetoric we have to employ in certain situations, so be it. But can we at least whisper among ourselves about what might be a more precise analysis? Foreign readers can interpret our politics however they want; American progressives have a responsibility to hold to a more clear-headed understanding of what our conservative foes are actually doing. If conservatives are not actually on the road to fascism, but to something else, shouldn't we figure that out -- the better to head them off at the right pass?

Fascism, a 20th century European political practice sometimes imitated by tyrants in the developing world, is not the only alternative to constitutional democracy. And it's not what the Bush administration is trying to construct. Frankly, fascism is too collectivist, even just too organized for these people. The thing is, you can look around the world right now and see examples of states that are neither fascist nor particularly democratic. The two most powerful nations in the world after the U.S. are cases in point. And while certain social conservatives would no doubt be perfectly comfortable with a Christian version of Iran's Islamic Republic, Putin's Russia might represent a more accurate nightmare scenario for what the Bush administration would let America become: an authoritarian quasi-democracy ruled by gangster capitalism and just enough political intimidation to keep the right people in power without necessitating stormtroopers in the streets. Of course, Russia doesn't have the tradition of democratic institutions that Wolf cites as America's own insurance policy.

That does not, of course, mean we shouldn't guard against the erosion of those institutions. But to what purpose are they being eroded? Bush and Rove have constructed a political machine meant, like every other political machine in American history, to keep their faction in power as long as possible. They've abandoned the traditional Republican hostility to a strong executive and sought to push the boundaries of the politicization of bureacracy, society, and media. Like most administrations -- only moreso -- they have pushed to keep the Constitution from standing in the way of their political aims. In all of this they have been unusually vigorous and effective, which is cause for a great deal of concern. But they are not the vanguard of a fascist movement -- they're not even particularly well-liked in the conservative movement. Their project is not to create a fascist state, but to loosen the various restrictions imposed by custom, discourse, and the Constitution on their political freedom of movement.

The conservative movement undergirding the modern Republican party has varying and often conflicting goals. Parts of it are primarily concerned with eliminating regulatory regimes that various industry lobbyists, in their perpetual shortsightedness, think of as limiting American capitalism. Parts of it want to legislate morality, to greater or lesser extents. Parts of it advocate vigorous intervention abroad; parts of it denounce American imperialism.

As with the Bush administration, big-picture thinking is far less important to the conservative movement than appearances might suggest. The primary political imperative is to move immediate obstacles out of the way, to advance whatever might be the mission of the day. Unfortunately, those obstacles often tend to be rather important features of American democracy.

The effect of all this, if left unchecked, will be to degrade that democracy and gradually sink the United States from the ranks of advanced, liberal Western nations. It could make the U.S. more vulnerable to charismatic authoritarians; it would undoubtedly weaken our public infrastructure and erode our quality of life. While it could lead to more aggressive militarism abroad, it would be just as likely to undermine America's capacity for adventurism (or, on the other side of the coin, our capacity for international leadership).

Fascism is a sort of constructive nihilism. It builds; it wants more. What the Bush administration and the conservative movement would leave to us is America, but less so.

Before we had fascism as a metaphor to call upon, America went through similar periods of degradation. The Alien and Sedition Acts. The vicious anti-Constitutional crackdowns during the First World War. The Red Scare. Internment. We didn't become a totalitarian state; we continued to be America -- but less so. It fell to progressives in subsequent eras to set the country back on a better course; the tool they used to accomplish this was American democracy. That's why I disagree with Tristero of Digby's blog on this. Says Tristero:
Call America's national government and dominant media whatever you will; it's pointless to quibble over labels. Except in one instance. This is no longer a democracy.
It's not a pointless quibble to demand precise analysis of our political situation. And it's simply absurd to claim that "this is no longer a democracy." This is a democracy -- only less so, for the moment. The way to rectify the conservative degradation of America is to remember that we are a democracy, and to act accordingly.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007
  Republican Futures Past: March 2001

After six and a half exhausting years, it seems strange to remember that when George W. Bush hit the campaign trail in 2000, he ran not as an ideologue, but as something of a cipher. There was no talk of grand schemes to bring democracy to the middle east, no bragging about a permanent Republican majority. Bush's major campaign pledges seemed to involve not sleeping with interns and healing the vicious partisanship his own party had done so much to create. In the estimation of many analysts - left and right - there was little to separate the Texas governor from his Democratic opponent.

His candidacy seemed appropriate for a Republican party uncomfortable in its own ideological skin. As libertarian author Ryan Sager tells it, after their disastrous 1995 showdowns with President Clinton over Medicare and the budget, Congressional Republicans had fallen victim to a kind of "Vietnam syndrome," abandoning their own agenda and spiraling into an impotent rage that led them, against their own better judgment, into the impeachment fight. Meanwhile, their electoral fortunes waned. The party's 1996 presidential nominee was the favorite of neither economic conservatives (that was Forbes), nor social conservatives (Buchanan). He was a grey and uninspiring Senator who simply happened to be next in line. That year and in 1998, voters cut away at the GOP majority; by the end of the Clinton presidency Republicans seemed to stand for little but vindictiveness and unctuous sexual moralizing. Even their one significant accomplishment - dismantling AFDC - had been cast as a victory for the Democratic president.

It was in this context that the 41st president's son took to the podium in Philadelphia, in August 2000, to claim his party's nomination for chief executive. Democrats mocked the Republicans for putting more people of color on stage at that convention than ever seemed to vote the GOP line; what observers across the ideological spectrum failed to grasp, though, was how that decision, and the apparently "centrist" rhetoric of the campaign that followed, were carefully conceived elements of a strategy to revitalize and reassert a distinctly conservative politics. In retrospect, it seems more egregious that most analysts missed the significance of Bush's choice of foreign policy advisors, but a careful examination of his domestic policy team, too, might have indicated something of how ambitious a Bush administration would turn out to be.

Instead, after a scandalously resolved election, most observers would have agreed with Daniel Casse, when he wrote in the March 2001 issue of Commentary that, even before the inauguration, "George W. Bush already seemed a man condemned to a presidency of limited expectations" (pp. 19-24). We have come to view the attacks of the following September 11 as the history-altering moment that unleashed the Bush administration's ideological demons. While those events undoubtedly changed the political context in the president's favor, Casse's article, titled "Bush and the Republican Future," demonstrates how those "limited expectations" failed to reflect the true breadth and meaning of the new administration's ambitions - the agenda Bush's team had been preparing since well before the election.

Casse does not understate the dilemma facing Republicans at the turn of the century. "Bush's victory," he says, "could be viewed as marking not the beginning of a new, post-Clinton era but as the last gasp of an earlier one -- the era of muscular, confident, conservative Republicanism." Just as mainstream pundits of the 1990's warned Democrats away from economic populism, so they forecast doom for the Republican party if it failed to, in the words of the New Republic's John Judis, "jettison the socially conservative base it gained during the 80's." This particular analysis aside, Casse agrees that
[T]here is no denying that the GOP has indeed become a party in decline. Many of the issues and conflicts that energized Republicans over the past twenty years have dissipated or disappeared altogether. Even more significantly, from the perspective of presidential politics, the electoral coalition that emerged at the end of the 1970's to sweep Ronald Reagan into office no longer exists in any meaningful form.
To Casse, this state of affairs came about in part because the conservative priorities of 1980 had largely been addressed:
The Soviet Union collapsed. Taxes were cut. Confidence returned. The federal budget was balanced. In time, the party's libertarians and cultural conservatives drifted off to pursue other, sometimes conflicting, political agendas.
A neutral observer might point out that Reagan in fact left massive structural deficits, and that while he made government meaner, he in no sense made it leaner, failing -- as we've discussed in other posts -- to achieve any significant transformation of American political economy. But such criticisms are beside the point. Casse is describing the breakdown of the fusionism that had bound the conservative movement before and during the Reagan years; like Sager, he understands the failures of the Buchanan rebellion and the Gingrich revolution as being both causes and effects of that process. At the center of the breakdown, though, was a policy problem: "tax cuts, once the signature issue of the party, were no longer the galvanizing force they had earlier been." Clinton's stimulus package had both fueled the economic recovery and wiped out the marginal tax cuts theretofore cited by Reagan's supply-siders as their most significant victory. Bob Dole's tax cut proposals had failed to impress the voters, and Republicans, who had once dreamed of totally overhauling the federal tax code, were reduced to advocating "a few incremental measures" like eliminating the estate tax. And the philosophical rot at the heart of the conservative coalition was spreading:
Yet if tax cuts had lost their force as an issue, the party was also unable to come together on much else. Preparing to select a nominee for the 2000 election, the GOP could boast no internal consensus on how to reform Medicare or Social Security, and no single view on what to do with the growing federal budget surplus. Within the party, there were bitter divisions over foreign engagement and military spending. On abortion, trade, immigration, debt reduction, and antitrust policy, no unity was to be found.
Bush seemed unlikely to resolve these uncertainties. In a party whose vestigial ideological camps were the flat-taxers and the Buchananites, Bush was neither. Rather than promising a firm ideological hand, he seemed to project his candidacy as something moderate and humble. As Casse puts it:
[A] plausible reading of his campaign oratory was that, as President, Bush would be a West Texas version of his father -- an establishment Republican filled with the spirit of noblesse oblige who had promised his own version of "compassionate conservatism" and had turned out to be merely a diligent public servent with no clear sense of political mission."
In the final analysis, diligence is probably the last quality anyone might ascribe to our 43rd president, but what matters here is that "compassionate conservatism," which looked so much like a symptom of moderation, was in fact intended as a vector of radical conservatism. And this is precisely the point of Casse's article: "Bush's emphasis on aiding the poor, the disabled, and minorities not only differentiated him from other Republicans but formed the banner under which he advanced what were some truly bold ideas."

What was compassionate conservatism? If it sounded like little more than a focus-grouped public relations slogan, its architects were aware of the charge. In a series of articles published before the election, Bush's domestic policy mentors repeatedly emphasized that, in the words of Stephen Goldsmith, compassionate conservatism was a "coherent, principled philosophy." Or, as Myron Magnet put it in a 1999 Wall Street Journal op-ed, "far from being an empty slogan, it is a well-formed domestic policy agenda."

But what kind of agenda? "At its core," said Magnet, "is concern for the poor -- not a traditional Republican preoccupation -- and an explicit belief that government has a responsibility for poor Americans." But the other notion at the core of compassionate conservatism was that in affirming that responsibility, conservatives could transform the nature of government itself. Goldsmith, a policy advisor to the Bush campaign, wrote that "compassionate conservatism serves as a true bridge from the era of big government as a way to solve social problems to a new era in which we will have a full and healthy trust in the people of this nation to govern themselves." The bridge metaphor is important: in blunter political terms, compassionate conservatism was designed to use the rhetoric of social solidarity to make possible the dismantling of social insurance.

It's perhaps Marvin Olasky (pdf) who presents this equation most clearly. Olasky, commonly described as the father of compassionate conservatism, argues that as long as the public believes that big government helps the poor and limited government does not, voters will choose big government. This is what stands in the way of the longstanding economic conservative dream of truly reducing the size of government. The goal for a compassionate conservative is to use taxpayer money to wean people off of government services. The compassionate conservative believes in using tax dollars to fight poverty -- but it should be done by funneling the money straight into the coffers of local faith-based organizations. The compassionate conservative believes in collecting Social Security taxes -- only to divvy them up and send them right back to individuals for investment in the stock market.

Goldsmith's line about trusting "the people of this nation to govern themselves" reflects the sort of small-is-beautiful attitude that underpins much compassionate conservative rhetoric. Indeed, Olasky's own prose can seem downright anarchist, rhaposidizing about micro-level community organizations taking over from federal bureaucracies. It's also blatantly meant to appeal to religious voters, putting faith-based groups -- even, explicitly, those without any legitimate qualifications -- at the center of its project.

There's too much to compassionate conservatism to unpack here. I'll address some of its major flaws -- and look at its future -- in later posts. In the meantime, I only want to consider what George W. Bush's campaign was attempting to do by embracing Olasky and his fellow-travellers.

For one thing, in the immediate political term, they were trying to get around a brand problem. Casse suggests that the compassionate conservative theme was aimed at "disassociating [Bush] in the public mind from either the confrontational stance of the Gingrich years or the more libertarian impulses of the Reagan era." As he points out, the Bush campaign kept Republican Congressional leaders like Trent Lott, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay "at arm's length," preferring "a mostly new cast of Republican faces, all apparently selected to emphasize the racial, ethnic, and even ideological diversity of the party."

And this -- like the multiracial cast of the Philadelphia convention -- indicates another of the purposes of compassionate conservatism: to improve the GOP's performance among minority voters. One of the major preoccupations of the Bush circle has been to increase the Republican share of "the black vote" and "the Latino vote"; this goal has informed the Bush administration's decision-making from the very beginning -- as when Karl Rove advised the president to halt the naval practice bombardment of Vieques -- up through the recent battles over immigration. It's not a priority shared by everyone in the party: the Buchananites, of course, want no truck with it, and the immigration fight put the White House sharply at odds with Congressional Republicans, whose district-by-district political calculations were very different. Nonetheless, by helping to address the social concerns -- and religious faith -- of minority voters, compassionate conservatism promised to be an element in this party-building strategy.

It also looked like a way to revitalize the existing conservative coalition, by rearticulating the fusionist logic that had, until recently, held the coalition together. If social and economic conservatives had been drifting apart, compassionate conservatism offered an argument for them to renew their vows: economic conservative ends could be achieved -- could only be achieved -- by social conservative means. Given the importance to the party of evangelical voters and libertarian donors, it seemed a promising arrangement.

Finally, compassionate conservatism was a strategy by which Republicans could move traditionally Democratic issues onto their own turf. Its architects recognized that the GOP simply could not win if it refused to account for the public's interest in Social Security, health care, and education. Compassionate conservatism offered a way for Republicans to engage these issues without betraying their economic conservative base, by emphasizing, in Casse's words, "efficiency, flexibility, and the encouragement of private initiative." This effort, in turn, helped voters see President Bush as "someone like me" -- concerned with domestic matters that mattered to the public yet which had been routinely dismissed by Republicans as little more than fodder for the red pen. The compassionate conservative could say to voters, "I want to improve Social Security and public education." He could, at the same time, say to economic conservatives, "I have a plan for privatizing Social Security and education."

For progressives, the biggest problem with compassionate conservatism is clear: it's essentially a massive pyramid scheme. Basing its "concern for the poor" on an endless series of opportunities to opt out of social insurance, it threatens to undermine social insurance altogether. To economic conservatives, of course, this is meant to be its selling point.

In Casse's early 2001 analysis, this formula looks like a winner:
For how long will voters abide Democratic leaders who remain steadfastly against any use of private accounts for Social Security? How supportive will the public be of Democratic insistence on opposing the use of school vouchers in every case, even for the poorest children? Should the left wing of the party stick to its guns, and should Bush succeed in winning over some centrist Democrats and independents, he may well end up moving these traditionally "Democratic" issues onto the Republican side.

And that, combined with other trends, could prove a turning point for his party.
Casse sees compassionate conservatism for what it was meant to be: an "ambitious project of realignment." His only worry is that Bush's "reticent and stumbling speaking style" might undermine the president's efforts to make his case.

Some Republicans still blame Bush's poor communication skills for the apparent failure of compassionate conservatism in the years since 2001. Certainly they've been a factor, particularly in his inability to convince the public to embrace Social Security privatization -- though there's plenty of evidence that the idea itself turns voters off. Moreover, much of the resistance to compassionate conservatism has come from the economic right, who have reeled in horror at the costs associated with the White House's efforts to "transform" Medicare and education. What was once sold as a means to economic conservative ends is now routinely denounced as a disastrous "big government conservatism," which has in turn been made a scapegoat for the Republican defeat in 2006. Meanwhile, of course, events six months after the publication of Casse's article would offer Rove a more potent political weapon, leading the way for Bush's transformation into a "war president."

The White House has never entirely given up on compassionate conservatism. But, having failed to make significant inroads among minority voters, having left fusionism even more ragged than they initially found it, and having lost the confidence of the American public, the compassionate conservatives find themselves isolated in a party whose new crop of presidential frontrunners are likely to ignore them altogether. The irony is that the most promising ideas for what might constitute the next conservatism -- we'll look at them over the next few weeks -- are not too dissimilar from those propagated by people like Olasky, Magnet, and Goldsmith. Given the confusion and strife among conservative ranks, however, those ideas might struggle to find patrons.

The Republican future of March 2001 suggested no catastrophic attacks, no "long wars," no Abramoffs or Abu Ghraibs. Nor did it anticipate just how fractured the conservative coalition would eventually become. In the months after the inauguration of George W. Bush, the Republican future might not have looked particularly bright, but to those who thought compassionate conservatism could offer a way to revitalize the party and the movement, there might have been, at the very least, a sliver of light on the horizon.

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  With You Shortly

So, Blogger seems to be crapping it up, again. We'll attempt to stay the course nonetheless. I'll be back later this afternoon with the long-awaited (by me, anyway) third part of the Republican Futures Past series, reporting from that brief time when we all thought the George W. Bush presidency wouldn't amount to much either way.

Meanwhile, as an amuse bouche, here's a taste of what our conservative friends are up to today:

This week's Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn award goes to the Manhattan Institute's John McWhorter, whose op-ed in the New York Sun blames the various problem's of today's black youth - sexism, jaywalking, and the "stop snitching" thing - on LBJ and John Stewart. McWhorter argues that, back when they were oppressed, black folks were more upstanding. Truly, the past isn't what it used to be. Nor, apparently, is the present.

The editors of the National Review make a very good point about John McCain's apparently floundering campaign: there's an excellent chance he'll rebound thanks to the very reason he appears to be in trouble. How's that? Remember when we talked about conservative activists' perverse resentment of McCain's good relationship with the national media? Now that the media are saying he's in trouble, conservative primary voters are more likely to embrace the ex-"maverick":
The rest of McCain’s campaign — which he officially launched in New Hampshire yesterday — is likely to be characterized by a dissonance: Whatever turns off the press and prompts it to write about how much he is hurting himself will probably only help him among Republican voters.
McCain's "embittered ex-lovers" in the media may end up driving conservative voters into his arms.

Also at the National Review, Jim Geraghty brings us a trio of posts (the last of which is an interview) about Law & Order's Sam Waterson speaking about Fred Thompson and the 2008 election. Waterson's main subject is actually Unity 08, the group, with whom he is involved, seeking to draft a bipartisan independent ticket for the presidential election. I like Waterson, and I've always dug Jack McCoy, hard case though he is (did you know he's a fan of The Clash?), but man, that is one dumb idea.

And meanwhile, lurking in a distinctly candidate-like non-candidate-y way, Newt Gingrich flogs his "Green Conservatism" at the Australian (?) and the AEI website.

Right then. See you this afternoon.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007
  Newt Goes Green

If any of you are lucky enough to be on Newt Gingrich's email list, you may have read his latest missive: "We Can Have Green Conservatism -- And We Should." In which the former Speaker announces that "the time has come for the development of Green Conservatism as an alternative to big bureaucracy and big litigation liberal environmentalism."

Now, Newt hasn't been making a lot of sense lately, but the basic point here is fairly clear: Gingrich, as political operatives are wont to do, is trying to develop a communication strategy to deal with a serious policy issue that's hurting his side in the polls. Take this paragraph:
For example, former Vice President Al Gore suggests that global warming is so bad that we could have a 20-foot rise in the oceans in the near future. No responsible scientist anywhere believes that to be true. But if the debate becomes, "Al Gore cares about the earth, and we're against Al Gore," we end up in a defensive position where the average American could end up perceiving conservatives as always being negative about the environment.
What a fuzzy bundle of conservative climate change-related pathologies! Newt's use of Al Gore, Strawman is textbook, as is his misleading opposition of the scientific consensus to that favorite denialist talking point, the 20-foot rise claim. Yet Gingrich seems concerned that demonizing Gore, as much fun as it is, may be counterproductive in the long run.

Far be it from me to doubt Newt's sincere commitment to safeguarding "the health of our planet," but his list of Green Conservatism's "basic values" isn't exactly dripping with substance:
  1. Green Conservatism favors clean air and clean water.

  2. Green Conservatism understands biodiversity as a positive good.

  3. Green Conservatism favors minimizing carbon loading in the atmosphere as a positive public value.

  4. Green Conservatism is pro-science, pro-technology and pro-innovation.

  5. Green Conservatism believes that green prosperity and green development are integral to the successful future of the human race.

  6. Green Conservatism believes that economic growth and environmental health are compatible in both the developed and developing world.

  7. Green Conservatism believes that we can realize more positive environmental outcomes faster by shifting tax code incentives and shifting market behavior than is possible from litigation and regulation.
Only the last point seems to mean anything beyond vague watery evironmentalisticallism. But what does it add up to? So far, only two things: cash prizes "as a competitive alternative to the current peer-reviewed process of scientific research," and carbon tax credits. Want more? You'll have to wait.

Newt is a master of political language, and that appears to be mostly what his "Green Conservatism" is all about: language to win political battles as a substitute for actual policy strategy. He even insists that Green Conservatism talk of "conservation," not "environmentalism." We're promised much more to come on this subject. Though at such an inefficient rate of rhetoric to actual ideas, I think it might be more conservationist for Newt to just leave it alone.

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Monday, April 23, 2007
  God: "Don't Come Crying to Me"

Cliff Schecter's blog brings us this charming video from the American Family Association, who should win some kind of prize for it. It takes a special skill to exploit tragedy so crassly.

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  The Persistence of the Low Road

Ross Douthat points out an interesting example of a contrast in conservative intellectual syles: call it honesty vs. hackdom.

The specific debate has to do with the tax code, and the honest - and surprisingly moderate - analysis comes from the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Hassett. Now I'm about the last person on earth to accuse AEI of objectivity or moderation, but Hassett's article quite reasonably uses economic data and historical analysis to make two important points about the tax code: that it is 1) Not very progressive, but 2) Not particularly controversial, either.

The second point is the larger one, and what he means by it is simply that modern Americans are quite comfortable with the fact that roughly 30% of their income goes to taxes, since those taxes pay for the public goods that Americans expect government to provide. Hassett points out that the tax rates that drove our founding fathers to revolt added up to a whopping total of about 2 percent of their income. Conservative anti-tax warriors tend to appropriate that revolutionary rhetoric to combat a modern tax system which they view as a monstrosity; Hassett, to his credit, observes that the great majority of Americans simply don't agree.

Even more to his credit is his analysis of an aspect in which the modern tax code should be more controversial: its hidden regressivity:
Government has been robbing Peter to pay Peter. The similarity between the tax proportion for the high-income family and that of the middle-income family will surprise many. That's because the federal income tax, which is steeply progressive -- the higher your income, the more you pay in taxes -- gets all the media attention. But other taxes that are less visible, such as sales taxes, hit lower-income families with a heavy thud and quickly fill in the gap between their lower federal income taxes and the higher rates paid by those with high incomes.

This is evident in the calculations that went into this chart. The federal income tax in 2003 for the family earning $50,000 was about $3,800, whereas it was about $17,500 for the family bringing in $150,000. But everything else worked to more than offset this difference. Middle-class families spent a larger share of their income and thus paid more sales tax. Gasoline and property taxes also ate up a larger share of the middle-class family's budget. Finally, the payroll tax is limited to 15.3 percent of income, so the wealthy paid a smaller share.

Governments at all levels have voracious appetites for cash, but taking revenue from the middle class is a politically risky maneuver; after all, that's where the votes are. So lawmakers have crafted ingenious ways around the dilemma, imposing hefty levies on those with lower incomes but relying on stealth taxes to do it. If you're going to tax widows and orphans, you'd better be quiet about it; use a sales tax.

Government thus takes more from the wealthy through income taxes, but extracts more from the poor with all the other taxes. By doing this, politicians get to pretend that they are virtuously redistributing wealth from the richer to the poorer, and they can maintain that fiction without sacrificing the cash. Voters seem to like this approach.
This is an important insight: not only does it illustrate how absurdly regressive our tax code has become - families earning $50,000 pay the same amount in overall taxes as those earning $150,000 - it reveals the political sleight-of-hand that has brought this situation to pass. Of course, Hassett's conservative perspective still comes through: one could re-write the paragraph I emphasized above to point out that "politicians get to pretend that they are virtuously cutting middle-class taxes, and they can maintain that fiction without sacrificing the economic interests of their wealthy supporters." But the formula is the same.

So the hackdom comes in Ari Fleischer's Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which the former Bush flack ludicrously claims that the wealthy are paying an unfair share of taxes compared to the freeloading poor. Douthat points to Jonathan Chait's evisceration of Fleischer's piece, and it's a good read (especially if you don't have a subscription to the Journal). Chait mocks Fleischer's basic mathematical incompetence, and goes on to point out that Fleischer is dishonestly using income tax data alone to make his claim - thus ignoring the numerous other forms of taxation which, as Hassett points out, wind up forcing the working class to pay as much as the rich. And it doesn't stop there:
Fleischer waxes indignant about how the top 1 percent is paying a higher share of the tax burden than it was 25 years ago. The reason this is true, of course, is that the top 1 percent is earning a far higher share of the national income.Fleischer insists it's because they're paying higher tax rates. He cites a study last year by CBO which, he says, shows that since 1979, the "[The top 1 percent] share of the nation's income has risen, but their tax burden has risen even faster."

I found that study, and it shows just the opposite of what Fleischer says. In 1979, the highest-earning 1 percent of taxpayers paid an effective federal tax rate of 37 percent. In 2004, they paid an effective federal tax rate of 31.1 percent.
As refreshing as it is to see honest analysis of an important issue by a conservative like Hassett, it's deeply depressing that hacks and liars like Fleischer are not only considered equally important voices, but are actually governing this country. I'm glad Douthat demands a higher standard from conservative discourse; I wish more of his compatriots would do the same.

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  Romney Promises a Rose Garden

Mitt Romney's policy director, Vin Weber, makes an appearance today at the National Review to talk up the governor's bona fides as a fiscal conservative. It's a tax cut-ocopia!
More than any other candidate, Governor Romney has outlined an aggressive agenda to cut the size of government while transforming it to meet this century’s challenges. The centerpiece of Governor Romney’s proposals to limit the size and scope of government is his pledge to veto any budget — Republican or Democrat — that does not cap non-defense discretionary spending at the rate of inflation minus one percent. This will save taxpayers $300 billion over ten years.
Campaign pledges generally are good for trips into shiny fantasy worlds; add to this the hallucinations brought on by Republican economic theory and the effect is dizzying indeed.

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  Doolittle's Demise - Viewed from the Other Side

The imminent downfall of California Congressman John Doolittle offers yet another opportunity to observe the intriguing failure of most conservative commentators to draw appropriate lessons from the 2006 elections (read all about Doolittle's "stumble into oblivion" here). This particular example comes courtesy of Wall Street Journal writer John Fund, who reflects on "a sad end to a political career that began with such promise." Fund tells the story of a "Reaganite idealist who lost his way" - the author knows Doolittle personally and writes with a tone of genuine regret at the Congressman's fate.

This is yet another Abramoff-related scandal. Doolittle took tens of thousands of dollars from the disgraced lobbyist and his network; the Congressman's wife "worked" for Abramoff. The quid pro quo, it appears, was that Doolittle did favors for Abramoff's clients.

Fund acknowledges this, but he goes on to turn the narrative away from Republican corruption, focusing on the political complaints of economic conservatives:
Fiscal conservatives will shed few tears over Mr. Doolittle's likely departure from Congress. Ever since he joined the Appropriations Committee in 2001, he has been preoccupied with shoveling pork back to his district, telling one reporter he had adapted his small-government principles to the system Congress had created to spend money: "You work with what you've got." In conversations with me, he would marvel at how well Democrats and Republicans got along on the Appropriations Committee because "we so often have the same priorities"--namely spending other people's money.

Mr. Doolittle's near-death experience at the polls last November did not prompt a return to his ideological roots. He had already angered voters in Roseville, the largest city in his district, by opposing their ultimately successful efforts to repeal a utility tax through a ballot measure. Then this month, the former antitax champion appeared before the Sacramento Bee's editorial board and delighted them with his apparent surrender on a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for local transportation projects in the Roseville area.
Now, earlier in the article, Fund notes that "last year, publicity about his ties to Mr. Abramoff caused his popularity to plummet." Here, however, he's re-framing the scandal as being an example of the loss of the mythical Reaganite fiscal discipline. One can see how the two narratives fit together. And yet, it leads to a conclusion that might or might not be justified in Doolittle's own case, but certainly has little to do with the real problems facing the GOP as a whole.

Fund quotes another Representative saying that "John isn't the ideological conservative he used to be." This may be true, but it further illustrates a conservative inability to distinguish between corruption and government spending. Aside from the Iraq war, the voters' major complaint about the Republicans was that they were corrupt, not that they failed to cut taxes zealously enough. Yet, from Fund's perspective there's little difference between the two phenomena.

When a party cannot tell the difference between governing and corruption, you can reasonably expect that it will govern corruptly. And the evidence has backed that supposition.

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Friday, April 20, 2007
  Busy Writing Next Week's Material

This has been a light week at A&S, despite all the goings-on in the real world, and today's postings will have to be limited as well. We'll be back with a vengeance next week; meanwhile, here are a few things to keep you occupied:

The Third Estate reports on a smart next move for Democrats in the "partial-birth" abortion battle.

Undercover Blue's series on conservatives continues.

Progressive Historians features a debate on the right to bear arms in historical context - going back further than the American Constitution.

One of my favorite liberal writers, Harold Myerson, reflects on the patterns at work in the primary races: "Democrats in conflict, Republicans in space."

And if you haven't read it yet, Phil Nugent has the final word on the Imus controversy. Yes, it's a great read even though you're sick of the whole thing already. (h/t Crooked Timber).

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Thursday, April 19, 2007
  Huckabee's Lament

PFAW's excellent Right-Wing Watch reports that Mike Huckabee is getting a little fed up with all the love and forgiveness going on between religious right leaders and the various adulterers and cross-dressers in the Republican presidential field:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, beloved by many on the Religious Right for his positions on wedge issues but dismissed as a serious presidential candidate, has spent the last few weeks deploying a seemingly desperate gambit aimed at undermining support for frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. They should “be held to a standard of personal accountability and responsibility for their personal lives,” he said, alluding to what Vision America’s Rick Scarborough called “multiple marriages and serial adultery” among the candidates. “If Republicans in this election vote in such a way as to say a candidate’s personal life and personal conduct in office doesn’t matter,” said Huckabee, “then a lot of Christian evangelical leaders owe Bill Clinton a public apology.”


In a recent appearance in Iowa, Huckabee sharpened his “personal lives” attack, noting that “I’m specifically referencing Christian evangelical leaders who were the most vocal in saying back during the Clinton era that personal behavior, personal responsibility and character were the key factors in a president’s criteria.” He accused those leaders of selling out to the Republican Party.
Huckabee is stuck in a vicious circle: he's doing terribly in the polls because he has been unable to gain support from the leaders of what should be his base in the primaries; he has been unable to gain that support because he's perceived by said leaders as unelectable.

It continues to mystify me, and as far as I can tell, it really does all trace back to the Club for Growth's vigorous attacks on Huckabee a few months ago. Otherwise, what's not to love? He's a governor, a Baptist preacher, a star on the stump, he's been on Oprah, and he has a flair for reframing traditionally Democratic social issues within a conservative narrative. In fact, I think it's this last trait, more than the specific tax increases he approved in Arkansas, that doomed him in the eyes of the Club for Growth crowd. They've been traumatized by "compassionate conservatism," and the last thing they want is a nominee who intends to go down that road again. The tax increases only sharpened their skepticism. Thus they appplied the "unelectable" tag to him, even though there's no reason to believe he's unelectable at all. Again, the economic conservatives punch above their bodyweight in the conservative coalition.

This time, they've done Democrats a favor.

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  Freddy Sez...

Novak has been predicting it, and it's looking more likely: The Right's Field reports on more signs that Fred Thompson is about to jump into the race.

This could make things even more fun.


  What's Next for the Anti-Choicers?

Couldn't post yesterday, which was almost a blessing because I wouldn't have known where to start if I did. This blog is deliberately non-newsy, focused more on underlying histories and trends in the conservative movement, with some running commentary on the GOP horse race thrown in. But sometimes the news is impossible to ignore.

Yesterday's big story, of course, was the Supreme Court's ruling on so-called "partial-birth abortion." You'll find far better legal, medical, and philosophical analysis at other sites - I'll limit my own contributions to a brief look at where this ruling fits in the larger scheme of things for conservatives.

For Michael J. New, writing at the National Review, the lesson is that "incrementalism works" as an anti-choice strategy:
The ruling is a good indication pro-lifers would do well to continue this strategy of incrementalism in the future.

Indeed Wednesday’s decision was made possible by pro-lifers whose hard work resulted in a Congress, a president, and a Judiciary who were all supportive of the partial-birth-abortion ban. This decision builds on the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision, argued almost exactly 15 years ago. Casey strengthened constitutional protection for public-funding bans, parental-involvement laws, waiting periods, and informed-consent laws. The Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday extends constitutional protection to yet another piece of pro-life legislation.
In New's analysis, the incremental strategy succeeds because it allows the the anti-choice movement to establish fresh narratives drawn from the margins of the abortion debate, where public opinion is less settled and therefore more susceptible to the "pro-life" line. It's a sort of bait-and-switch approach, which seeks to center unusual procedures like "partial birth abortion" as the symbolic face of the debate: defining the norm according to the extreme.
[I]ncremental legislation often serves an important informational purpose. Many people pay little attention to politics and are unaware of the permissive polices the United States has regarding abortion. Many do not know that in many states a minor can obtain an abortion with out her parents’ knowledge. Furthermore, many do not know that a woman can obtain a legal abortion during her ninth month of pregnancy. As such, it is undeniable that the national campaign to end partial-birth abortion gained a considerable amount of publicity and was effective in moving the general public toward a more pro-life direction.
As New observes, the incremental strategy has only recently achieved a degree of consensus among anti-choicers:
While this may seem relatively uncontroversial in pro-life circles today, the battle between incrementalists and purists at one point was extremely divisive. Many pro-lifers are too young to remember the bitter battles within the pro-life movement during the late 1970s and the early 1980s about the best way to design a human-life amendment.

Now by the mid 1980s most pro-lifers realized that a constitutional amendment was not a realistic short term political goal. As such, the strategy of most pro-life groups shifted toward changing the Supreme Court. This enjoyed somewhat broader support and tensions cooled somewhat. However, it is possible that a reversal of Roe v. Wade could reignite these tensions. Legislators may be called to dismiss incremental legislation in favor of politically infeasible laws that would eliminate abortion entirely.
This is the other trend lurking within the movement; it has been manifested in moments of overreach like the South Dakota abortion ban and even the failed attempt to impose forced sonography in South Carolina. The incremental approach requires a great deal of discipline - all the more so, one would think, as it begins to succeed. With each victory, anti-choice extremists will be tempted to see the endgame on the horizon, and to break ranks in pursuit of it. This, as New seems to realize, threatens to undo the movement altogether. "The pro-life movement would do well to remain united," he argues, pointing out that in a broad sense abortion rights have gained durable public support since Roe. It remains unrealistic for anti-choicers to anticipate overturning that consensus - but they can keep chipping away at the margins, through "parental-involvement laws, waiting periods, and informed-consent laws." In this analysis, things are going the anti-abortion movement's way, but only if they don't go too far.

Ed Whelan, of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, is downright enthusiastic about the possibilities of the incremental strategy in the wake of yesterday's decision. Writing at USA Today, he calls for an ambitious series of next steps:
Americans now have the green light to enact state partial-birth bans modeled on the federal ban. Legislatures should also pursue more robust informed-consent rules on, for example, ultrasound imaging and fetal pain.
In contrast to New, who seemed to focus on gradually changing the terms of the debate and actually trying to reduce the number of abortions (however mistaken his analysis), Whelan seems to see an opportunity to regulate abortion out of existence. Licking his chops at the prospects of "further improvements in the court's makeup," Whelan sounds very much like one of those reluctant incrementalists who, having had a taste of blood, is anxious to surge forward - discipline be damned.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, are far more cautious. "Yesterday's abortion ruling," they say, "was only a baby step."
Not only did the Court not overrule its Roe and Casey decisions, it didn't even overrule Stenberg v. Carhart, the 2000 decision that overturned a Nebraska law banning partial-birth abortion. Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy upheld the 2003 Congressional ban because he said it was more narrowly drawn. "The Act makes the distinction the Nebraska statute failed to draw," he wrote, "by differentiating between the overall partial-birth abortion and the distinct overt act that kills the fetus."


Justice Kennedy had been a dissenter in Stenberg, so changing his position would have been a little too protean even for him. The fact that he wasn't willing to overturn even Stenberg suggests that this Court is not in the mood for sweeping reversals of precedent. As for Messrs. Roberts and Alito, the Court's opinion also gives no clue about how many abortion precedents they might be willing to overturn. The Court has shown a very modest new deference to the will of the voters on abortion, but no more.
What this does represent, to the Journal's editors, is a chance to debate an abortion-related issue in state legislatures. The issue itself might be a narrow one, but it's a sort of rehearsal for the large-scale shift that "respectable" conservatives want to achieve: by overturning Roe and Casey, they intend to make abortion policy a question for state politicians to decide. You have to admire how neatly this dovetails with the entire conservative history of disingenuous federalism: we all know by now what support for "state's rights" really says about one's opinion on civil rights.

At any rate, the editors are not wrong about one thing: "Americans are ambivalent about abortion, with a majority wanting it to be legal but also rarer than it is now." Yesterday's ruling happened because enough Democrats were willing to sign onto a law that dealt with a very marginal aspect of the abortion debate. I'm certainly no expert on the politics of abortion, but one thing seems to be getting clearer: the heart of the matter now rests on the question of reducing abortions, one way or another. The central dilemma for anti-choicers - the fact that most Americans support legal abortion in principle - is not going away. Serious anti-abortion activists are turning to an incrementalist strategy, but the question is whether they will be able to maintain the discipline to keep it up. Meanwhile, the pro-choice movement has the opportunity to exploit the very same context - ambivilent but broad support for abortion rights - in a different way, by taking up a prevention-first strategy. There are two strategies here, almost mirror images of each other, but aimed at very different goals.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

No one is holding Joe Klein up as a model of progressive journalism. But his piece on the "epic collapse" of the Bush administration is worth a certain number of schadenfreude points (see the News Blog for Klein's rebuttal of his own argument).

At any rate, I mention it because he picks up this quote from Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America:
"The entire VA hospital system is unprepared for the casualties of Iraq, especially the psychiatric casualties. A lot of vets are saying, 'This is our Katrina moment.' And they're right: this Administration governs badly because it doesn't care very much about governing."
Emphasis mine. As we like to say: conservatives can't govern, because conservatives don't believe in government.

UPDATE: I see the piece is a couple weeks old. Still a good quote, anyway.

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  Imperial Folly

Speaking of the New Republic, this is a must-read. (I know it's considered declasse in the liberal blogosphere to link to TNR these days, but as aggravating as that publication can be, it does often feature worthwhile reporting.)

You may recall President Bush's luncheon (and subsequent private sitdown) with historian Andrew Roberts - a exercise in advanced decadence for certain of the neo-imperialist crowd, who indulged their foreign policy fantasies in a rousing philosophical debate at the White House. Roberts was the guest of honor.

British journalist Jonathan Hari has taken to TNR's website to give us a little more background on Roberts, author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, and - apparently - one of the last true imperialists. Roberts, says Hari, is a man who speaks to white supremacists in Africa, praises British massacres in India, justifies internment in Ireland, and calls on Americans to take up the white man's burden now that the Raj is finished - only he doesn't call it the white man's burden; rather he cites the "Anglosphere." As Hari observes, "The decision to laud Roberts provides a bleak insight into the thinking of the Bush White House as his presidential clock nears midnight."
Roberts's raw imperialism informs the advice he offers Bush today. For one, he urges Bush to adopt a supreme imperial indifference to public opinion. He counsels that "there can be no greater test of statesmanship than sticking to unpopular but correct policies." The real threat isn't abroad, but at home, among domestic critics. Roberts writes, "The greatest danger to [the British and, by extension, the American] continued imperium came not from declared enemies without, but rather from vociferous enemies within their own society."

In this Bushian history, democratic debate--especially in wartime--is a sign of weakness to be suppressed. "Contrary to the received view of the Vietnam War, the United States was never defeated in the field of battle," he writes. It was Walter Cronkite, not Ho Chi Minh, who was the true menace: "Some of the media was indeed a prime enemy of the conflict." Self-criticism is only ever interpreted in these histories as "self-hatred," which he says is "an abiding defect in the English-speaking peoples, and for some reason especially strong in Americans." It can only sap the "willpower" of any empire.

It doesn't appear to occur to Roberts that the British or U.S. empires could simply hit up against a limit to their power. Could there be a worse adviser for George W. Bush right now? Roberts's advice is a vicious imperial anachronism: Target civilians, introduce mass internment, don't worry about whether people hate you, bear down on dissent because it will sap the empire's willpower, ignore your critics because they're just jealous, and--above all--keep on fighting and you'll prevail.
Don't miss the bare-knuckle follow-up exchange between Roberts and Hari, in which the former claims that were the article published in a British journal, it would result in a libel suit. Hari, for his part, gives no ground. At any rate, the dispute focuses on details, leaving unchallenged the issue that the President has embraced the advice of a self-described "extremely right-wing" imperialist, who calls for harsh and unapologetic repression abroad, no matter how much opposition it engenders here at home.

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  More on Wolfowitz

Wolfy's defenders are circling the wagons. The Wall Street Journal insists that "this flap is a political hit based on highly selective leaks to a willfully gullible press corps." According to the Journal, the Bank's files on the affair reveal that its own ethics committee recommended the promotion and pay raise, then hung Wolfowitz out to dry., on the other hand, says that this explanation still leaves crucial questions unanswered. Why was the pay raise granted to Riza significantly higher than what was called for under the Bank's own guidelines? Why does Wolfowitz's spokesman claim the Board of Directors approved the raise when the Board itself denies this? And why, if Wolfowitz did nothing wrong, did he admit wrongdoing?

Meanwhile, at the New Republic, Michael Currie Schaffer points out that Wolfowitz's alleged corruption completely undermines his own stated intent of "reforming" the World Bank's lending process:
[I]magine you're the poor schlub who serves as the Bank's representative in one of those impoverished, not-part-of-the-war-on-terrorism African countries that Wolfowitz has so vocally championed. Here in this sweaty, distant posting, you've been funneling loans to the country for things like rural electrification. But there's a problem: The minister for public works has been skimming 10 percent from all the contracts. His deputy gets another 5 percent. And so on and so forth, until all the country has to show for its electrification debts are a few gangly power lines that don't even work most of the time. So now you're paying him a visit in the finance ministry to chat.... As a servant pours you a cup of coffee--grown on the plantation the minister somehow managed to buy during a Bank-promoted privatization in the late 1990s--you read him the riot act.

Now, in light of the allegations swirling around the Bank's anticorruptionist-in-chief, just how likely is it that your message will get through? It's far more likely that it will be understood as more empty rhetoric.... As you drone on, the minister may well be wondering why it is that, if you're so smart, you're counting electric poles in his godforsaken country rather than hooking your own girlfriend up with a sweet job back in D.C. If he's a polite sort, maybe he furrows his brow and promises to thoroughly examine your allegations as you wind up your lecture. As soon as he gets back from a holiday trip to Brussels, of course. So much for ending corruption.
Once again, the cartoon superhero turns out to be disastrously incompetent in the real world.

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As you might expect, the conservative noise machine barely paused to catch its breath before beginning its effort to spin the horrible events at Virginia Tech into political gold. Instapundit was among the first out of the gate, as this DKos diary noted. The New York Sun, to nobody's surprise, takes up the same talking points, couching them on a fluffy layer of righteous talk about how America caught "a glimpse of evil" yesterday. There's a certain kind of conservative who loves nothing more than an opportunity to crow about Evil. It allows him to trumpet his own Moral Clarity, the primary purpose of which is to aid in the process of simplifying and personalizing some difficult issue, and demonizing all those who point out that, by simplifying and personalizing it, the conservative has guaranteed that he will never do anything effectively to resolve it. Talking about "Evil," for this kind of conservative, is a ticket to a cartoon universe whose bright colors and vivid characters might just be enough to distract folks from noticing that such conservatives tend to be disastrously incompetent at dealing with problems in the real world. As for that Moral Clarity, count on it to be discarded the first time it becomes the least bit inconvenient.

But I digress. The Sun shines its dim light on the shootings in hopes of illuminating its argument about the actions of New York's own Mayor Bloomberg, who has continued Rudy Giuliani's strategy of cracking down on illegal guns. It's a strategy that has helped make New York the safest big city in America, but the balls-to-the-wall gun crowd, of course, don't care about that. The NRA has been demonizing Bloomberg for a while now, and the Sun's editors eagerly use the Va. Tech shootings as an opportunity to pile on:
The shooting erupted as a little noticed legal war was gathering between Virginia and New York over our city's legal maneuvering to stem the sale of what Mayor Bloomberg calls illegal guns. The smell of cordite hadn't cleared from the Virginia Tech campus when the declared candidates for president began addressing the shooting, ending, as Mr. Hope put it, "what had been seen as an unwillingness to fully address gun issues so far in the campaign."
And here the Sun goes on to make the utterly predictable, and mouth-frothingly insane, argument that the problem was about not enough people having guns. Virginia's legislature recently refused to overturn a ban on guns at college campuses. This, we're told, is why the death toll was so bad:
Today, however, the question hanging over this tragedy is whether the legislature acted wisely or whether, in fact, the campus would have been safer had the students and others been permitted to keep and bear arms in the dorms and on the greenswards. It's not a theoretical question. In 2002, according to a report on, a disgruntled student at the Appalachian Law School, Peter Odighizuwa, allegedly shot and killed the school's dean, a professor, and a student on campus. He was subdued, CNSNews.comreported, only when two students reportedly ran to their cars to fetch their own guns and returned to confront the killer, who surrendered.
The Appalachian Law School shooting is a favorite canard of the all-guns-all-the-time people, who insist it proves their case that an armed society is a polite society, since the gunman was ultimately subdued by a pair of students with their own weapons. What goes unmentioned is the fact that he was only subdued after he had finished shooting and run out of ammunition, and that the students had not been armed at the time of the shootings, but had run over a hundred yards to retrieve their weapons, which begs the question of why the real lesson of Appalachian Law shouldn't be about the need for more effective policing.

The Virginia Tech shootings could have been limited to two victims if the university and its police force had effectively secured the campus during the two-hour gap between the first and second rounds of killing. But that's not the lesson gun extremists want you to draw. They want us to believe that our world would be a better place if everyone went to German class with a loaded handgun. If there are German classes in Somalia, I'm sure that's how they're conducted.

Personally I'm sort of a Federalist on gun laws. I see no need whatsoever to take away anybody's hunting rifle, and if a state doesn't think it can provide for adequate law enforcement and feels that somehow people are safer when everyone is armed to the teeth, that's their business. In New York City, though, that's a recipe for disaster, and every honest person knows it. Everybody but the editors of the New York Sun, for whom yesterday's events were nothing more than another twist in the plot for their cartoon world.

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Monday, April 16, 2007
  Primary Questions Revisited

Vernon Lee has some good thoughts on the relationship between primary elections and intra-party ideological disputes. He points out something I didn't observe in my own post on the subject:
Just because party factions don't engage in open, pitched battle for nominations - in which ideological differents are on full display - doesn't mean that individual candidates don't have ideas that deviate from mainstream voters (of Party or general electorate). We just don't hear about them unless there is some benefit to the candidate.
Much of the presidential primary process, of course, is based around trying to draw these "hidden beliefs" out of the candidates, and obliterate them if necessary. It's also useful to keep an eye on who is advising whom on policy - this is something I'll try to do here over the next few months.

Vernon sees the next major internal GOP question shaping up around the role of authoritarians in the party:
The Giuliani example appears to be a sui generis candidacy - a "one-time exception" - but perhaps is an unusually vivid example of the Right-Wing Authoritarian dominance of today's Republican party. In this model, RWAs will support any candidate pre-approved by their leadership regardless of ideological differences.

In the first few years of the Bush presidency, when the Southern wing of the Republican party overwhelmed both the party and two and a half branches of government, many liberals were heard to wonder, "What happened to the Rockefeller Republicans?" Now, such questions seem maddeningly quaint: the ideological battle is not one between Rockefeller and Southern populist Republicans, but between authoritarians and non-authoritarians. We have John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience, Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians, Joe Conason's It Can Happen Here, and journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Dave Neiwert, and Digby to thank for midwifing and popularizing these essential explanations of our political moment.

The next ideological rift within the Republican party will not be over elements of the party's platform - small-bore ideology - but Ideology write large: the extent to which the Republican party will remain captive to its RWA base. The question for Republicans is, What to do with the authoritarians among us?
I think there's a certain dovetailing between lockstep tendencies among the rank-and-file and the new conservative embrace of expansive executive power, but the phenomena are not precisely the same thing. Would Republican activists and donors and intellectuals be inclined to purge either tendency from their party? On the whole, I don't see it, at least for now. Certainly a President Hillary Clinton could inspire them to re-think (or at least hypocritically ignore) their Bush-era approach to executive privilege, I suppose. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the fundamental dilemmas facing the next generation of Republican leaders involve how to re-think 1) the party's relationship to the conservative movement, and 2) the conservative philosophy of government.

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  Fast Burn

The Right's Field has posted a breakdown of Q1 fundraising numbers for the GOP candidates so far. Not only are the Republicans raising much less than the Democrats, they're spending it a lot quicker. The only candidate with a "burn rate" (money spent as a percentage of money raised) of less than 50% is Rudy Giuliani. John McCain spent 70% of the $13 million he raised - and his campaign is falling apart anyway.

Yet more evidence that, reluctant though many conservative elites may be to support him, Giuliani remains in the driver's seat. Of course, he may be doing so well in part because he hasn't spent much money - he has yet to really expose himself on the national stage. Once he does, he might be more vulnerable.

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  Ask Not for Whom the Dog Didn't Bark

Byron York, White House correspondent for the National Review, warns conservatives that the US Attorneys scandal isn't going away any time soon, even if Attorney Gen. Gonzales does resign. Ultimately, says York, even if Congressional hearings fail to turn up conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, the mystery of the missing e-mails will fuel speculation about a cover-up:
In the end, that is what the U.S. attorneys affair will likely come down to: a fight over documents. Even if there is no evidence that the attorneys were fired to interfere with prosecutions, and even if there is no evidence that some attorneys weren’t fired to interfere with prosecutions, and even if Alberto Gonzales resigns, and even if a lot of other things happen, there will still be an enormous struggle between the White House and Democrats in Congress over allegations that documents have been withheld, or have been destroyed, or have simply disappeared. Accusers always claim that there is some sort of secret evidence to prove their accusation. Sometimes there is, but even if there isn’t, the lack of such evidence can still sustain charges of coverup. Either way, with Democrats in control of Congress, the investigation can go on a long time.
But has York forgotten, or merely discarded, the neoconservatives' epistemological dogma: "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"?

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Saturday, April 14, 2007
  Things Fall Apart, But Not Yet

If you're not reading The American Scene, you should be. Ross Douthat is probably the brightest conservative writer out there these days, and his generous, civil style makes for a refreshing contrast from what one finds in a lot of conservative publications. I believe that he has a book in the works based on his Weekly Standard article urging Republicans to be the "party of Sam's Club" - I'll post a review here.

So anyway... Douthat, responding to puzzlement by Micky Kaus and Ben Smith as to why there isn't an anti-immigrant candidate in the Democratic field, suggests that it's for the same reason there isn't really an anti-war Republican candidate: it's just not a primary-winning strategy:
[W]hile being an anti-immigration Democrat or an anti-war Republican might, if you were lucky, get you to thirty percent in some primaries, it would pretty much doom your chances of getting to fifty-one percent, because there's just too much institutional weight leaning against you. [...]

It wasn't always thus: Presidential nominating contests used to be serious ideological battles - think Goldwater versus Rockefeller, or Reagan versus Ford - and journalists are still conditioned to think about them that way, which is why they get excited about the silly idea of Chuck Hagel as a "rebel" Republican who'll shake things up in the primary season. But the big primary battles of recent vintage have tended to be more about style than substance: The difference between George W. Bush and John McCain in '00, or John Kerry and Howard Dean in '04, was more a matter of self-presentation than ideology. The last time a candidate made even a modest primary splash while deviating starkly from one of his party's core positions was Pat Buchanan, in '92 and '96, breaking with the GOP on free trade and to a lesser extent free markets in general - and he didn't get very far.
For Douthat, Giuliani is "the exception that proves the rule," since his entire candidacy is premised on asking for a one-time exemption from the GOP's ideological consensus "to allow him to get into the Oval Office and kick some terrorist ass."

Setting aside the question of whether Giuliani has actually given us any reason to believe he'd be a terrorist-ass-kicking president, Douthat's point is a good one: in the current era, basic intra-party ideological disputes are in many regards settled before primary votes are cast. This doesn't mean that there aren't any such disputes, only that the parties' institutional processes tend to select the winners of those disputes in advance of the electoral process, and candidates are forced to adapt accordingly. To put it another way: if you want to change the ideological orientation of your party, focus on the party's institutions, not the candidates, since the latter are forced to react to the former.

My suspicion is that this state of affairs is actually the historic norm. The period Douthat cites as a counter-example - the battles between Rockefeller Republicans and movement conservatives - represents a major point of transition for the Republican party. If the primaries in that period featured significant ideological struggles whose outcome was not predetermined, it's because the historical institutional dominance of moderate Northeasterners in the national GOP was suddenly being challenged - and would soon be usurped - by the movement conservatives of the West and Midwest (and, ultimately, the South). Once that fight was settled - with the Reagan 'revolution' - ideological consensus again became the norm. Buchanan's primary challenge represented little more than a doomed paleoconservative rebellion against this new consensus.

Arguably, the last time that the Democratic party found itself in a similar period of evenly-matched intra-party ideological struggle was during the late 19th century, when William Jennings Bryan and his agrarian radicals fought a battle of see-sawing fortunes against the Bourbon Democrats. That fight was essentially settled when Woodrow Wilson, who was initially the favorite of Bourbon party elders, co-opted much of the progressive Democrats' agenda, setting the precedent for the New Deal and all that followed.

For all the disputes over the meaning of Clintonism, Democrats have never really abandoned the New Deal - only wavered in their commitment to fighting for it. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been roiled by a dispute over the meaning of compassionate conservatism - which was always more a strategy than an ideology - and the failure to successfully achieve the transformation of American political economy which is supposed to constitute their primary objective. This has resulted in a certain amount of flux and confusion, but there's no sign - yet - of the kind of comprehensive institutional breakdown that would turn basic ideological questions over to primary voters to settle. It isn't even clear that a coherent alternative exists to the general post-Goldwater conservative consensus.

But it's certainly worth watching to see if something does develop.

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Friday, April 13, 2007
  The Albatross is Slipperier than It Looks

At MyDD, Jonathan Singer slices out a portion of the latest Bloomberg/LA Times poll (pdf), to make an interesting observation, based on this question:
Q28. In your opinion, should whoever becomes the next Republican nominee campaign on a platform of continuing the policies of George W. Bush, or should he talk about moving the country in a new direction?

Continue Bush policies301536312941
Move in a new direction617954596448
Don't know961010711
Singer's comment:
On this retrospective question on George W. Bush and his policies ... Republicans offer a thumbs down by better than a two-to-one margin. Even the religious right, which has gotten much of what it wanted from the Bush presidency (two new hard right conservatives on the Supreme Court for a likely net pick up of one seat for the anti-choice side; federal funds for faith-based initiatives; a curb to funding for stem cell research; a push, however unsuccessful, to ban same-sex marriage; etc.), would prefer the 2008 GOP presidential nominee not be a George W. Bush Republican -- and they remain more supportive of the President than other Republican groups polled.

With such numbers, the Democrats' effort to make George W. Bush the 21st century's equivalent of Herbert Hoover -- an albatross for Republicans to carry for several election cycles even after he has left office -- shouldn't be so terribly difficult.
My thought: yes and no. It would be a mistake to read too singular a narrative into these results. Republicans who disapprove of Bush tend to do so either because they're moderates (as shown in the survey) or because they're ideologues who believe Bush hasn't been conservative enough. Undoubtedly a certain amount of this discontent has to do with voters' distress over an era of incompetence, corruption, and war. And in that regard it will be simple enough to hang the Bush presidency around the GOP's neck.

At the same time, don't expect conservative elites to come to the same conclusions. They tend to be fully invested in the "not conservative enough" school - or, at the very least, in the notion that Bush was not politically skilled enough to implement a conservative agenda. Both these lines of thought are actually illustrated by the poll Singer referenced in an earlier post, which compared the attitudes of CPAC attendees toward Presidents Reagan and G.W. Bush. In that post, Singer cited the Washington Wire:
Ronald Reagan is alive and well -- at least, he was at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend. In a straw poll of conference participants, 79% said they would support "a Ronald Reagan Republican" for president, while only 3% said they would support a "George W. Bush Republican." Still, 82% said they favor the president's strategy in Iraq.
Singer allows that "these numbers could be as much an indication of respect for Ronald Reagan as they are a sign of disrepect for George W. Bush" - but argues that they nonetheless represent negative attitudes about the Bush presidency that could trickle down to the base. My own estimation would be that the high opinion of Ronald Reagan among conservative elites is directly tied to their discontent with Bush. It's both cause and effect: the more the Bush era fails to redeem the promise of what these elites believe conservative government should achieve, the more Reagan is held up nostalgically as a model for the way things should be. And the more Reagan is valorized, the worse Bush looks by comparison. The CPAC poll was not registering a coincidence, but an ecology of opinion.

Conservative elites do in many ways tend to believe that Bush - Churchillian though he may be - has failed. But they have their own narrative of why and how he has failed, and it has nothing to do with the notion that Bush's conservative policies ruined the country. If any message is going trickle down to the base from the conservative opinion leaders it's this: Unlike Reagan, Bush did not have the political skills or the dedication to implement a truly conservative agenda. This is the message conservative elites will feed into their noise machine, and it's the message that will thus be blasted into the mainstream media as an alternative narrative of the meaning of Bush's failure. And as you'll note, it's a message that ascribes all the disasters of recent years to the president's failure to be effectively conservative enough. It's a message that transforms Bush from albatross to goat.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007
  SC Says No to Forced Sonography

Via Feministing - Another stumble for the anti-choicers:
A legislative panel on Thursday dropped a measure from an abortion bill that would have made South Carolina the only state to require women to review an ultrasound images of the fetus before terminating a pregnancy.
The anti-choice movement has made the promotion of sonography a major part of their strategy. At the conservative summit, Robert George paired it with "de-funding" abortion as a primary focus for anti-choice efforts going foward. Talk to Action, in the course of a very interesting profile of prominent anti-abortion doctor Eric Keroack, described how Keroack "pioneer[ed] the use of ultrasound as a high-tech weapon in the war on abortion."
[T]he A Woman's Concern centers directed by Keroack delay women's access to abortion care by suggesting to them that early miscarriages are common, that they could have an ectopic pregnancy or a blighted ovum, and that it would be best to wait a few weeks before making an appointment for an abortion: "For the CPC counselors, meanwhile, the extra 2-3 weeks provide another opportunity to persuade the woman that she should continue her pregnancy. And if the process calls for a follow-up ultrasound examination, there is one more opportunity for the mother to bond with her unborn child."
As T2A notes, the use of sonography for non-medical purposes has been condemned by professional medical organizations, but since when have legitimate scientific or ethical standards mattered to the obscuritanist fringe?

The proposed South Carolina law represented the first attempt to actually require women to have sonograms. Rightfully, the provision was denounced as totalitarian, and dropped from the larger bill:
"[The revised bill] is not forcing a woman to do something against her will," said Sen. Linda Short, the only woman in the Senate and a member of the subcommittee that dropped the measure.
The whole thing echoes the South Dakota abortion ban fiasco. Once again, the anti-choice movement overreaches in a conservative state, and once again they suffer an embarrassing defeat.

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  What We Talk About When We Talk About Religion

Five Before Chaos has a thoughtful post about my ruminations on the rise of moderate evangelicals. JD is generally in agreement, but makes another important point:
The key is for the Dems to not go overboard with the God talk, because then they're going to lose the support of those who hold secularism and rational inquiry in highest regard.
This is a valid concern, and it reflects - albeit more moderately - the worries of many secular progressives who are very reluctant to see Democrats attempt to appeal to evangelical voters.

It would be a tremendous mistake for Democrats to overlook the rapid rise of a secular voting bloc in America - especially as those voters overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates. Digby had a terrific post about this last month: the growing numbers of "unchurched" Americans present a serious problem for the Republican party. Digby cites Bill Scher:
Democrats crushed Republicans among secular voters, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60% to 38%) or never (67% to 30%). Republicans retained strong support among those who attend church more than weekly. But among those who only go weekly -- the larger portion of the religious vote -- the Republican lead shrunk from 15 points to 7.

In short, Republicans failed to be competitive among secular voters, while Democrats were at least competitive among regular churchgoers. And since the secular vote is roughly equal to the regular churchgoing vote, according to the last several national election exit polls, that means Republicans and their conservative base have a far bigger secular problem than their rivals have a religion problem.
These secular voters, Digby points out, represent the fastest growing religious group in America.

So it looks, on one level, like a bit of a conundrum for Democrats. How can we free ourselves from the shackles of traditional political piety and appeal to the unchurched while at the same time making new efforts to reach out to evangelicals?

It looks like at least one party is going to end up playing confessional whack-a-mole here. But it doesn't have to be the Democrats. Candidates who are wondering how to talk about their faith - or lack thereof - on the campaign trail shouldn't make religious rhetoric the object. This goes for whether they hold strong religious beliefs or not. Faith both informs and is given substance by one's values. So are the ethical strictures that lead secular folks to make certain moral choices - including the choice of how to vote. The "God talk" that shallow pundits and glib consultants try to foist on candidates is a distraction at best - an exercise in embarrassing fakery at worst. You can't force someone to write a sonnet if she speaks only Japanese. But let her compose in her own language, true to her own experience, and you're likely to find that her poetry is drawn from very familiar themes.

Secular progressives and moderate evangelicals share many of the same values: concern for the poor and the health of the middle class, stewardship of the environment, peace and freedom abroad, equal opportunities and justice for all. Secular Democrats should talk about those values in the way we know to talk about them, and understand that others will use different language to articulate the same concerns. Communication is not about mindlessly parroting someone else's language, nor is it about abandoning your own. It's about searching for ways to transmit ideas from one language to another, and learning to notice when you and your interlocutor are using different words to say the same thing.

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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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