Conservative Fractures and the Obama Opening
In earlier posts I identified some of the populist shortcomings of the liberals, The discussion continues with a reprise of the conservative side.
Until the congressional rout of 06, American conservatism still lived in the lingering glow of a renaissance. In retrospect, that renaissance was a gift from the democrats – the conservatives shone mostly in contrast with the excesses of the left wing activists who control the agenda of the Democratic Party.
The coming election has exposed the widening ideological fractures in the conservative ranks. This is true even though – as I predicted – the Iraq conflict has been moved to a background issue.
Will the conservatives be able to mount an effective challenge to the democrats? Will the republicans be able to do so without the enthusiastic backing of the conservatives? All that depends on the extent to which the conservative and centrist republicans can together recapture their earlier populist momentum. This will require a major retooling, because the earlier momentum was driven by mostly populist rejection of elitist democratic liberals.
And the GOP gravely damaged its populist identification in 2006. This should not have been a surprise. The Republican Party has a populist agenda to match that of the democrats (a different tone to be sure) but manifestly not a populist persona. I’ll skip the details, but the GOP debacle was driven by a popular revulsion at the ruling congressional republicans who were seen “exposed” as phony populists. To understand how this happened we need to review the surfacing cracks in the conservative movement.
Clearly, a revulsion at the excesses of the left no longer adequately defines “conservative”. Conservatism is in trouble because it is not a coherent belief system. Here is my short list of the conflicts and overlapping sub-movements within the loosely defined conservative alliance:
The religious vs. secular conservatives (the latter unconcerned about God in the pledge or the Decalogue in the public square); The “social” conservatives vs. the “socially tolerant” ones (generating issues like abortion vs. free choice and traditional marriage vs. “new paradigm”); Public order conservatives vs. the libertarian conservatives (this fuels the drug legalization conflict, among others); The isolationists vs. interventionists (isolationists went silent when the Trade Towers fell, but returned as the “Why is Israel so important, anyway?” crowd); Between the nationalists and internationalists. Frankly, this is a huge potential fracture for both parties. There are at least three important sub-issues.
(a) industrial policy (of the general type that Ross Perot advocated) to curb outsourcing vs. free trade a matter of faith;
(b) much stricter immigration policies and more robust enforcement vs. leaky borders (and a growing unassimilated alien population);
(c) American economic interests first vs. treaty enforced carbon restrictions.
AND --A supply side energy independence push vs. adaptation to lower consumption and higher prices.
The President Bush first identified himself as a thematic populist political leader when he was the governor of Texas. Having run an oil company and a baseball team “W” plausibly presented as less patrician and more authentically “blue collar” (if that phrase isn’t already obsolete) than his father. His first presidential campaign was headed to victory when a last minute revelation of his all-to-cleverly hidden DUI broke. The aura of inauthenticity nearly cost him that election, and did depress his popular vote below that of Al Gore.
The President’s populist persona reemerged post 911 in the rubble of the World Trade Towers. It was plain to all discerning observers that on that day and in the company of the firefighters, police and rescuers, “W” was among men like those he had rubbed shoulders with in the oil business and on the baseball field and that he was comfortable. Everyone in that rubble zone felt that this President was one of them, and that the “SOB’s” who’d done this to our country would be made to pay. It should have been no surprise when, later, John Kerry’s patrician image proved to be no match.
A populist republican president was born in that moment, riding the one issue that trumps any the typical republican rap as the party of corporate CEO’s and the country club set: Don’t tread on America. This issue will always trump the rest provided two conditions are met: (1) the leader doesn’t break trust with the American people and (2) we actually succeed in beating our enemies.
For the moment, the fractures on the right were healed and the left was silenced, but there was trouble ahead. Then the Iraqi invasion, popular to the extent it was successful (Americans love winning and hate losing) turned sour, offering the democrats and their many media allies the opening to savage the president’s credibility and competency. It was the poison pill that undercut the president’s fragile populist image. Add a spectacular misreading of the public mind by the administration on immigration (one – to be fair – that is shared by the democratic left) and the meltdown was irreversible.
The conservative wing of the democratic party was silent, AWOL or in a cemetery in Arlington, VA and that of GOP the was exposed as leaderless, incoherent, cranky and demoralized.
There were several populist wedge issues that a new center-right republican candidate might exploit – think ‘tough on crime, especially vis the death penalty’ and a credible ‘don’t take away Aunt Tillie’s pistol’. But Obama was given two gifts by the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of its last session. Its pro-second amendment ruling (District of Columbia vs. Heller) and the ‘no death penalty for rape’ decision (Kennedy vs. Louisiana) gave the Junior Illinois Senator two opportunities to sound moderate, if not conservative. He took them. Granted that Senator McCain is more forthrightly conservative on both issues, but the differences between the two candidates are now nuanced and no longer bright line.
On the energy independence issue, especially the ‘to hell with it, lets push energy supply, including oil’ issue, Obama is still vulnerable.
As Barak Obama tacks to the center, he has the opportunity to outflank the Arizona Senator on enough “conservative” issues to depress the turnout of the republican base and to exploit popular discontent without exposing himself to too many sharp policy differences. At this moment, the democratic nominee is floating on a tide of largely unearned trust (in that Obama is a fresh face with a high ‘you can trust me’ valence, but a shallow track record). That momentum may prove to be enough to win – given the current conservative demoralization.
The thematic issues that will still matter greatly can be encapsulated in three phrases:
(a) restoring the credibility of the presidency,
(b) maintaining strong national security in a time of ongoing peril,
(c) using common sense over ideology.
The policy issues that will still matter greatly are still very much in play: (1) increasing the U.S. energy supply and independence; (2) keeping the American job machine healthy and robust (3) proving a safe landing for our troops in the Middle East in the context of regional stability. On each of these issues, my private anecdotal survey of thoughtful democrats and independents give McCain the opening.
We can be certain of only one thing at this point: that the political landscape in July 2008 will change several times over the next six months. But the internal contradictions – within conservatism and between Obama’s slim record in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate, and his newly minted centrist persona, will remain.
A recent posting by Dick Morris estimates that Obama is leading McCain in the critical Electoral College vote (as of July 1) by 269 to 202 when the leaning status is allocated to each candidate. This reflects the fact that McCain is behind in several key states that Bush won in the last election. We can be certain that this, too, will change, but that the heavy lifting from here forward is assigned to John McCain…