23 Oct 2007

A Failed Conservative Government?

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Michael Tomaskey is whistling in the dark in the Guardian, hoping that George W. Bush’s second-term unpopularity signals a long-term change in the direction of American politics.

By 1964, conservatives were able to nominate one of their own, Barry Goldwater, for president. But it took them another 16 years to elect a president, Reagan. And then it took another 14 years before Republicans led by Newt Gingrich took control of the House of Representatives, for conservatives to seize power at a level below the presidency. In all that time, your “average”- that is, nonpolitical – American had no deeply negative experience of movement conservatism. It wasn’t quite the golden age that today’s embattled conservatives contend it was; for example, Reagan left office with a lower approval rating than Bill Clinton did.

Nevertheless, most average people found the experience of conservative governance more positive than not: Reagan cut their taxes, stared down the Russkies and made them feel good about their country. Even Gingrich and his cohort, before being laid deservedly low by their obsession with Clinton’s sex life, were credited by your average Joe with having cleaned out the Augean stables of Democratic Washington.

Then came Bush. At first things were motoring along nicely, and Bush guru Karl Rove’s prediction that a permanent conservative majority was coalescing seemed probable. Now it has all crashed and burned for the reasons we know about. But we still don’t know what exactly is that “it”.

That is, Americans have now experienced a conservative government failing them. But what lesson will they take? That conservatism itself is exhausted and without answers to the problems that confront American and the world today? Or will they conclude that the problem hasn’t been conservatism per se, just Bush, and that a conservatism that is competent and comparatively honest will suit them just fine?

Conservatives and the Republican presidential candidates hope and argue that it’s the latter. They largely endorse and in some cases vow to expand on the Bush administration’s policies – Mitt Romney’s infamous promise to “double” the size of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, notably. Like Bush, they vow that tax cuts, deregulation and smaller government will solve every domestic problem. Where they try to distinguish themselves from Bush is on competence. Romney talks up his corporate success, Rudy Giuliani his prowess as mayor of New York.

The Democrats aren’t as full-throated in opposition to all this as one would hope – they dance away from the word “liberal” and they don’t really traffic in head-on philosophical critiques of conservative governance. That said, though, all the leading Democrats are running on pretty strongly progressive platforms.

On healthcare, energy and global warming, all promise a very different direction for the country. Hillary Clinton has even inched to her husband’s left on trade issues. Even given her innate caution and rhetorical hawkishness on foreign policy, it’s fair to say that Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are making a forceful case for a clean ideological break.

The rubber will hit the road next summer and autumn. Then the Republicans will tell voters that the Democratic nominee has proposed trillions of dollars’ worth of new programmes and will inevitably raise taxes to pay for them. The Democrat will need to stand her or his ground and, while obviously not being cavalier about taxes, present a vision of a different kind of society. There are signs that 51% of the voters may be ready to embrace it.

I think it’s true that George W. Bush failed to get control of his own government, failed to mobilize the American people as a whole in support of American military efforts, and failed to defend himself and his policies with adequate vigor and effectiveness. Consequently, the democrat party is enjoying positive political momentum going into the 2008 Presidential Election, but the victory of Hillary Clinton is still far from assured.

Even if Hillary wins, it seems doubtful that she will succeed in effectuating a reversal of the historic tide away from statism and collectivism. Most probably, if Hillary is indeed elected, the democrat radical base will grow quickly embittered by her moderation, and will turn their full fury on her. Hillary may only succeed in achieving in one term the loss of approval and support unsuccessful presidents more commonly experience at the end of two.

One Feedback on "A Failed Conservative Government?"

Scott D

The majority of Americans endorse conservative values of limited government and personal, rather than collective responsibility. However, they also have the rather unrealistic expectation that you can place people in charge of a powerful and inherently collectivist body and they will not be inclined to wield that power. While nearly everyone seems to understand that people and institutions routinely act in their own self interest, somehow they expect that government and those who work there will not. The brilliant authors of our constitution anticipated this and purposely wrote a document that they thought would constrain the impulse. Obviously even they underestimated how far people would go to circumvent their intent. Perhaps they should have added a sentence to the tenth amendment: “And we really mean it!”


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