Saturday, April 07, 2007
Jonah Goldberg's latest at Townhall.com is the most perceptive assessment of the Republican's field of presidential candidates I have seen by a conservative so far. He draws an interesting parallel between the upcoming election and the one in 1912 in the process.
[W]e might be in another progressive moment in American politics, where both parties represent the same basic assumptions about the role of government, leaving conservatives out in the cold.In this much, he is right. But where things get interesting is the lesson he draws from this.
What is progressivism? For our purposes, let's just say it's the belief that the government "runs" the whole country, imposing its values on the group, the way a teacher runs a class or a drill sergeant runs a platoon (this actually describes the differences between Wilson and [Theodore Roosevelt]. quite nicely).
The front-runner in the Republican field is Rudy Giuliani, who certainly seems like a progressive. Coming up behind Giuliani are McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom champion, on domestic policy, their competence at running government, not their conviction to trim it back.
Given all of the hullabaloo about how Republicans are doomed and conservatism is discredited (witness Time magazine's disingenuous weeping Reagan cover), you would think that the Democratic front-runner would do better in matchups against the Republicans. But Americans say they would vote for McCain and Giuliani over Clinton in the general election. Some of this undoubtedly has to do with Clinton's status as a polarizing figure. But it also might demonstrate that the differences between the two parties - and their constituencies - are smaller than the news coverage and the partisans would have us believe.When I first read this, I thought Goldberg was saying that the American public might be more "progressive" than in the recent past, but his final question ("Where the heck is our Taft?") makes little sense in such a context. Instead, I think that Goldberg is convinced that a "real conservative" would do very well.
Goldberg is partly correct, at least in the sense that he seems to take "conservative" to vaguely mean pro-individual rights. To understand how, we must consider his observation that "most pundits see all this as an unsubtle referendum on the perception that the problem with Bush isn't his philosophy but his incompetence "-- in light of what has most dominated the Bush Presidency, the war.
Indeed, the war, at least until this administration put forward a massive humanitarian boondoggle in place of a policy of actual self-defense, was a "conservative issue". Or, to be more accurate, most Americans not part of the pacifist left favor fighting the war more vigorously, if anything. See Yaron Brook and Elan Journo for a critique of the "Forward Strategy for Freedom" and John Lewis for what an actual war would look like. And then consider this analysis of the blogger "Zombie" of polls that indicate merely that the war is "unpopular":
Most polls ask the misleading question, "Do you approve of the way Bush is conducting the war?" and they get a 60% to 65% "Yes, I disapprove" response. But those polls are purposely designed to NOT ask the follow-up question, "Do you think the war is being waged [too] forcefully or too lightly?" I've seen just a handful of polls that did ask follow-up questions of that sort, and they all revealed that half of the disgruntled respondents were [more pro-war than] Bush.Unfortunately, what this administration has done -- and Goldberg misses this -- is exactly what Craig Biddle indirectly predicted would happen before the last election:
The crucial issue of the day, however, is the war we should be waging but are not; so let us return to that.In other words, the war is not really an issue in this election since Bush has lowered the threshold for what his successor must do to be regarded as "pro-war" -- which is not that different from what we could expect the Democrats to do in their place. Thus, in the most crucial difference that should exist between the two parties in this election, there isn't much of one. (And the Democrats' pulling out of Iraq would arguably be a less harmful option than us remaining there, entirely by accident, of course.)
Here, in essence, is what Bush has done. By packaging a permission-seeking, capitulating, restrained, dovish foreign policy with lip service to an independent, firm, do-what-needs-to-be-done, hawkish one -- he has removed the concept of the latter from the foreign policy debate. Kerry, unwittingly, would put it back on the table; this is why I will vote for him.
It speaks volumes for where the war debate is now that Goldberg never really discusses the war and focuses instead on domestic policy, where it is far more clear to far more people that the candidates of both parties are similar. For one thing, there really isn't much of a war debate. (Continue digging toilets in Iraq or de-fund them?) For another, Goldberg himself, a conservative pundit , isn't arguing that Bush dropped the ball on the war.
I think that, as with the issue of prosecuting the war, a more explicitly pro-capitalist candidate could do well in this election. (And I suspect that on this, at least, Goldberg would probably agree.) I do not have the time to elaborate on this further, but I will say that, as we are already seeing in the debate over socialized medicine, the conservatives themselves -- including the allegedly "free market" ones) are really not so different from the Democrats even there. Is it really any wonder we aren't seeing a pro-individual rights candidate out of the Republican Party? (Taft is a mixed bag there, from what I know of him.)
So with the conservatives "waging" a half-war, half-foreign aid campaign and tinkering around with "market-based" ways to save Medicaid, perhaps the best question to ask isn't "Where's our Taft?" Perhaps it is, "Where is our pro-freedom political movement?" I think that there will not be one for a long time, but the longer people fail to realize that conservatism is not it, the longer it will take to achieve the meaningful cultural change that will make such possible.