But What Are You For? The Death of Modern Movement Conservatism

Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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69 Responses

  1. Jay Daniel says:

    Not to beat a dead horse, but Daniel Larison is a perfect example of someone who you cannot in good faith “blame” for the actions of George Bush. I disagree with him a lot. But he is unquestionably a conservative. He is also unquestionably opposed to the entire foreign policy ideology of the Bush administration, and has been ever since he appeared in the blogosphere. How can you say that he — and the sizable minority of conservatives who share his views — is responsible for Bush’s actions? Moreover, how can you argue that he has not presented an alternative vision? It certainly was not the vision that won the day during Bush’s terms in office. But I draw a different conclusion than you and Freddie do: with the discrediting of Bush’s foreign policy approach, maybe the next “conservative” president’s approach to foreign policy will look more like Larison’s. Such an approach would still fall well within a long-recognized strain of conservative thought.

    To get elected to national office, you have to build a coalition. There were lots of people to the liberal left of Bill Clinton who think that his free trade policies and welfare reforms were flat wrong. But Bill Clinton does not discredit their liberalism, and perhaps under Barack Obama, they will see their form of liberalism get a fair shot.Report

    • There’s a reason that Larison is many liberals’ favorite conservative: his utter contempt for the Bush Administration, held for all the right reasons. He can afford this because unlike the majority of conservative pundits, he cares more about ideas than being near the levers of power. This lets him write things you’d never see from a Will, a Brooks, or a Kristol. Nor does he care about having a mass following, which sets him apart from the talk radio bunch and the associated Malkins and RedStaters. (As does his intellect, of course.)

      This has been a long-winded preamble to asking who could be a Larison-like candidate for the GOP nomination. None of the usual suspects comes to mind.Report

      • Jay Daniel in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Larison also comes across as a big sourpuss, and his views on domestic policy are pretty opaque. So “Larison-like” makes it a little difficult for the imagination. But your point is well-taken. The usual suspects are mostly terrible. That being said, do any of the usual suspects even seem electable right now? If the debate topic on the floor were, “what well-known conservative would make a good president?”, I wouldn’t want to interrupt the chirping crickets. So yeah, M. Thompson’s take-away that conservatism is utterly fragmented and lacks a *coherent* vision is indisputable. But couldn’t the same be said for liberalism 7-8 years ago? I don’t mean to draw a one-to-one analogy; conservatism is probably more messed up now than liberalism was then. But I don’t think it is implausible that someone we’ve never heard of could emerge from one of the previously suppressed strains of conservatism and rally a movement behind him/her (e.g., if you get down to the congressional level, there are still lots of interesting but currently low-profile house members out there). No one saw Barack Obama coming 6 years ago. And no, I’m not thinking of Sarah Palin.Report

        • I think the better comparison is to liberalism in the 80’s and early 90’s, since I absolutely think these things are cyclical, although the current extremism being fed by talk radio is at an unprecedented level (Frum had an interesting explanation for why this is so). I also don’t deny that the GOP can come back electorally in the next 4-8 years; but I don’t see how it can do so without basically nominating a triangulating centrist that would be sort of a Republican Bill Clinton…a liberal in conservative clothing or, if you’d prefer, just a seriously watered-down conservative. I just don’t see the GOP getting behind a candidate with a coherent vision of conservatism who is also electable, because there really aren’t any affirmative issues and themes anymore that can unite the so-called three-legged stool.

          This is in no small part, as Sam suggests below, a result of conservatism being the victim of its own successes in the 80s and 90s. It’s also just a function of American priorities changing but the priorities that could potentially unite the legs of the stool remaining the same.Report

    • I think Larison is clearly the exception to the rule, for those reasons. However, Larison has also to my knowledge (maybe I’m wrong) never had any kind of interest in conservatism as a formal political movement, which is part of the point.Report

  2. Sam M says:

    I think this is a function mostly of the GOP’s prior success. You win… then what? For instance, you write:

    “This is problematic because political movements largely operate on consensus, and there is little way that a movement can govern well if it cannot agree upon what “governing well” actually means in even a meta sense. ”

    Good thing liberals aren’t facing this, and know exactly how to prioritize gay rights and shutting down Guantanimo Bay. Wait…

    As for this…

    “the fact is that they largely failed to provide alternative visions of what should have been done to address problems,…”

    It’s simply not true. Go to Cato’s websitr, or Heritage’s. Or read The American Conservative. Plenty of wonkery there. Seriously. Do you somehow see that Matt Yglesias has somehow offered a more coherent, complete set of policies that Will Wilkinson has? In what sense? I mean, I can provide links if you want them. Links showing conservatives saying, “we ought to do this, in this order.” You might disagree with the ideas, or the order in which they want to achieve them. But failing to issue edicts with which you agree is not the same as not issuing edicts.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Sam M says:

      It’s not necessarily a lack of wonkery that’s at issue here; rather, I think it is a sense of priorities. Contra your assertion, Obama and the Dem congress have a pretty clear list of priorities–first health care, then a second tier consisting of global warming and foreign policy. Obviously, there is some dispute over the relative ranking of any number of issues, but the broad outline is clear. Answer this: if the GOP were to take over Congress and the presidency in 2012, what problems would they try to solve? I’m not sure that most Republicans could even agree on an answer, and I’m even less sure that whatever they did do would address an actual problem.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to Sam M says:

      Well, yes, this is very much a result of the GOP’s successes in the 80s and 90s, and I’ve been making that point for quite some time. But that’s just it – without any unifying theme, any coherent and consistent agreement of what “good” governance now entails, how can you govern well? You can’t. So you have to choose between finding a coherent philosophy or vision of “good governance” that will effectively abandon part of your coalition or governing based on crass opportunism, perhaps using fear to keep the troops in line. This is in many ways what I think happened during the Bush years.

      As for the issue of offering alternatives, my point here is that conservatism as a movement during the Bush years did a poor job of not only criticizing Bush but also of offering serious alternatives at the same time. That’s not to say that no alternatives were offered, just that there was little incentive or ability to push hard for those alternatives beyond, perhaps, the occasional individual level because the dynamics of the conservative movement made it impossible to push those alternatives through without enfuriating one leg of the stool or another.

      And, dude, I’m a huge fan of Wilkinson’s, as well as of Cato and TAC, and to a much lesser extent of Heritage (the areas where I disagree with Wilkinson in particular are few and far between, if any).Report

  3. Bob Cheeks says:

    “For Larison, conservatism needs to be more a temperament than an ideology, and that temperament can be found only in traces in both political parties- specifically in foreign policy with the Democratic Party and in other areas within the GOP. ”
    Come on, both Bush and Obama believe the USA should be the policeman of the world, both parties believe in war, it’s just that the commie-Dems are a whole lot better at it (Korea-52,000 kia, Vietnam-55,000 kia). You guys are drinkin’ the Kool-Aid!
    And, while I’m at it: WTF, you guys wanna give BO control over 1/6 of our GNP? PLease, after they F*UCKED up medicare, social security, and medicaide…are you nuts?Report

  4. Barry says:

    “PLease, after they F*UCKED up medicare, social security, and medicaide…are you nuts?”

    You and truth haven’t lived on the same block for years, right?Report

  5. Sam M says:

    “Contra your assertion, Obama and the Dem congress have a pretty clear list of priorities–first health care, then a second tier consisting of global warming and foreign policy.”

    That’s a pretty broad list of priorities. I think that the Republicans could come up with a similar list. Foreign policy. Health care. Taxes. There. Presto. Except, of course, the devil is in the details. What about health care? A public option? Something else?

    Plus, I notice that your list sidesteps things like gay rights. Where does that fit? It’s first on the list for a lot of people. Like, um… gay people. Who are currently clamoring for MORE. Andrew Sullivan, who typically spends his time heaping praise on Obama, recently offered the pesident a heaping cup of STFU regarding an address in which he said he wanted to end DADT. Because it didn’t go far enough.

    I don’t recall any language like that at the Wednesday meeting.

    Liberals are less than a year into the administration. At this stage, Republicans were ushering through their tax cuts. The battles started happening after that. Pretty soon, the Democrat coalition is going to suffer a similar crack up. Right around the time health care reform happens, no matter what form it takes. What next? Gay rights? Global warming? Guantanimo? Getting out of Iraq? Maybe you think the left will go skipping down Briasway in lockstep, taking these issues on one at a time. I don’t. In fact, I suspect that the cycle will continue, and the coalition in power will suffer the consequences of being in power.

    So yeah. Go to a few liberal websites. Offer the list of priorities you mention and see the reaction you get when folks see it does not include DADT or DOMA. I suspect it will be the same reaction Republicans got when the pro-life people realized the Right was moving from tax cuts to Social Security privatization.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Sam M says:

      You really think that if the GOP took power they would make health care a priority? I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. They certainly didn’t display any passion for the issue when they were actually in power. As for foreign policy, you have to ask yourself what problem the Republicans would try to solve in foreign policy. Dems can answer that question–the world’s poor opinion of the US, the lack of diplomacy during the Bush years, the need to begin planning for the next phase of Iraq, etc. What foreign policy problem would Republicans focus on?

      Taxes I’ll grant you, but I’m not sure how far you’ll get before you start running into the reality of budget deficits and popular safety net spending (Social security et al). Even McCain’s presidential campaign contented itself with calling for the permanent extension of Bush’s tax cuts, hardly a clarion call to action.Report

      • The best opening the GOP has right now on any issue is education. Support for vouchers and charter schools is at an all-time high and dislike for teachers’ unions is fairly common. Education is a opening not just on the domestic front but it also is an opening into minority/low-income communities who are desperate for solid reform.Report

      • Sam M in reply to Dan Miller says:

        “Dems can answer that question–the world’s poor opinion of the US, the lack of diplomacy during the Bush years, the need to begin planning for the next phase of Iraq, etc. What foreign policy problem would Republicans focus on? ”

        As evidenced by the fact that we closed Guantanimo and got out of Iraq? And are sending more troops to Afghanistan?

        Are these liberal positions?Report

        • Dan Miller in reply to Sam M says:

          Well, there’s a certain amount of give and take, and definitely liberals are at least slightly disappointed. But on the whole, there has been substantial progress made (and the Norwegian parliament agrees :-P). Again, it’s a process, and one consideration balancing against others for Obama.Report

  6. Will says:

    More importantly: Did you a) ask my question or b) get me a job?Report

  7. From Mark:

    “Douthat’s emphasis on a heterodox conservatism that leaves room for regional differences sounds wonderful until you recognize that it turns conservatism and/or the GOP into a coalition with no truly unifying themes beyond opposition to liberalism. “

    But isn’t this basically how we can describe the big tent of the Democratic party? I mean, what does a poor black man in Georgia have in common with an affluent white, gay couple in San Francisco? The only thing I can determine is a sense of victomhood and the hope that the Democrats will take their pain away.Report

    • At this moment, not really. Democrats in general have a fairly clear vision of government as a tool for “social justice.” This vision allows them to find almost unanimous agreement on the goals of health care reform, wealth redistribution, and many (though by no means all) civil rights issues. Eventually, of course, they’ll be able to put some of these agreements into action, while other areas of agreement may be overtaken by events and thus de-prioritized, and they’ll slowly find themselves in the position of today’s Republicans on the national level (state level politics are a different animal entirely). Again, these things are cyclical.Report

      • I agree about the cyclical nature of things. That’s why I find all the gloom and doom about the GOP to be a bit short-sighted.Report

        • It depends on how long you’re willing to extend your window of reference, and how committed you are to a particular iteration of conservatism. While these things are cyclical, the length of the cycle can be quite long, and it may well be 10-20 years before the GOP coalition is again capable of governing. Moreover, the form that the GOP will take when it again becomes capable of governing is a huge question mark, and inevitably it is going to look quite different from the current amalgamation of conservatisms….some group is going to wind up as the odd man out, no one knows which one, and for the most part no one wants to be that one.Report

          • Well I would say the writing is on the wall for gay marriage. It’s going to keep moving forward in more and more states and your mainline conservatives will accept it so long as it follows the Vermont model. Ending the current abortion regime in favor of something more limited will still remain a goal but barring a favorable Supreme Court realignment I don’t see how conservatives can ever hope to get this one. If these two issues alone die down the moderates in the GOP will be thrilled. The question then becomes, where will the Far Right folks go? Will they leave in disgust or will they hang around and come up with a new issue (my money is on polygamy)?

            Honestly, if the GOP just accepts gay marriage, throttles down on abortion and starts to get serious about fiscal policy, they can quickly rebuild. I just don’t know if there is enough will to do any of that among the leadership.Report

            • The thing is that those three things are structurally impossible in the short-term. The writing may well be on the wall with gay marriage, but it’s going to take quite some time before that writing becomes accepted in areas where the GOP remains strong. Meanwhile, it is unrealistic to expect that the millions of evangelicals who make up the social conservative wing of the GOP will, in short order, willingly ratchet down their emphasis on the issues that are most important to them. Those issues are the primary reason they care about politics and I think they would be justifiably outraged if suddenly they were formally ordered to, in effect, STFU.

              As for getting serious about fiscal policy, there’s no way that the GOP can do this without abandoning defense conservatives as a practical matter, and probably not without abandoning tax-cut emphasizing libertarians.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I have to say, this is one of the better descriptions of the Democratic party by a non-Democrat I’ve read.Report

        • Thanks! That means quite a bit, actually.Report

        • Doug in reply to Dan Miller says:

          I agree with Dan, but wonder why social justice, when identified as the left’s concern, is almost always scare-quoted by the right. Not social justice, but “social justice”. I find this an odd tic, as it seems to me that the left and right are, at bottom, split on the content of social justice (and just international relations, and just warfare). I assume that the concern for, say, outlawing abortion or moving to a flat income tax are motivated by concerns about justice. At the least, that the concern for, say, prosperity and security has to be pursued in a just manner. Or does the right not see its concerns in that light? I would find that, and the underlying skepticism about the idea of social justice…depressing. But maybe the scare quotes just signal that what is framed as a concern for social justice is really a concern for a certain conception of it.Report

    • zic in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      What you call “victimhood” they call “fairness.”

      Conservatives see it as a glass half-empty. Liberals as a glass half-full, the path of finding common ground.Report

      • When you are seeking more, isn’t that a ‘glass half-empty’ scanrio?Report

        • zic in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          Given the redistribution of wealth upward over the last ten years, yes. I guess you’re right, in a backwards-world sort of way.Report

          • Much of that has nothing to do with the GOP. Welcome to a world economy.Report

              • Sure – and can you tell me what incentive an American manufacturer has to employ unskilled or low-skilled American workers when someone in China can do the job for half the cost?

                The income gap is primarily a result of low and un-skilled workers now being forced to compete with global labor. They will always lose that fight. Plus they also have to compete with illegal immigrants who depress wages. So their income shrinks. Meanwhile the folks at the top are in somewhat secure jobs because they do work that cannot be outsourced.

                I’ll use myself as an example. I worked in light manufacturing during college for pretty crappy wages. Half of the companies I worked for all do their manufacturing overseas now. When I finished college I leapfrogged to a higher spot in the labor market. My wages there rise about 5% per year unless I get a promotion, which then bounces them around 15 – 20%. I’ve never seen any kind of tax-cut related jump in pay. So I’m on the north end of the income gap and I see the people on the other end getting farther and farther away. But it’s not because of any of those causes you mentioned. It’s because I have more marketable skills and I do a job that can’t be outsourced.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    I take the attitude that pretty much every human institution is unsustainable. It’ll work for a while, maybe even work well, but eventually the culture/climate will change and it won’t work any more.

    Additionally, just because something works well over in this particular part of the world, doesn’t mean (for a moment), that it will work well in this other particular part of the world.

    Moreover, the idea that “this worked over here, therefore we should institute it here” is a fair one, but if it doesn’t happen to work, to grab a wooden mallet, then a crowbar, then a jackhammer to make this policy (that worked perfectly well over here) fit over there is going to cause more harm than good.

    There ought to be a bare minimum list of things that the government ought to be able to say “we will guarantee this much but beyond that, you have the liberty to take care of yourselves” and let this place figure out something that works, then that place, then that other place, and, when stuff stops working (and it will stop working) they will be free to try something else.Report

  9. Bruce Smith says:

    Conservatives need to do at least three things. Firstly, get beyond the idea that Manchester Libertarianism or Market Fundamentalism is the optimum. It isn’t, it blew the economy up! Secondly, stick with the notion that whilst government may be necessary it’s important to look for other delivery mechanisms not so vulnerable to blowing up as elitist single bottom line market institutions and not so vulnerable to corruption because of accountability weaknesses. Finally, figure out that conspicuous consumption for Fitness purposes to get sex for gene propagation has blow back psychologically and environmentally.Report

  10. mickster says:

    Let’s put ideologies of left vs right aside for a moment. Lets talk about ability to govern well and to enact policy and its successful implementation and its impact on America as a whole. A lot of blogging content vis a vis conservative vs. liberals is simply political whanking in public. It feels good but accomplishes little except to provide opinions flying fast and furious and lots of google ad revenue. Sort of Dungeons and Dragons for ideologue wonks.Report

  11. matoko_chan says:

    The base is at least 75% WECs(white evangelical christians) at this point.
    Check this out.
    The base was 50% WEC in 2008 exit polls…..people leaving the GOP to become independents are non-WEC conservatives. Look at the 2012 candidate slate.
    Romney– mormon
    Palin– WEC
    Pawlenty– WEC
    The problem this creates is the GOP can only field candidates that conform to evangelical doctrine masquerading as culture issues; creationism, covert racism, homophobia, chattel slavery of women and children.
    An unappealing platform for the demographics the GOP needs to attract: college-graduates, youth, hispanics.
    The homogeneously religious composition of the base explains why the base is so permeable to radio-evangelists (Rush) and televangelists (Beck).
    This is actually WAI (working as intended).
    The Founders built for system robustness, not flexibility.
    That is why change is so hard to effect.
    The genius of the Founders was that they built so that representation was as fairly distributed as they could design for.
    The american people tend to elect the president best suited for that particular slice of spacetime….like Andy Jackson was a sumbitch, but I doubt the Union would have survived without him.
    GW was elected by a meager 5 ec votes and lost the popular by 500k.
    He would have been a perfectly adequate president to shepherd the declining white protestant republicans into the demographic sunset.
    But 911 intervened.
    He simply wasn’t up to task to deal with a singleton catastrophic event like that.
    Lack of substrate.Report

  12. matoko_chan says:

    The two things that are killing the GOP are the demographic timer on non-hispanic caucs, and the rise of the Third Culture.
    Even Brooks is going third culture.
    The modern instantiation of conservatism is virulently anti-science.
    Only 6% of scientists are republicans.Report

    • Bob Cheeks in reply to matoko_chan says:

      hello, dudette, I’ve missed you!
      Commie-Dems get elected because they give people free stuff…until the bill comes due!Report

      • North in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

        Incorrect Bob my man. Commie-Dems get elected because they give people stuff and make everyone pay for it. Giving away free stuff, particularly to defense contractors and Sonoma hookers, and then sticking future generations with the bill is a Fascist-Republican philosophy that conservatives by their impotent silence or near silence have pretty fairly been tarred with as well. Now I think it can be rightly said that borrow and spend shouldn’t be inherent to the conservative movement as a whole but the mark is on em as a group now. So they’re going to have to get scrubbing. I’d estimate 4-20 years to rehabilitate their image depending on how crazy the left goes with the checkbook.Report

        • Bob Cheeks in reply to North says:

          North, old palsy, a good one: “Giving away free stuff, particularly to defense contractors and Sonoma hookers, and then sticking future generations with the bill is a Fascist-Republican philosophy that conservatives by their impotent silence or near silence have pretty fairly been tarred with as well.”
          I’m a paleo, so virginal in these matters! I was referring to the commie-dem 5 trillion dollar transfer and related fun stuff!
          Re: His Enlightened Visage, my guess, is that a sound thinker, such as yourself, will be disappointed shortly if the 1.8 trillion dollar bill for “healthcare” that neglect 25 million commie-dems doesn’t already. Will you let me know when you’re pissed?Report

          • North in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

            Bob, as the resident Paleo (and crank) I think you’re entitled to dump on Bush and the neocons a bit.
            Personally I don’t get very exercised about health care though I’m generally of the opinion that the status quoe blows royally so maybe some change is good. I wouldn’t weep for any HMO’s getting screwed.

            Obama has a ways to go with pissing me off. That’s something a lot of the right doesn’t get. Bush and his gang of idiots set the bar so low that Obama would have to virtually dig a trench to be able to even trip over it. As the memory of W’s mokey like administration fades the bar will rise but it’s going to take a while. Particularily when we have steaming heaps of W-poo laying around waiting for us to clean them up.Report

            • Bob Cheeks in reply to North says:

              Thanks, North, I’ll keep an eye out for your comments. Please keep in mind that being a crank is rather demanding work, but I’ll do my best. I fired one at Matko Chan and ner got a reply…whas wid dat?
              Yeah, Bush was a neocon idiot, what a burden…”taking democracy to the rag heads!…..please….” So go ahead and clean up the W-poo, and please tell BO not to bury us in debt!Report

  13. Michael Drew says:

    Was there any discussion (leading perhaps even to clarification?!) of what the definition of “conservative” is (whether it defines an ideology, a temperament, or whatever other ontological framework) that these four speakers, to say nothing of hundreds of other commentators and thinkers and millions of other adherents, mean by the term when they apply it to themselves with fairly evident enthusiasm? I can’t help but continue to suspect that when asked what he means when he says he is “a conservative,” that David Frum for example (just to pick one panelist at random) would fairly unhesitatingly provide a definition of the term pretty much expecting it to be be broadly assented to, but find that there would be significant dissent on key elements of his description from a nontrivial number of the others in the room.

    Or, shorter: was it your sense that there was any one phenomenon under discussion in the room using any understanding of the term “one,” would you say that sense was shared, and was there any agreement on what the phenomenon is?Report

    • Yes and no. Larison was pretty explicit in trying to define conservatism more as a temperament not necessarily tied to any political movement. But beyond that, what was clear – and what frankly has been clear for awhile in terms of the conservative movement writ large, though it is not true of any given strain of conservatism – is that the only unifying element is an opposition to various forms of liberalism. Postrel was in fact quite explicit about this, noting that although she (like myself) prefers to think of herself more as a liberal, conservatism does not need to be a movement with any core values; it can instead merely be a movement dedicated to preserving the status quo. The problem with this formulation, as I try to explain above, is that it leaves movement conservatism with no governing philosophy when it actually obtains power. 30 years ago, movement conservatism did have a fairly unifying governing philosophy that went beyond mere opposition to liberalism; as a result, you were able to get fairly competent government in the Reagan and Bush I years (I realize Reagan is the root of all evil to liberals, but while there may be strong policy disagreements with the Reagan years, I don’t think you can claim that the Reagan Administration was incompetent in a way that you can with regards to the Bush Administration).Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I appreciate your candor (which owes I assume partly to your not being in the thrall of the word I am fixating on).

        The problem, as you say, with having conservatism = ‘conserving the status quo’ is that much of the societal change — certainly that quickened by the gov’t due to liberals’ pursuit of it (ie welfare programs) — over the last fifty years was itself change that was rightly resisted by a status-quo-conserving conservatism. So you can’t really it seems to me truly embrace today’s status quo; you have to go looking for a previous one that was maybe acceptable (unless I am mistaken). But you can’t go back too far, otherwise you arrive at a status quo that endorsed things like chattel slavery. That process seems in danger of descending in to the pursuit of an ideal American moment or some such. It’s complicated, I don’t know.Report

      • “…conservatism does not need to be a movement with any core values; it can instead merely be a movement dedicated to preserving the status quo. The problem with this formulation, as I try to explain above, is that it leaves movement conservatism with no governing philosophy when it actually obtains power. “

        This is an interesting notion I’ve thought about a lot lately. While I agree that conservatives can have robust plans in a variety of areas and can be forward-thinking in some respects, we also serve an important role as the check to liberal overreach. It’s hard for me to think of any part of the main Democratic/liberal agenda that isn’t at its heart well-intentioned. The problem is that they always go waaaaay too far. Take abortion: Prior to Roe a fair amount of women died from back alley abortions. So hey, maybe there should be some legalization for abortions in the worse of circumstances or even the 1st trimester, but libs take it all the way to the extreme and make it a free-for-all. It’s like that on numerous issues. Liberal good intentions go too far. So conservatives end up fighting a holding action or trying to rachet things back. So people call us mean ol’ grumps who want America to look like Mayberry. That’s not fair, but there’s an element of truth for some conservatives that have become so adverse to change that they have done the country a disservice by blocking EVERYTHING when only SOME things needed to be stopped.

        Sure, as conservatives we can still move things forward from time to time. As I said, i believe education policy is a great opening. But more often than not we serve as the balance to a well-intentioned but frequently over-the-top Left. In that respect I begin to wonder if longterm power suits us less than a healthy minority status where we can still help usher in change but at a slower and more thought out pace.Report

        • This is, I think, largely true, which is why I think even without changing its makeup the GOP can do at least a passable job in Congress, whether in the minority or majority. But in the executive branch or, worse, with control of both branches? Even if it just had control of Congress, the other problem is that, as currently constituted, it will still have to allow the Dems to set the agenda rather than trying to fix previous mistakes (some of which may even be recent enough that fixing them would in fact be a good way of preventing or putting the brakes on change).Report

          • So what’s the answer? Dems in the WH and the GOP in Congress? Dems in the Senate, GOP in the House?Report

            • I don’t know that it’s an issue of whether there’s a good answer to that question (although, as a libertarian, a Dem in the WH and Repubs in the Congress is historically the best combination over the last 50 years), if only because I think the makeup of Congress and the party in control of the Executive is ultimately just a function of how well people perceive the party in charge of the relevant institution is performing (which may or may not have anything to do with how that party is actually performing). To me, the real question is how long it will be before the GOP is again able to govern competently and effectively and drive the national agenda, and whether anything can be done to speed that process up.Report

              • Mara in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                ” a Dem in the WH and Repubs in the Congress is historically the best combination over the last 50 years”

                I agree. Even considering the time and resources the GOP spent searching for dirt in which to bury Billary. It would behoove Republicans to quit peeping in bedroom windows and simply get down to the business of legislating for the benefit of ALL Americans…even those drasty liberals.Report

  14. Bruce Smith says:

    I think it is wrong to claim that Reagan’s government was not incompetent with regard to economic matters. Reagan was the instigator of market fundamentalism which finally collapsed the economy in 2008. Check the indebtedness statistics which show that they really began to seriously increase under his administration.Report

  15. Kyle says:

    Isn’t Frum advocating for President George W. Bush, Part D 2?

    Adopt an economic dynamism based on a reinvigorated Hamiltonian vision that emphasizes repairing the national deficit (even if this means tax increases) and meaningful health care reform, while integrating environmental concerns, ratcheting down the emphasis on social conservatism, and reconnecting to a tradition of integrity and competence in administration.

    Now, it’s hard to look back and see pre-9/11 President Bush without the distortions of post-9/11 President Bush but that’s what he came into office doing. His compassionate conservatism and particularly his focus on education was Clinton-esque in its break from traditional GOP positions. In the wake of peacekeeping missions across the globe under Clinton and the various Clinton scandals, he stumped on integrity and less adventurism in foreign policy.

    If you strip away the specifics, Frum is advocating a smaller, humbler government and conservative contributions (if not leadership) on “issues of concern.” Which, is almost to a T, what then Governor George W. Bush brought to the table in 1999/2000.

    It could be argued that the failures of the Bush Administration (particularly in the first term) were the result of extremely poor execution and not theoretical faults but I wouldn’t make such a doomed attempt. It just seems that if President Bush was – in essence – what Frum is saying needs to happen, it’s worth reflecting on why that didn’t work out. I think it’s too much to hope that instead of getting another round of moderate mush, we’d get competent centrism instead.Report

  16. Greg says:

    This was interesting to read from a liberal perspective, but there’s an elephant in the room (pun unintended) that I guess I need to point out: maybe conservatives are experiencing difficulty because a fair number of conservative ideas don’t actually work when put into practice, or cause unintended damage to the country. One example is “starve the beast”–I interpret this as conservatives recognizing that they’ll lose any open battle on Social Security, so they’ll defund the government by stealth means, without having an open debate about Social Security. Calls for “tax cuts” in general serve the same function; people generally aren’t

    Another example: I’d like to think the main reason to limit the power of government is because government, if left unchecked, will do horrible things to people who don’t deserve it. In this, I agree with George Orwell. One of the things it might do is torture and kill people it has in its custody. These people may have been *accused* of crimes, but many of them might be innocent, and they would not have had the chance to see the evidence against them or face their accuser. This might happen to a lot of people, (let’s pick a number at random–say, 112), of which as high a number as 43 (again, chosen at random) the imprisoning government would *admit* were murder.


    This is why limiting government power is an absolute necessity. Because unchecked government power can kill.
    Now, here’s the problem for you guys: this would seem to be a great argument for limiting government power, but none of you seem to want to use it–or even care. Our government murdered 43 people. Maybe some of them were awful, evil terrorists. But a lot of them weren’t. You talk on the one hand about how necessary it is to limit government power, but then your leaders babble about how evil health care is, or how Obama’s latest “czar” is going to send us all to death camps. I’ve seen exactly two conservatives condemn torture: Andrew Sullivan and John Cole. No Congressmen, No Senators, no members of Bush’s cabinet, no governors.
    So. Here’s my $64,000 question: Do you care about the fact that *at least* 112 people died in U.S. custody without benefit of trial? Do you care that some of them might be innocent? If so, what are you going to do about it?
    If they end up dead in their cells, and it wasn’t suicide, I think it’s safe to call it torture, no?

    Then, of course, there are the problems conservatives don’t have answers for. The main reason I want a public option for health insurance is because 44,000 Americans die every year because they don’t have health insurance. 2 questions for the conservatives reading this:
    1) Do you think that’s acceptable?
    If not, I’d like to hear a conservative stand up and say, “Yes, 44,000 Americans die each year specifically because they don’t have health insurance, and yes, that’s just something we’ll have to live with.” As far as I can tell, one of the so-called solutions conservatives have proposed will actually save lives. Once you agree that tens of thousands American deaths every single year are preventable, you have a moral obligation to try to save at least some, if not most, of them. Tax credits won’t do it, because most of the health care people need to save their lives is far more (hundreds of thousands of dollars) than the person pays in taxes. Insurance across state lines won’t do it, because the insurance companies have no interest in selling to the uninsured (“pre-existing conditions.”) So, conservatives, which is it? Does your devotion small-government ideology leave you to accept 14 September 11ths every year? If not, how, exactly, are you going to save those people’s lives?Report

    • Kyle in reply to Greg says:

      “I’ve seen exactly two conservatives condemn torture: Andrew Sullivan and John Cole. No Congressmen, No Senators, no members of Bush’s cabinet, no governors.”

      How about that obscure Senator I was tortured and have sponsored amendments to make sure we quit doing it John McCain. For one. Just because you aren’t looking very hard doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.

      I’m not terribly conservative but to take a stab at your $800 billion question:
      Yes. I think it’s acceptable. I have no heart and unlike Candide, I’m misanthropic.

      Seriously, though, it’s undesirable. To add some context there are 2.4 million deaths per year, including over 100K from unintentional accidents. Staggering numbers aren’t they? This isn’t a numbers game though, it’s about moral prerogative, right?

      “Once you agree that tens of thousands American deaths every single year are preventable, you have a moral obligation to try to save at least some, if not most, of them.”

      Well, I think, we can agree that traffic fatalities are preventable (if there are no cars, no traffic fatalities). According to the CDC there were 43,000 motor vehicle fatalities in 2006. So, applying the same logic, perhaps we should ban cars? However, I think the tens of thousands line is arbitrary and cruel, shouldn’t we take steps to prevent smaller numbers of preventable deaths. There’s an average of just over 2 vending machine related deaths a year. We could ban them, save 2 lives a year. Over 3500 people die each year in fatal drownings. Mandatory swim lessons would help but making swimming illegal would be safer.

      It’s estimated that hospital infections and medical errors account for 100,000 deaths per year. 18% of Americans report they or a family member have contracted a serious infection from a hospital stay or medical procedure. With numbers like that, perhaps some people’s chances of living longer will decrease with health insurance?

      I’m not saying we should do nothing just that life is about tradeoffs and choices. Waving a magic wand called health care reform or “the public option” won’t make people live healthier, longer lives, for cheaper, without costs. Clear costs and unclear costs. Hesitancy about whether the costs and scope of reform – at least that given in good faith – isn’t just fair it’s a recognition that the issues we discuss are deeper and more far ranging than we often give them credit for.Report

      • Mara in reply to Kyle says:

        “How about that obscure Senator ‘I was tortured and have sponsored amendments to make sure we quit doing it’ John McCain. ”

        Despite any lip-service McCain paid to the topic of torture, regardless of any legislation he proposed, the fact remains that he voted AGAINST a ban on waterboarding, putting hoods on prisoners, forcing them to perform sex acts, subjecting them to mock executions, or depriving them of food, water, and medical treatment because he wanted to *preserve* the CIA’s ability to employ such interrogation methods.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to Greg says:

      I rather thought the point of this piece was to explain why conservatism has become an ideology that largely condones torture, is unserious about health care reform, and is responsible for the various disasters that were the Bush years, as well as why I think it unlikely that conservatism writ large will again become a relatively responsible governing ideology anytime soon. Also – who said I was a conservative?Report

  17. Liberal Jon says:

    I must say, I find Thompson’s giving up on fiscal responsibility rather takes me aback. Conservative parties drew up their coalitions for two centuries – til Reagan – without needing to deliberately send the budget into deficit, and included a defense wing pretty much the whole time.

    I bet you’d get more businessmen back than you lost from other wings if you brought back real instead of fake fiscal conservatism. I’m a liberal, of course, but THIS businessman, like most, I think (unlike Bush), can do his math and understands I come out the loser long-term from it. Far more CEOs supported Obama than McCain, for example.Report

  18. Sam M says:

    “Tax credits won’t do it, because most of the health care people need to save their lives is far more (hundreds of thousands of dollars) than the person pays in taxes”

    I don’t think you know what the words “tax credit” mean. From Wiki:

    “Tax credits may be characterized as either refundable or non-refundable, or equivalently non-wastable or wastable. Refundable or non-wastable tax credits can reduce the tax owed below zero, and result in a net payment to the taxpayer beyond their own payments into the tax system, appearing to be a moderate form of negative income tax.”

    Hear about that $8,000 tax credit for home buyers? Guess what: If you didn’t pay $8,000 in taxes, YOU STLL GET THE $8,000! You keep it anyway. Very often, “tax credits” are a direct transfer to the recipient and require no refund.

    This is one of the reasons those nasty conservatives are so verklempt about the income tax in general. A full 40 percent of people pay none at all. But it goes beyond that. A whole slew of people pay a negative income tax. That is, they COLLECT money without paying any in.

    I am not sure how the health exemption would work. But generally speaking, it’s entirely possible to use tax credits to pay for health care. You can give someone who earned zero dollars and paid zero dollars in income tax a $20,000 or $50,000 or even $50 billion tax credit.Report

  19. Bruce Smith says:

    The conservatives, or at least the libertarian conservatives, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. With the evidence of the Financial Crash before their eyes they are being forced to confront the notion that a belief in market fundamentalism (based on a misreading of the Invisible Hand concept) doesn’t actually guarantee consistent homeostasis, or self regulation, because of the Reflexivity, or Self-Feeding, argument of people like George Soros. This is where financial institutions give loans to customers for investment in things like houses, for example. The granting of these loans in sufficient quantity can have the effect of inflating the value of those investments. However, because the collateral value of those investments rise on the financial institutions books this encourages them to offer even more loans at increasing monetary value. This is how bubbles are formed which eventually have to burst because of default on loan repayments due largely to interest rate rises. Market fundamentalism accordingly has to acknowledge the propensity for malignancy within markets where cancerous growth can quickly spread and eventually severely weaken or even destroy an economy. The antidote to such malignant tendencies can only be to regulate, or restrict, the “irrational exuberance” as Alan Greenspan called it but failed to do anything about it in order to get the conservative George W re-elected in 2004. Regulation, of course, means putting coercive tools in the hands of those who’ll stop you making money on the scale your greed aspires too. Traditionally this has meant “the government” and Republicans (at least the libertarian conservative majority) as P J O’Rourke once observed are people who believe that government doesn’t work and get themselves elected to prove it. Of course, neither does a politically dependent and unaccountable Federal Reserve. They had the powers to stop this recession and didn’t!Report

  20. Liberal Jon says:

    Thompson, I was so dismayed, I overstated my case on your reaction; sorry. No, you’re clearly unhappy with the way things are as well.

    Lemme try again. A defense wing can be squared with fiscal discipline; fiscal discipline was mainained outside real crises for most of the 200 years from Washington on, until Reagan ended it.Report

    • No worries. I also misread your response, and the Internets ate my amended response, which would have noted that the current budgetary picture is so messed up that you can’t square fiscal responsibility with anything other than some form of significant defense cuts. In the past, the picture was, AFAIK, much less bleak such that defense cuts were not a necessary part of fiscal responsibility.Report