The CPAC Snub and Conservatism’s Irrelevance
You’ve no doubt heard by now about the fooferaw over Chris Christie’s snub by CPAC, in which he has been refused an invitation to speak at the meeting of conservative glitterati, purportedly because his insistence on aid for Sandy victims means he “has a limited future in the Republican Party.” As League alum Jamelle Bouie correctly points out, the move demonstrates that conservatives are uninterested in winning elections. But there’s something more here – it also demonstrates that conservatism has become utterly uninterested in actual governance, rendering conservative “principles” irrelevant to reality. For instance, take a look at some of the folks who, by CPAC’s logic, have a less limited future in the Republican Party than the extraordinarily popular sitting governor of a reasonably populous, “blue” state: a disgraced former Speaker of the House/failed Presidential candidate who hasn’t held elected office in 15 years; an increasingly unhinged and insane (latest craziness here) former half-term governor of a sparsely populated state; a failed GOP Presidential nominee who hasn’t held elected office in six years; a one term former Congressman; and a controversial former Bush Administration ambassador who has never held elected office.
I intended to write a long post explaining in detail exactly why this is emblematic of the conservative movement’s lack of interest in governance and why that lack of interest renders conservatism irrelevant and meaningless as a matter of political philosophy. But then I saw that Josh Barro had largely beaten me to the punch:
But think about what conservative purists want from Christie. They would like him to take policy courses that would be not only unpopular but unpopular because they would disserve the interests of New Jersey residents. Declining the Medicaid expansion would have meant refusing to accept money from a federal program that New Jersey taxpayers would finance regardless of Christie’s actions. Not turning the screws on Boehner would have meant New Jersey getting less relief money, or getting it later.
It’s not that Christie is a liberal. He pushed through reforms that save money by reducing the generosity of health and pension benefits for public employees. He insisted on allowing an income tax increase on high earners, enacted under his predecessor, to sunset, leaving New Jersey with a top rate of “only” 8.93 percent. He killed a Hudson River rail tunnel project, beloved by the left, because it was engineered to be too expensive and had too high a risk of cost overruns. He capped increases in local property taxes.
More generally, Christie has made the case that New Jersey’s public expenditures are unusually and unnecessarily high and that spending restraint, not tax increases, is the answer to the state’s fiscal problems. That message is popular because, in New Jersey, it happens to be true.
What so bothers conservatives about Christie is that he has figured out which parts of conservatism are working and been willing to ditch the ones that aren’t….But Christie is only an apostate because he realizes that conservatism, as defined by the sort of people who organize CPAC, has a limited future in America.
A governing philosophy that is uninterested in serving the actual needs of constituents isn’t a governing philosophy at all. Conservatism has instead become a set of cultural and tribal markers premised on a world that no longer exists, if it ever existed at all, and with no coherent underlying concept of the purpose of government.
Ultimately, the problem with conservative dogmatism isn’t that it is too insistent on core principles; it’s that it has too many principles, and thus it has none. Rather than asking how a handful of animating conservative principles can be used to solve given problems or that conservatism be judged based on how it solves actual problems, conservative policy preferences have become ends in themselves. Conservatism requires opposing and never acquiescing to any element of Obamacare as a fait accompli; it requires opposition to defense cuts; opposition to tax increases; and it requires an insistence on deficit cutting. And so on. That these “principles” are wildly inconsistent with one another is bad enough; but what is even worse is that to even attempt to implement so many “principles” simultaneously, conservatism must jettison any pretense of serving – or even being concerned with – actual interests of actual people, which of course is pretty much the entire point of government.
Turning back to the particular example of this at hand, as Jamelle points out, Chris Christie is not only enormously popular throughout the state of New Jersey, he is even more popular amongst conservatives in the state of New Jersey (80% approval rating), even as he is persona non grata amongst conservatives nationally. That he is so popular amongst conservatives within the state suggests that he is doing quite well at serving the interests of conservatives within the state. That he is simultaneously so unpopular amongst conservatives nationally suggests that the national conservative activist class is unconcerned with how Christie is at serving his constituents’ interests – including his conservative constituents’ self-perceived interests – but instead is concerned with how many cultural and tribal markers he checks off. Whatever phrases one might use to describe such a worldview, “governing philosophy” isn’t one of them.