Sunday, November 08, 2015

Days of Republican Desperation

If one looks at so-called establishment Republicans floundering in their pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination there is an air of desperation.  They are peddling the same old GOP policies that have not worked since the 1980's even as the world has changed radically and the country's demographics have changed significantly.  Moreover, much of the party base has descended into utter insanity and now embrace ignorance, white supremacy and religious extremism that is anathema to the once stereotypical country club Republicans.  A piece in Politico by Michael Lind, author of Up From Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America, looks at how the GOP went off the rails and argues that it is time for the party to throw away the 50 year old playbook and embark on a new course.  Here are highlights:

There is an air of desperation out there on the GOP campaign trail. It’s impossible not to sense it in the kinds of things being said by teetering establishment Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, both of whom started off the last debate virtually pleading with base voters to come to their senses about Donald Trump, who is barely identifiable as a conservative by any standard measure of ideology.

What happened to the conservative movement?”  It’s an excellent question. And maybe it’s time we stopped blaming the lack of traction experienced by establishment conservatives like Bush, Kasich, and Chris Christie on things like personality and debating skill, and started talking again about that thing known as “the conservative movement.” Maybe the real problem is less Jeb’s awkwardness, or Kasich’s personality, or Christie’s New Jersey bravado, than an issue that runs much deeper. The establishment candidates in this year’s Republican primary nomination campaign are out there reciting all the formulas that worked for Ronald Reagan . . . . Yet the old-time conservative religion doesn’t seem to fire up the congregation

[N]o one is quite sure what the Republican Party’s vision is or should be any more—least of all those hapless “establishment” presidential candidates who are flailing away out on the trail. Today, the greatest obstacle to majority status for the Republican Party may not be demography. It may be a superannuated conservative ideology that is increasingly disconnected not only from the values of the larger society but from the values and interests of Republicans themselves.

Today’s legacy right originated 60 years ago as “movement conservatism.” It was born with the founding of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review in 1955. In 1964, movement conservatives captured the Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater. They lost the general election that year, but in 1980 and 1984 the White House was won by a leader of their movement, Ronald Reagan.

Yet by the 1980s, movement conservatism was running out of steam. Its young radicals had mellowed into moderate statesman. By the 1970s, Buckley and his fellow conservatives had abandoned the radical idea of “rollback” in the Cold War and made their peace with the more cautious Cold War liberal policy of containment.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that the three great projects of the post-1955 right—repealing the New Deal, ultrahawkishness (first anti-Soviet, then pro-Iraq invasion) and repealing the sexual/culture revolution—have completely failed. Not only that, they are losing support among GOP voters.

This is nothing less than a failure of conservatism itself. After Buckley, Reagan and Goldwater had jettisoned much of their earlier hard-edged conservatism, there should have be an intellectual reformation on the American right in the 1990s. And there were a number of candidates for a redesigned conservative ideology.

But instead of fading from the scene and opening the way to new thinking, old-fashioned Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan movement conservatism came back, in an even more radical form in the 2000s, catching me (by then an ex-neoconservative) and others by surprise.

When George W. Bush was elected, like many others I expected him to combine the “kinder and gentler” domestic policy of his father with the realist foreign policy symbolized by his father, Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft. Instead W. doubled down on all the elements of the old “conservative movement” policy and left utter wreckage in his wake. Reagan had wrecked the budget with his tax cuts for the rich, but later in his two terms he presided over numerous tax increases. George W. Bush pushed through budget-wrecking tax cuts for the rich again, invoking the same supply-side theory that had been discredited in the 1980s.

Following 9/11, George W. Bush not only invaded Afghanistan but also invaded and occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with the Al Qaeda attacks and posed no serious threat to the U.S. or its allies. The country is still paying for that mistake more than a decade later, and its reverberations have robbed neoconservatives of most of their credibility.

The original conservative movement of Buckley and his allies was called “fusionism” because it sought to fuse three strands: free-market economics, militant and militarized anticommunism, and social traditionalism. Once conservatives wove this into a comprehensive political vision. But as time went on that vision started to come apart, and in the hands of different right-wing groups each strand grew more and more radicalized and unrealistic.

[I]t is this incoherent package of ideas that is being recycled by Republican presidential candidates today, more than three decades after Reagan effectively abandoned it after winning the White House. . . . . Thus you have the spectacle of insiders like Jeb Bush, Kasich and Christie trying to sell policies that were unworkable even in the Reagan years and since have become far more radical and therefore less palatable.

The reformocons are the Gorbachevs of the right. They want to reform the system without questioning its fundamental premises. What the Republican Party could use instead are a few Boris Yeltsins, willing to abandon the old orthodoxy altogether and start afresh.

It’s about time. Today, we are nearly twice as far from 1962, when Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, than Friedman was from the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. When he founded National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr. was closer in time to William McKinley than to Barack Obama. The particular synthesis of free market economics, hawkish foreign policy and social reaction that defined movement conservatism was the product of particular circumstances half a century ago.

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