(Hawkins’ Note: Conor Friedersdorf challenged me to a debate. I accepted. This is the first of 3 posts from the two of us on this subject. A link to Conor Friedersdorf’s piece will be listed at the end of the article. The follow-ups will run Wed and Fri. Neither of us read the other’s piece before writing our initial piece)
Think back on Election 2000. As President Clinton’s tenure ended, the GOP and the conservative movement united behind a favored candidate, George W. Bush, even before the primary season began. His candidacy garnered support from folks who now scoff at one another’s political judgment: is there any choice for the 2012 Republican nomination who Rush Limbaugh, David Frum, Dick Cheney, George Will and Colin Powell would all rally around? Financial support for the Bush campaign encompassed elite donors, the grassroots, and the party establishment. Soon after Team Bush secured the White House, the GOP succeeded in controlling both houses of Congress. Folks on the right mused openly about a permanent Republican majority.
Ask a conservative Republican today about how his government performed during the Bush Administration, and you’ll hear complaints about profligate spending, the prescription drug benefit, the early management of the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind, the financial industry bailout, the Harriet Meyers nomination, attempts at foolhardy immigration reform, rising deficits, a GOP establishment that lost touch with the grassroots, official corruption, etc.
How should the right respond to its recent history? How can it succeed in the future? Those questions are the subject of an ongoing debate that is roiling the conservative movement and the Republican Party alike. Asked by either entity to advise them, I’d say the same thing: before the GOP wins the White House or Congress again, understand how the right so badly bungled its last opportunity to govern, so that next time things go better.
Thus far that hasn’t happened, and too many movement conservatives don’t realize it. Asked to explain dysfunction in the GOP, they blame RINOs, moderates and “squishes.” Particularly loathed are figures like Olympia Snowe, John McCain, David Brooks, Dede Scozzafava and Kathleen Parker, as if banishing their kind from a rightward-moving GOP is the answer to all our problems. However one feels about those folks, it should be evident that people like them weren’t running America during the last decade. The Bush era policies that movement conservatives today complain about were conceived, pushed and implemented by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom Delay, Dennis Hastert, and Bill Frist – the kinds of Rush Limbaugh endorsed, Sean Hannity approved, Fox News Channel appearing people who aren’t ever called RINOs or moderates or squishes.
What caused these stalwart movement conservatives to preside over massive increases in domestic spending, the K Street project, Jack Abramoff style lobbying, the appointment of unqualified toadies to positions in the federal government, and all the rest? It wasn’t RINOs, or the mainstream media, or a desire among Peggy Noonan and David Brooks to attend Georgetown cocktail parties – these politicians were corrupted by power, possessed of poor judgment, and allowed to advance decidedly un-conservative policies anyway due to flaws in the way that the conservative movement approached politics. Rather than mete out support according to the strength of a political figure’s ideas, the conservative movement enforced partisan loyalty. Instead of attacking or defending the Bush Administration and the Republican controlled Congress on its merits, it allowed liberals to dictate its actions: as Jonah Goldberg put it, “Conservatives, right or wrong, rallied to support their president, particularly in the face of shrill partisan attacks from Democrats who seemed more interested in tearing down the commander in chief than winning a war.”
Today the right is obsessing about whether it should move to the right or the center, whether it should adopt an agenda like the one Mark Levin suggests in Liberty and Tyranny or the one Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam suggest in Grand New Party, whether its political candidates should be like Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindhal or Gary Johnson. These are worthy matters of debate, as are questions about political strategy in House and Senate races.
Regardless of who wins these debates, the Republicans who are next elected will require folks on the right who behave differently if they’re to govern well. My wish list includes a base that doesn’t mete out support according to how stringently a politician is criticized by the left; talk radio hosts who oppose misbegotten GOP initiatives with as much energy as they oppose Democratic measures; tolerance of dissent and engaging dissenters on the merits of their arguments, rather than heretic-hunting or accusations of disloyalty/bad-faith; a right-leaning media that engages in robust debates about the appropriate direction for the country, rather than thoughtless cheerleading or opposition bashing; and general intolerance of lies, misleading statements, and intellectual dishonesty, even when perpetrated by political or ideological allies.
Were my recommendations implemented by the conservative movement circa 2000, it would’ve done far more to avert the worst legacies of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom Delay, Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist than even the most successful purge of RINOs, moderates and “squishes.”
You can read John Hawkins’ half of the debate here.