Saturday, February 26


It's been simultaneously amusing and bewildering to watch the debate going on between the National Review On-line's Ramesh Ponnuru- Jonah Goldberg and Ryan Sager and other conservative pundits over their respective tolerance of "big government conservatism" for the sake of George W. Bush.

Ramesh Ponnuru:

I think it's not quite fair for Sager to say that I'm happy to live with "big government conservatism" "so long as it keeps Republicans in power. "I wrote a cover story for NR criticizing big-government conservatism and big-government conservatives. Nor is it fair to associate big-government-conservatism-for-Bush's-sake with NR generally. The magazine opposed Bush's education bill, his steel tariffs, his expansion of national service programs, his regulation of campaign finance, his agriculture bill, and probably a few other initiatives that I'm not thinking of at this moment. It even opposed his federalization of airport security. (And I agreed with all of these positions.)

Perhaps more to the point--and I'm responding here to Andrew Sullivan, too--for seven years I've been arguing that a strategy of expanding the new investor class is conservatives' best bet for creating a constituency for limited government--and thus strengthening some needed libertarian elements within the conservative coalition while also strengthening the coalition overall. This strategy is certainly open to criticism. But it seems a more intelligent way to go about shrinking the federal government than wishing away political realities.

Two thoughts here. First, in his first paragraph Ramesh opposes nearly all Bush's domestic policies save Social Security. We're left with nothing save S.S. and the war on terra. Next, in the second paragraph, he advocates expansion of the "investor class" as a means to creating a permanent conservative coalition. How, exactly, does he think middle Americans will be able to afford "investments" when Bush's policies are depressing wage growth yet costing them much more of their personal income for educating their children and healthcare, and creating historic deficits that threaten higher interest rates and discourage investing by depressing financial markets?

Ryan Sager:

You simply can’t expect a new investor class -- many of whom, presumably, will be suburban and urban professionals -- to become loyal voters for a party that doesn’t speak to them at all on social issues. Here, I’m looking at the party as a brand (to which one forms an emotional connection) not as a platform, with which people might agree or disagree.

Well, I feel as though I’ve rambled at this point. So let me sum up (i.e. ramble more). I don’t think the Republican Party can gain much from going further to the right on social issues; it’s pretty much drained that well, and it seems to me that it may have to tack back left a bit if the Democrats neutralize the terror issue.

As for economic issues, the party could probably become a permanent majority by wedding big-government economic liberalism to blue-collar social conservatism. It’s a winning political strategy, but a terrible idea. I don’t think National Review wants this, but I think Karl Rove does -- and I’m not sure what NRers would do to turn it around.

So Sager thinks it would be a "winning strategy" to wed big-government economic liberalism (long scorned by conservatives and Republicans as the way of the tax-and-spend Democrats) and blue-collar social conservatism (read: racism and homophobia)?? Sounds like the pre-WWII Democratic Party to me.

Andy Sullivan:

But try this counter-factual: If Al Gore, say, had, turned a surplus into years of mounting debt, if he'd added a huge new federal entitlement to Medicare, if he'd over-ridden the rights of states to set their own laws with regard, say, to education, if he'd put tariffs on steel, if he'd increased government spending faster than anyone since LBJ, if he'd said that government's job was to heal hurt wherever it exists, if he'd ramped up agricultural subsidies, poured money into the Labour and Education Departments, thrown public dollars at corporate America, spent gobs of money on helping individuals in bad marriages, used the Constitution as an instrument of social policy, given government the right to detain people without trial and subject them to torture, and on and on, I don't think National Review would have been content merely to nitpick. Do you? I think they would have mounted a ferocious attempt to remove the guy from office. The duplicitous, budget-busting Medicare entitlement alone should have caused an insurrection. It didn't. I think that tells you a lot about where some conservative thinkers are really coming from.

Now finally, we go to the heart of the question of how conservatives like the NR, Weekly Standard, wingnut talk radio and individuals across America can back Bush so fanatically when his policies are anathema to them. I could suggest a lust for power and access, and I think that's certainly a major element in all this, particularly among the conservative elite and media outlets, as well as short-sighted corporate greed. But among ordinary Americans, the true believers? For them, the answer has to be George W. Bush and the personality cult:

Combine the good ol' boy demeanor with religion, and you've got yourself a ticket to red-state glory. Bush overcame a nasty drinking problem when he found religion. This became his new addiction, his new obsession, his new escape from reality.

In July of 2004, Bush told an Amish group in Pennsylvania that "God speaks through me." He believes that God wanted him to be president, and that God is working through him, even as tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women, and children die in a war based on lies. It's God's war. We're the good guys. We're fighting the evildoers over there so that we won't have to fight them over here. This is truly an ingenious way to win the trusting hearts of Middle America, who have been programmed to fear the evil Muslim barbarians who want to kill us because they "hate our freedom." It's easier than thinking. So they follow him like sheep.

There is no disagreement allowed. "You're either with us or against us." If you're against us, you're also against God. And you're a terrorist and an evildoer. Easy choice.

Another factor is consistency. Some people thrive on consistency. There were many in Russia who said that communism was better than democracy and capitalism because it was predictable. George W. Bush is consistent. He sticks to his guns, no matter how mountainous the evidence is that he is wrong. And he never admits to a mistake. Many view this as "strong," rather than stubborn, arrogant, or immature. It's easier than engaging in critical thought.

Paul Krugman:

By my count, this year's budget contains 27 glossy photos of Mr. Bush. We see the president in front of a giant American flag, in front of the Washington Monument, comforting an elderly woman in a wheelchair, helping a small child with his reading assignment, building a trail through the wilderness and, of course, eating turkey with the troops in Iraq. Somehow the art director neglected to include a photo of the president swimming across the Yangtze River.

It was not ever thus. Bill Clinton's budgets were illustrated with tables and charts, not with worshipful photos of the president being presidential.

The issue here goes beyond using the Government Printing Office to publish campaign brochures. In this budget, as in almost everything it does, the Bush administration tries to blur the line between reverence for the office of president and reverence for the person who currently holds that office.

Bush's manipulation and intimidation of the media, and their complicity, has robbed ordinary Americans of their only means of independent information. What we are left with are a choice between the cynical masters of cognitive dissonance such as Coulter and Limbaugh and those who honestly promote a cult-like faith that somehow, someway, things will be okay just because our lord George is in charge.


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