The year was 2004. Pat Buchanan was on MSNBC holding forth on how interventionist foreign policy makes Americans less safe from terrorism. “Well, listen,” he said. “The reason the terrorists are over here is because we are over there.” Joe Scarborough was incredulous. “Patrick Buchanan … you sound like Susan Sontag,” he exclaimed in his best affectation of talking-head scorn. “It’s our fault!”
Buchanan and Scarborough were opposites in one other respect, too. While Buchanan ran for president after building up his popularity as a conservative commentator, Scarborough came to television from elected office. The Florida Republican was part of the House’s freshman class of 1994, where after three terms he was better than average but no standout.
Unlike most Republican politicians and conservative cable-TV shouters, however, Scarborough has learned valuable lessons from the failures and disappointments of the Bush years. The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America’s Promise represents the “Morning Joe” host’s attempt to teach his fellow GOP conservatives some of what he has learned.
It helps that Scarborough is more open-minded than many of his peers. Even in the televised exchange recounted above, his admiration for Buchanan was evident. So was his humility, despite the tongue-in-cheek effort to sound like an overconfident pundit. Caught not knowing a relevant fact about World War II, he quipped with a smile, “Listen, do not tie me down with facts and dates, Pat Buchanan.”
By 2006, Scarborough was contributing to a Washington Monthly symposium of conservatives who believed Republicans deserved to lose control of Congress. He wrote a Washington Post op-ed urging any Republican who wanted to survive to jettison George W. Bush. Scarborough turned against the war in Iraq and became critical of neoconservative foreign policy. He spoke favorably of Ron Paul during the 2008 primaries. In one heated “Morning Joe” debate, Scarborough lamented the absence of fathers fighting overseas in terms reminiscent of Allan Carlson. (Unfortunately, the takeaway for most viewers seemed to be his dubbing liberal colleague David Shuster “Rip Van Shuster” for allegedly sleeping through several tapings of the show.)
This perspective makes The Last Best Hope different from most books of its kind. Some authors, even conservative ones, have warned that the Republican Party has veered too far to the right. Not Scarborough. “We’ve not been conservative as a party,” he says. “We have been radical.” Yet in contrast to authors trying to rally the GOP faithful, Scarborough does not define conservatism as George W. Bush minus earmarks.
In fact, Scarborough’s indictment of Bush-era Republicans is as scathing as it is accurate: “Republicans under George W. Bush took a $150 billion surplus and turned it into a $1 trillion deficit. The GOP also doubled the national debt, presided over a staggering trade deficit, allowed the dollar to collapse, passed massive tax cuts, burdened a crippled entitlement system with $7 trillion in new debt, and allowed domestic spending to grow at its fastest rate since the Great Society.”
Well, mostly accurate. Those “massive tax cuts” were smaller, relative to GDP, than either Ronald Reagan’s or John F. Kennedy’s and left the top marginal income tax higher than when Bill Clinton took office. But they were coupled with a dramatic increase in federal spending on both guns and butter, without any need to whip stagflation or win an arms race with the Soviet Union, pressing supply-side theory into the service of borrow-and-spend economics. And while the tax cuts were small and temporary, the debt and spending commitments are large and permanent.
Not that Scarborough throws in his lot with Barack Obama, “a candidate of the status quo” whose bailouts, spending booms, and fiscal stimuli merely add new levels of indebtedness and irresponsibility to the old Bush policies. (Some change!) And he remains proud of the work the Republican-controlled Gingrich Congress did in getting the Clinton administration to go along with tax cuts, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. He unfortunately does not mention reduced farm subsidies, which, like the balanced budgets, became a casualty of a later, less principled Republican Congress.
Instead of Bush, Scarborough takes his cues from Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and more familiar figures such as Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. Sometimes Scarborough’s invocation of such grand figures sits uneasily with his prose, which reflects his background in campaign speeches and television soundbites: “[L]ike Bill Buckley I have a lot of Burke in me, and Burke’s thinking starts with this: Respect reality. Understand the age you’re living in, understand its facts.” That’s not a bad description of authentic traditionalist conservatism, but the phrase “have a lot of Burke in me” sounds more like the punchline to a dirty joke told at CPAC than a Permanent Thing.
Scarborough deserves most credit for his willingness to confront the doctrine of pre-emptiveor “preventive”war that, more than anything else, tore down the Republican Party’s majorities. He chastises “Woodrow Wilson Republicans” who engage in overseas adventures, leaving only a hollow military and devalued dollar in their wake. “Our Army is stretched thin and our bank accounts are emptied,” he writes.
In place of damn-the-torpedoes neoconservatism, Scarborough recommends a return to the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine. Although Casper Weinberger and Colin Powell were themselves too interventionist for some non-neocons on the Right, it is worth remembering that even the Reagan administration set stricter conditions for the use of military force than those championed by self-styled “Reaganite” hawks today. Although the Bush Doctrine has some precedent in Cold War-era rollback, it was as alien to conservatism as the Brezhnev Doctrine.
Scarborough writes that even an institution such as the United Nations is better suited to military adventurism as social work: “Since it is in the best interest of the United States to refrain from nation-exhausting wars, conservative leaders should direct all those who wish to advance humanitarian missions through military troops to take their cause to the United Nations.” He concludes, “Washington politicians should leave international moral crusades and global social work to the United Nations and Angelina Jolie.”
Joe Scarborough’s Republican Party would remain pro-life but send social issues back to the states, as required by the Constitution. It would adopt conservation as a conservative cause, both for the benefit of the environment and to keep us out of foreign wars by reducing the strategic importance of the Middle East. It would champion small business, but not corporate welfare for Wall Street and the Fortune 500.
The reaction to The Last Best Hope tells us something about how the mainstream Right would respond to such a rebranding of conservatism. Just how invested are Republicans in Bushism?
The results so far are mixed. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and Human Events editor Jeb Babbin (no shrinking violet when it comes to projecting American military power) are among the mainstream conservatives to have praised the book. But the Newsbusters blog, a project of the Media Research Center, has been sharply critical of the “conservative bashing” tome. Newsbusters’s P.J. Gladnick linked to and excerpted a review on another website that blasted Scarborough for appearing on “left-leaning television shows such as ‘The View’” and doing “interviews with the New York Times and Newsweek.”
Worse, from the perspective of reviewer Brian Maloney, “Each time, he was quick to bash Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and other key conservative figures.” Remember that Rove helped sell amnesty for illegal immigrants, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and No Child Left BehindBush policies rightly opposed even by most mainstream conservatives. Maloney and Gladnick also unfavorably contrast the sales of Scarborough’s book, which debuted at number seven on the New York Times bestseller list, with those of Mark Levin’s chart-topping Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto.
The contrast with Levin is telling. Like the Scarborough of old, Levin is a smart man who plays a loudmouth for his audience. His book also has much to recommend it, but contains little that would challenge the average Republican reader unless his name happened to be John McCain. The Last Best Hope nudges such readers gentlythis is Joe Scarborough, not Joe Sobranbut it is disconcertingly off-message to those who believe war is the health of the GOP.
Foreign policy remains off the table in the post-election debates among most conservatives. John Boehner may co-sponsor Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve, a big change from the Bush years, but the two men won’t be voting together on the war anytime soon. (Boehner did lead most Republicans in voting with Paul against President Obama’s war supplemental, but that was because it contained too much non-war spending.) Republican congressmen will read Thomas Woods’s book about the financial crisis, but not the collection of antiwar writing he edited.
Scarborough is also guilty by association. He works for MSNBC, the network that features such over-the-top liberals as Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. The fact that it is also home to thoughtful, independent conservatives like Buchanan, Scarborough, and Tucker Carlson is less a recommendation than something that makes their thoughtfulness and independence suspect. And did you know that Christopher Buckley liked Scarborough’s book?
There are times, moreover, when Scarborough plays into his conservative critics’ hands by appearing to write for liberal praise. There is a strong pro-life case to be made for allowing abortion policy to be settled at the state level, but dismissing pro-life concerns as “ob-gyn issues” is not the way to make it. Similarly, while social conservatives may have overplayed their hand on same-sex marriage after the 2004 elections, they are hardly the “aggressors” in this debate in most areas of the country.
Scarborough could better flesh out his arguments against deregulation of Wall Street. His failure to do so makes it look as though he is hitting his party with every issue on which the conventional wisdom says it is wrong.
Those criticisms aside, Scarborough is a rare mainstream Republican open to evidence and arguments from his right. His evolution should be encouraged. If it continues, MSNBC might want to rework an old show title for him: “Joe Scarborough Is Making Sense.”
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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