Earlier today I was trying to put together a post on the problems in this J.P. Freire response to R.S. McCain and Ross, but the sheer number of misconceptions that needed to be set right before proceeding to more interesting questions made the exercise seem a bit futile. The short, short version is that “reformists” are not really moderate Republicans (as Ross has noted in a follow-up post), and McCain has not been advancing a coherent message because he has been ignoring the “reformists,” which is why so many “reformists” are particularly outspoken about the failures of the McCain campaign, of which the Palin selection is one.
The back-and-forth over writing off “moderates” (broadly defined in this discussion as anyone not Right with Limbaugh and Palin*) has a somewhat surreal quality to it. On the mainstream conservative side, it involves denouncing the people jumping ship for getting out while the getting is good while simultaneously saying, “We won’t tolerate those sorts of people on our sinking ship, and it is our sinking ship. Leave us to drown in peace!” This has the perverse effect of essentially letting former cheerleaders of the Bush administration (Brooks, Noonan, Frum, et al.) off the hook for the wreckage of the ship for which they bear some responsibility, while many of the relatively more anti-Bush mainstream conservatives** are lashing themselves to the deck and making other past cheerleaders of the Bush administration (Limbaugh and the like) into their figureheads and making the imperturbable 24% who still approve of Bush’s job performance the font of wisdom. Having defended and enabled Mr. Bush for years, many of the recent ship-jumpers and critics of Palin finally declared that enough was enough, while some conservatives who have had more problems with the administration have decided that what is needed is more party loyalty and sycophancy focused now on Palin instead of Bush. When it is pointed out that this is self-defeating and actually makes more “purist” conservative arguments more politically irrelevant than ever, there is a flood of anathemas.
The Tory example over the last eleven years is instructive for how “purists” should not respond to electoral defeat. The Cameroons are now well-regarded because they have happened to be in the right position to take advantage of Labour’s implosion and Gordon Brown’s failures, but the only reason why Cameron’s self-described “liberal conservatism” gained purchase was that those inclined to keep the old Thatcherite fires burning showed absolutely no imagination in adapting to the changes in British society and were consumed by ultimately fruitless quarrels over Europe. In retrospect, the Euroskeptic hostility to Brussels, with which I have a a lot of sympathy, was about as much of an electoral winner as McCain’s obsession with the “surge.” In many respects, the Cameroons are simply imitation Blairites and flourish in a culture that is noticeably different from our own and so they offer a rather dubious model for American conservative self-renewal, but unlike previous leaders Cameron has put forward something approaching a positive agenda and as a result his “liberal conservatism” has prevailed because it had no viable competition. The “reformists” already have an enormous head start on most of the “purists” on the right, as they were aware that the GOP was in trouble years before it became apparent in the electoral defeats of ’06 and this year, and they have put together some kind of positive agenda that will eventually fill the vacuum if “purists” cannot creatively apply their support for small government and fiscal restraint to changed circumstances and rediscover a dedication to constitutionalism and prudent foreign policy.
It is significant, and depressing, that the main battles of the current conservative pundit war seems to be focused around Sarah Palin and her critics and not around the Iraq war and the attendant loss of mainstream conservative credibility on foreign policy. That almost all of the people involved in the pundit war over the campaign and Palin are more or less in fundamental agreement about Iraq and the “surge” and seem to be largely in agreement about U.S. policies overseas is an impressive testament to the staying power of Bushism. It is also telling that virtually no one on either the so-called “populist” or “elitist” side of the current debate’s divide seems to have many doubts about the desirability of globalist trade policy. These are areas of policy where even most of the people calling for conservative self-criticism are more or less glad to fall in line, and yet these are probably the two major areas of policy where party leadership and movement activists are most out of step with the majority of the public. It is not a coincidence that the two candidates in the primaries who represented or just seemed to represent significant breaks with party orthodoxy on these two things, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, were treated with the greatest opposition and scorn by party leaders and movement activists, while the one genuine protectionist in the primaries, Duncan Hunter, was simply ignored.
*This “moderate” category, of course, ultimately runs the gamut from Brooks to, well, me, and it seems to be united by some level of awareness of political realities regardless of how different “moderates” respond to those realities. There is really very little else that ties these people together.
**By “anti-Bush” here, I mean that they did at least break with the administration on immigration and the bailout.