Daniel McCarthy

Virginia’s Election Was a GOP Rout—and Here Are Its Lessons

If you’re looking for lessons from last Tuesday’s Virginia election results, don’t just look to Ken Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial defeat—for which any one or combination of a dozen factors can be blamed—look as well at how the Republican candidates performed in the other two statewide races. E.W. Jackson, a fiery cultural rightist who makes Ken Cuccinelli sound like Wendy Davis, lost by 10.5 points in the lieutenant governor’s race. Mark Obenshain, who is about on par with Cuccinelli and Bob McDonnell on social issues, is up by a hair and probably heading for a recount in a 50-50 draw to become the next attorney general. What can we learn?

First, style matters. Three Republicans with roughly similar views on social policy performed very differently: the most flamboyant, Jackson, was crushed; the quietest, Obenshain, did best; and Cuccinelli, in the middle, fell short against Terry McAuliffe.

Cuccinelli’s supporters complain that he was defamed by McAuliffe’s “war on women” advertising, and Tim Carney, among others, has argued that Cuccinelli was in fact active behind the scenes in opposing the Republican legislature’s transvaginal ultrasound mandate for women seeking abortions. The trouble is that whatever the nuances of Cuccinelli’s antiabortion views, the image he’d cultivated as Christian conservatism’s champion—the very thing that earned him such ardent loyalty on the right—contributed to impressions that what McAuliffe said about his views must be true. Cuccinelli tried to send one signal to his base (I’m with you 100 percent—whatever that might mean) and another to the general voter (I’m not an extremist). That set up an uncertainty that McAuliffe could exploit, and did. Read More…

Posted in . 58 comments

The Future of Conservatism—A Few Remarks

Last month Future 500 invited me to participate on a panel about the future of conservatism. You can watch the whole thing—featuring Future 500′s Bill Shireman and syndicated columnist Charles Hurt, along with yours truly and moderator Stephen Jordan—here. But as a teaser, these are my remarks, ably edited into an 18-minute clip:

Also worth watching is the subsequent panel, which illustrates some of the gender and generation gaps on the right, with panelists including Norm Singleton from Campaign for Liberty, Steve Bannon or Breitbart.com, Lori Sanders of R Street, and Brittney Morrett or the Libre Initiative:

Posted in , . 14 comments

Who Will Be the GOP’s 2016 Name-Brand Nominee?

The ignominious end of the shutdown/debt-ceiling standoff has some pundits wondering whether any of the GOP’s star senators—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio—could be a viable presidential nominee. With Republicans on Capitol Hill vastly unpopular with the nation at large, is this an opening for a governor in 2016?

Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are the obvious possibilities, with obvious problems. Bush is a familiar name—perhaps too familiar. Christie may have trouble with the right. (Although he’s not inherently any less ideologically plausible a nominee than, say, Mitt Romney.) But every four or eight years, pundits’ imaginations get fired by dark horses: last year, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels had their moments of vogue. In the middle of the George W. Bush years, National Review improbably pinned its hopes on Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as his successor. (Even more improbably, the magazine had a crush on Dan Lungren, then attorney general of California, back in 1996.)

There’s a reason these fantasies never play out: Republican voters not only have a strong preference for familiar names, they also like nationally proven brands.

In the six decades from Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952 to Romney’s in 2012, the GOP unfailing nominated someone who had either run before, already held national office, or had celebrity cachet. Ike was a war hero. Nixon was VP when he first won the nomination. Ford was already president the only time he won it. Goldwater had made his name in 1960 before he became the nominee in 1964. Reagan was not only a governor, he was also a movie star and had run in 1976 before he won the nomination in 1980. Bush I was VP. Dole had been on a national ticket as Ford’s running mate in 1976, ran for president in 1988, and had just stepped down as Senate majority leader in 1996 when he accepted the nomination. Bush II was a first-time candidate for the White House in 2000, but of course his name was identical with that of the last Republican president. McCain had run once before and was perhaps the most prominent person in the Senate when he won the nomination in 2008. Romney ran in 2008 before winning the nomination in 2012.

The absence of dark horses is no accident: Republican voters like familiarity, which connotes to them national appeal, ideological predictability, and readiness for the job. No surprises, no risks—or at least, the risks ought to be known in advance, even if that means nominating a leader obviously past his prime.

In 2016, the party will most likely hew to the pattern of the past 60 years and nominate someone with a degree of national prominence who is comfortably familiar to Republican voters. Jeb Bush’s whole campaign-in-waiting is based on that idea. If he wasn’t named Bush, he’d be Tim Pawlenty.

Not all of the presumed contenders—Rubio, Cruz, Paul, Christie, Bush, and what the heck, Rick Perry—fit the bill equally well, of course, and it’s not necessarily the case that the one that fits it best will be the nominee. But the profile is suggestive. Is Rubio, for example, really well enough known nationally? Perry imploded in 2012, but he’s at least familiar to Republican voters nationwide now, and perhaps that’s more important than his debate performances. (He’d better hope so.) Paul and Bush fit the profile most closely: neither has run for president before, but both are brands familiar to Republican primary voters from their relatives’ runs. Cruz and Christie are plenty prominent, but the GOP has shown a remarkable tendency to go with whoever is next in line.

Posted in , . 70 comments

Why I Am a Scalia Skeptic

The Contemplation of Justice.
The Contemplation of Justice. Gary Blakeley / Shutterstock.com

Too much of movement conservatism amounts to an inverted leftism. If the left is caricatured as pacifistic, the movement right doubles down on militarism. If the left is caricatured as socialistic, the movement right doubles down on free-market ideology, which turns out only to disguise corporatism. (Laissez-faire libertarians have as many grounds for complaint here as prudential conservatives do.) Sound policy is not merely the opposite of whatever the left happens to favor.

Quite often right-wing reactions to the left start out as common-sense responses to ideological overreach by progressives. But those common-sense responses then get abstracted and expanded into pseudo-principles or polarized attitudes. Thus, while there certainly were America-haters in the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, the idea that antiwar sentiment in general is anti-American is an ideological exaggeration, one that had tremendous political potency until a Republican president’s war in Iraq caused an overwhelming realignment of public opinion. Republicans and movement conservatives who should have known better before the Iraq War—hint: they’re often the ones who decided it was a bad idea around 2006—were nonetheless so conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to respond to ideological cues about anti-American antiwar sentiment that they shut down their brains and for years supported a policy that was harmful to their country as well as their party.

What was true in foreign policy—and still is, to some extent—remains true in economics, where we’ve seen a cartoon approach to smaller government and freer markets taken up by the Tea Party and some of its champions in Congress, much to the chagrin of, say, traditionalist Distributists and anti-corporatist libertarians alike. And to the chagrin as well of temperamental conservatives who these days are reviled as RINOs and moderates. Caricatures and publicity stunts prevail, and the results are Republican and movement-conservative policies that are deeply confused: Romneycare one minute; pitched resistance to Obamacare the next. Medicare Part D and the Bush deficits one minute; battles over the debt ceiling the next. The governing idea or image in the minds of movement conservatives is one in which a Republican fights the left through whatever policies he enacts, and a Democrat advances socialism through anything he does—even if the Republican and Democrat do pretty similar things. The intensity of the movement’s commitment to this false dichotomy seems almost inversely proportional to the concrete differences between GOP and Democrats. (The Iraq War, of course, was supported by Democrats as well as Republicans.)

It would be surprising if this systematic flaw in movement-conservative thinking only applied to foreign policy and economics. Might it also apply to jurisprudence? Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged . 41 comments

Antonin Scalia = Justice Cheney

New York‘s interview with Justice Scalia is drawing snark from the left (about Scalia’s belief in the devil) and no doubt nods of assent from the talk-radio right (the justice reveals his media-diet staples to be the Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bill Bennett radio show). What caught my eye, however, were Scalia’s references to his Watergate-era experiences. They put me in mind of Barton Gellman’s Cheney book, Angler, which made me aware of how Congress’s reining in of Republican presidents Nixon and Ford shaped Cheney’s view (as well as Donald Rumsfeld’s) of executive power. What Scalia says sounds familiar:

It was a terrible time, not for the Republican Party, but for the presidency. It was such a wounded and enfeebled presidency, and Congress was just eating us alive. … It was a time when people were talking about “the imperial presidency.” I knew very well that the 900-pound gorilla in Washington is not the presidency. It’s Congress. If Congress can get its act together, it can roll over the president. That’s what the framers thought. They said you have to enlist your jealousy against the legislature in a ­democracy—that will be the source of tyranny.

The Framers, of course, were writing the new Constitution under a system whose existing charter, the Articles of Confederation, had hardly any executive power whatsoever. The critics of their handiwork, the anti-federalists, were greatly concerned about the tyrannical potential of the executive the proposed, but the Framers could see—as a glance at the Articles would show—that America in the 1780s wasn’t suffering from a surplus of power in the offices of a single magistrate. Have things changed at all in the ensuing 230 years? Perhaps not if your perspective is that of the Nixon White House.

Pressed to cite a heroic moment in his career—Scalia, to his credit, isn’t eager to name one—he finally cites his refusal to recuse himself from a case involving Dick Cheney’s claims of executive privilege for his energy task force. (Scalia had gone hunting with Cheney and, as CNN reported, “Scalia and Cheney also had a private dinner with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in November, when the Supreme Court was considering Cheney’s appeal.”)

“Most of my opinions don’t take guts,” Scalia tells New York‘s Jennifer Senior. “They take smarts. But not courage. And I was proud of that. I did the right thing and it let me in for a lot of criticism and it was the right thing to do and I was proud of that. So that’s the only heroic thing I’ve done.”

Posted in . 14 comments

John Locke: Liberal, Libertarian, or License to Kill?

Matt Bruenig of the liberal think tank Demos recently enlisted John Locke’s First Treatise in making the case for “freedom from want,” which provoked a combox and Twitter rejoinder from Cato’s Jason Kuznicki. Here’s the passage Bruenig quotes:

a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.

Kuznicki responded by invoking the Second Treatise as a development of Locke’s thought—which Bruenig finds problematic, noting that the First Treatise was actually composed later. (A full account of how and when the two treatises were written gets complicated.) In any case, Kuznicki need not have looked so far afield, when Locke’s elaboration of his thought is to be found just one paragraph later:

Should any one make so perverse an use of God’s blessings poured on him with a liberal hand; should any one be cruel and uncharitable to that extremity; yet all this would not prove that propriety in land, even in this case, gave any authority over the persons of men, but only that compact might; since the authority of the rich proprietor, and the subjection of the needy beggar, began not from the possession of the lord, but the consent of the poor man, who preferred being his subject to starving. And the man he thus submits to, can pretend to no more power over him, than he has consented to, upon compact.

Read on and you’ll find that Locke brings this back to a refutation of those (like Filmer) who ground political authority in God’s grant of the earth to some particular lineage. What Locke is at pains to explain here is that owning land does not mean one owns the people on the land—they may not be reduced to slaves; they also may not be reduced to feudal vassals—but rather whatever legitimate governing there is must derive from the subject’s consent at some level. Read More…

Posted in , . 16 comments

Liberty Is a Problem When You Can’t Know Who’s the Tyrant

Gene Callahan invokes John Stuart Mill to show that liberals boycotting Barilla—for its chairman’s views about homosexuals—are behaving illiberally. Mill not only favors legally free speech, but he’s sensitive (as some legalistic libertarians are not) to the illiberal power of social conformism. Interestingly, in the passage of On Liberty that Gene cites, Mill makes a rather social-democratic economic point that perhaps cuts against Gene’s position. Look again, with new emphasis added:

In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread. Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear.

Is Guido Barilla—chairman of and heir to the biggest pasta brand in the U.S. and Italy—really a victim of the tyranny of opinion, with his “bread” at risk from the stigma to which he’s subject? Unless his finances are a lot less secure than his pedigree and position would suggest, he’s more likely to be one of those “whose bread is already secured” and thus “have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of…”

But that’s really a matter of interpretation. There’s a more fundamental point that needs to be brought out here that has nothing to do with how wealthy Mr. Barilla is or isn’t. Namely, Mill takes for granted that whether one is bravely bucking public opinion or cravenly enforcing it is a clear-cut matter. It’s not, and that’s why well-meaning people will reach different conclusions about a case like Barilla’s. Read More…

Posted in , . 6 comments

How Whit Stillman Reads a Book

The director—most recently of “Damsels in Distress”—explains in The Atlantic’s “Media Diet” feature:

You have a lot of freedom in reading a book. I’m unable, for some reason, to read books from beginning to end. I have to go to what interests me most in the book. And if I like that, I start going backwards and forwards. And it starts to become a really complicated endeavor of just reading the parts of the books once and not sort of overlapping. I don’t know why I have to sort of re-edit the books myself. I don’t know why I can’t read a prologue and read a first chapter. I mean, if I really love a book I’ll get to them too. For some reason, I usually find them deadly dull, the prologues.

Samuel Johnson also read as Stillman does—“A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”

Certainly a great many nonfiction works might well be treated as reference books—to dip into for an idea or anecdote and read only as much as one pleases. Relatively few authors are subtle enough to require a sequential reading. Think of popular music: how many albums really reward listening from start to finish? Those that do are outstanding; with most, it’s safe to skip to the best tracks. Even reasonably good nonfiction likewise tends to involve a lot of padding: superfluous detail, scene-setting formalities, diversions from the main narrative. (It’s one reason I think many books would be better as essays, and why introductions can be so enjoyable—a good essayist writing an introduction to someone else’s work can pare it down to the essence.)

There’s some irony in that Stillman’s medium of choice for his own work is conventionally thought to be unsuitable for browsing or skimming—although YouTube may be changing that. (And really, catching bits and pieces of a film on TV is much the same—the best way to watch many a movie.) Trailers may or may not hit the mark: they can be like perfunctory author prologues to written works, and not only programmatic but too direct as well.

Whether that applies to the tasters Stillman’s films, you be the judge.

Posted in , . 3 comments

The Constitution vs. Calhoun: Why Harry Jaffa Is Still Wrong About Willmoore Kendall

Interior of the Capitol dome. gary718 / Shutterstock.com
Interior of the Capitol dome. gary718 / Shutterstock.com

Willmoore Kendall is one of the most overlooked founding fathers of the conservative movement and also one of the most interesting. He’s overlooked in part because he never wrote a “big book”—The Conservative Affirmation is a collection of essays and reviews rather than a manifesto—and in part because he doesn’t fit into any right-wing factional stereotype. He wasn’t a libertarian. He became Catholic, but his scholarly interest in American institutions set him apart from most traditionalists. He admired Leo Strauss, and also Eric Voegelin, but he was too distinctive a thinker to be subsumed into anyone else’s school. William F. Buckley Jr., Brent Bozell Jr., Garry Wills, and George Carey were all greatly influenced by him, but in idiosyncratic ways.

(Kendall edited and helped polish the first books by his Yale students Buckley and Bozell—God and Man at Yale and McCarthy and His Enemies—and Buckley’s quip that he’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard reflects Kendall’s thinking at least as much as Buckley’s.)

Kendall was in truth the top Americanist of the postwar conservative movement, more concerned to relate his ideas to the Constitution and the The Federalist than to, say, a wider Anglo-American Burkean tradition (as in the case of Russell Kirk) or to a modern Machiavellian outlook (in the case of James Burnham) or to an abstract set of libertarian or other principles (in the case of Frank Meyer and many natural-rights proponents). It’s perhaps ironic that Kendall’s all-American political philosophy found the fewest adherents on the late 20th-century right, but perhaps the future will be kinder to him.

Kendall is remembered most of all today by those who misunderstand him. Harry Jaffa, who propounds an Americanism very different from Kendall’s, has over the decades portrayed Kendall as a neo-Confederate. Kendall died in 1968, but Jaffa is still alive, age 94, and still misrepresenting a dead man who can’t defend himself. In his new book, Crisis of the Strauss Divided, Jaffa refers to “that old Confederate Willmoore Kendall” and claims “that Calhoun… was Kendall’s and Wills’s hero.”

You wouldn’t know it from reading Jaffa, but in The Conservative Affirmation, Kendall had explicitly written that conservatism as he understood it can “do no business with Calhoun. … Its highest political loyalty, in fine, is to the institutions and way to life bequeathed to us by the Philadelphia Convention.” Read More…

Posted in , , . 10 comments

The New Republic In-Depth Clinton Non-Story

“Scandal at Clinton Inc.” is quite a title for a story that amounts to a Bill Clinton aide taking kickbacks from shady businessmen for providing access to the former president. It doesn’t sound as if the aide in question, Doug Band, is suspected of doing anything illegal, and while he certainly comes off as, shall we say, “ethically challenged,” Alec Macgillis’s story doesn’t do much to tie Band’s mischief to former president Clinton, who’s presented as basically a victim. The Clinton who might actually be on a presidential ticket three years from now hardly figures in the story.

Am I missing something? A few throwaway lines tease more scandalous, or at least salacious, stories that Macgillis doesn’t pursue: Ron Burkle’s private plane, frequently flown by Clinton, being known by the billionaire’s employees as “Air Fuck One,” Hillary aide (and Anthony Weiner wife) Huma Abedin getting investigated by the Senate Judiciary Committee to see if her work for Band’s international consulting firm, Teneo, conflicted with her work for the State Department. (The Christian Science Monitor has reported on the Abedin story here.) Band used his influence to get an apparently inflated price from the Post Office for a parcel of land his father owned, but that detail is almost lost in the piece amid all the banal insider gossip. Band didn’t get along with Obama’s re-election people last year—so bloody what?

The big story isn’t that billionaires and corporations were buying access to Bill Clinton, but what exactly they were getting, something Macgillis shows no interest in. Instead the focus is entirely on middleman, Doug Band. He’s not the story.

Posted in . One comment
← Older posts Newer posts →