by Mark Thompson
Just as a final follow-up to today’s post-mortems on the Bush Administration and the last 8 years of conservatism, it’s worth asking the question of how the less-dogmatic elements of the once-great Republican Coalition can gain control of the party and restore the fundamentally good-natured tone of the Reagan era, and, in the process restore honest debate to the Party’s internal affairs.
At the moment, I’m not sure how it can happen, although the existence and growing voice of younger conservative intellectuals such as Rod Dreher, all of the various writers here at Culture11 (including, of course, my host), Ross Douthat and numerous others serves as a powerful reminder that there are voices in the wilderness ready to pick up the pieces if they are only asked.
What I do know is that there have been some clear opportunities for party elders to promote powerful visions that would have pushed conservatism in new and interesting ways that could have utterly marginalized the dogmatic voices. The first and greatest such opportunity was the early years of the Bush Administration itself. Bush had geared his entire campaign on a message of “compassionate conservatism” that, whether or not you agreed with its policy preferences, promised a rejection of the angry rhetoric that had come to dominate the Clinton years. What gave this promise a real chance was that it existed with the full support of the dogmatists, who were hungry for the Presidency after 8 years out of power, and who (I suspect) regretted the disrespect with which they had treated Bush’s father in 1992. It’s hard to say when exactly this promise died, but if you take the tragic view of Bush outlined downblog, then you have to say that it died at least in part due to Bush’s unquestioning trust of advisors who simply did not share his values. At a minimum though, I suspect that it was in part this failure to overcome dogmatism to which Matthew Dowd was referring when he summed up the Bush years with the quote: “You know, the headline in his presidency will be missed opportunity. That is the headline, ultimately. It’s missed opportunity, missed opportunity.”
The more recent opportunity came after McCain won the nomination early this year. Despite McCain’s reputation as a hothead, his record and the historical sincerity of his worldview should have made him an outstanding vehicle for changing the tone of the Republican Party and creating a new, less dogmatic “base.” Had he accepted this role, he would have received a huge benefit for his legacy – the virtual guarantee that conservatism’s new baseline set of beliefs would be in the image of his choosing, much in the way that Barry Goldwater remade conservatism in his image in 1964.
This opportunity loomed particularly large for virtually the opposite reasons why Bush’s opportunity was so grand: the Republican nominee for President this year was destined for defeat, unless Obama committed an unprecedented act of political suicide. After winning the primary, McCain – always despised by the dogmatists – had a choice to make: 1. Would he continue his career-long battle with the dogmatists, thereby ensuring that the “base” would stay home and he would lose by Goldwater-like margins, all while nonetheless earning the respect of independents and forcing members of Congress to choose between aligning with an unpopular President and equally-unpopular (amongst independents, at least) set of talk-radio hosts or aligning with a well-respected but unelectable Presidential candidate of their own party? or 2. Would he attempt to appease the dogmatists in the hopes of rallying the base while maintaining most of his own traditional “base” of independents, in which case he would still almost certainly lose, but could at least put forth a respectable margin of defeat and maybe even win if Obama blundered unexpectedly.
He chose option 2, and, as expected, he lost by a reasonably narrow margin (in the popular vote, at least). In the process, he ensured that the infrastructure remained in the hands of the dogmatists. Worse, because he lost while getting a nice bounce in the polls from his ultimate pander to the dogmatists (the Palin nomination), the dogmatists were able to actually strengthen their once-weakening hold on the infrastructure, arguing (plausibly, but incorrectly) that the Palin bounce proved that dogmatism rather than considered positions was what had the most appeal to the American people.
What makes this opportunity even more saddening is that during the primary campaign, McCain had developed a strong relationship with Mike Huckabee, who in many ways would have been a near-ideal vehicle for stealing the party away from the dogmatists.* After all, Huckabee inspired as much passion in disillusioned young Evangelicals as McCain inspired in cynical independents. And Huckabee was no dogmatist, but was someone who instead acted out of a transparent, indisputably well-intentioned philosophy that was often remarkably compatible with McCain’s National Greatness Conservatism. Huckabee’s ability to mobilize young voters further made him an ideal candidate for the task of rebuilding the Party’s infrastructure much as Howard Dean is credited with doing for the Democrats.
To be sure, this libertarian would have had to face an almost uncrossable chasm to actually vote for a McCain-Huckabee ticket, and certainly not in a year where there was a libertarian on the ballot who had actual name recognition. But I would have held a McCain-Huckabee ticket in high regard, and I would have given such a ticket much closer scrutiny than I was willing to give McCain-Palin, even though Palin is technically more libertarian than Huckabee. After all, to paraphrase one of the greatest fictional characters of the last 25 years, “Say what you will about National Greatness Conservatism, at least it’s an ethos.” But even if, as I suspect, McCain-Huckabee would have guaranteed the end of the conservative-libertarian alliance, it would have been an end that was good for conservatism. Why? Because it would have allowed for the popularization of a philosophically coherent conservatism capable of actually offering something to voters that Republicans have been unable to reach for decades or more. The permanent loss of a few million libertarian voters would have paled in comparison to this potential for future gains, both in terms of elections and in terms of actual conservative influence on policy.
Certainly there were other directions McCain could have turned besides Huckabee that would have accomplished a similar, albeit lesser, effect. But McCain did not choose this path and the conservative-libertarian coalition remains in tact – not a bad thing in itself, of course. The trouble is that this coalition remains under the iron grip of the dogmatists, preventing the non-dogmatic conservatives and libertarians from working towards a new, modernized, optimistic, and philosophically coherent worldview that can take hold of the GOP infrastructure. Hopefully, sometime soon, some of the ever-increasing number of young conservative and libertarian idealists will be able to step forward and mobilize a generation for conservatism. But it will be an uphill battle and the infrastructure will not go down overnight as perhaps it could have had Bush or McCain seized their opportunity.
*One might think Ron Paul would have been pretty good too, except that the chasm between he and McCain, both personally and politically, made this something that could never warrant even a moment’s consideration (on either man’s part).