Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
They Said It:
Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH THE GOP?
By all rights, the Republican Party should be enjoying one of its periodic revivals, as should the conservatism for which it is more or less known. The opposition Democratic Party has proven, over the last five-plus years that it has controlled national politics, that it is as incompetent as it is wedded to old and failed ideas about governance. The Democratic president, once hailed as a new Messiah, is foundering badly. His approval rating has fallen precipitously, and fewer and fewer Americans outside of his narrow electoral base believe that he is either an effective chief executive or even a trustworthy man. His signature policy achievement, the long-anticipated reform of the health insurance system, is a disaster by almost any measure. He has been reduced to changing his own law – unilaterally and all but certainly illegally – to postpone some of its more onerous provisions until after the midterm elections for fear that they would unduly anger the electorate. The economy remains stagnant at best, some four-plus years into “recovery,” and the Left’s economic policies are nearly universally seen as contributing to rather than ameliorating the suffering of the American people.
Moreover, it is the Republicans, for a change, who have tapped into one of the nation’s occasional bursts of populist sentiment, making the better and more realistic case that they are connected to the country and its people, while their opponents are connected to Washington and its power. As has been the case in each of the last handful of conservative revivals, all of the intellectual energy these days is on the Right. While the Left tries its very best to put lipstick on the pig that is the century-plus-old Progressive agenda, the Right is producing innovative and intellectually rigorous approaches to the indisputable problems of the welfare state and its inevitable demographic crash. Republicans alone are addressing the real problems the country faces and the tangible diminution of liberty in the country that has, for more than two centuries, been that value’s single greatest example and advocate.
All things considered, then, the already-conservative-leaning American electorate should be embracing the conservative-leaning GOP in record numbers, pushing the country in the direction of another rebirth, one reminiscent of that which began some thirty-four years ago, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the implementation of policies that set off the longest and strongest economic growth period in world history.
And yet, it’s not. The voters seem more willing to vote for Republicans this fall than Democrats, but only marginally. As bad as the President’s approval numbers are, his Congressional adversaries are even less well liked. The Republicans need a net gain of six Senate seats in November in order to take unified control of Congress. And while such gains are possible, even amidst the Democrats’ despair, they are far from certain. Worse yet, the presumed Democratic candidate for the White House three years hence appears nearly unstoppable. And even her best known and presumably strongest potential opponent, the young and affable junior Senator from Kentucky, recently declared that his party will not produce a successful presidential candidate in the next several decades unless it radically changes itself and its message. “I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime,” Senator Rand Paul recently declared, “unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party. And it has to be a transformation. Not a little tweaking at the edges.”
Is this so? Is Rand Paul right? Is the GOP doomed, despite both the manifest incompetence of the Democratic Party and the public’s genuine dissatisfaction with Barack Obama and his Congressional allies? If so, how can this possibly be? And what does all of this suggest about the future of American politics and the future of the Republican Party more specifically?
Only the most delusional of partisan hacks could possibly deny the collapse of the “new liberal majority,” which began its rise with the capture of Congress in 2006 and consolidated power when Barack Obama was elected to the presidency two years later. When Obama took the oath of office on January 20, 2009, the “liberal moment” had arrived. The wrongs of the Reagan-Bush-Bush era would be righted. The nativism and antagonism of the Gingrich era would be reversed. All would be put right in the world, in short. The only hitch, of course, was reality, which, as Robert Burns might have noted, has a tendency to mess with the best laid plans of mice, men, and messiahs.
As things stand today, the liberal moment has not only passed, but has left, in its wake, a nearly unprecedented trail of destruction.
Last month, Rasmussen Reports noted that “just 34% of Likely U.S. Voters think America’s best days are still to come,” while, “Forty-six percent (46%) think the nation’s best days are in the past.” This month, Rasmussen reported that only 29% of likely voters – which is to say people who are engaged in the system – think that the country is headed in “the right direction.” The right track/wrong track number has improved slightly since October’s government shutdown, when roughly eight of 10 Americans thought the country was on the wrong track, but the takeaway number still remains dismally low. And this has become the norm during the last few years of the Obama administration.
The polls are even worse for the Democrats and other various supporters of Big Government. According to a Washington Post poll released just before last month’s State of the Union address, Americans have more than had their fill of “the One” and his coterie of government flunkies.
Just 37 percent say they have either a good amount or a great deal of confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country’s future, while 63 percent say they do not. Those numbers are the mirror image of what they were when he was sworn into office in 2009 and lower than at any other time the question was asked by The Washington Post and ABC News….
Americans are similarly negative about the president’s handling of two major foreign policy issues, Iran and Syria. Four in 10 approve of his handling of the situation with Iran at a time of diplomatic efforts to prevent the Iranians from obtaining nuclear-weapons capability. Just one-third approve of his handling of the Syrian conflict.
The Post also reported that “Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats to do a better job handling the economy 44 percent to 37 percent . . . the first time since 2002 that Republicans have sported a meaningful advantage, and larger than any edge congressional Republicans have held over Obama during his administration.” Gallup notes that more people are unhappy with gun control efforts than at any point in the last decade. It also reports that “economic confidence” remains mired in negative territory in every state, with only Washington DC reporting a positive economic outlook.
Not unrelatedly, Gallup also notes that most Americans are despondent about government and specifically about its size. “Sixty-five percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation’s system of government and how well it works, the highest percentage in Gallup’s trend since 2001.” Likewise, Pew Research reports that late last year, it found that “just 19% say that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time, down seven points since January.” Additionally, Pew notes:
76% of conservative Republicans regard the government as a threat to their personal rights and freedoms and 54% consider the government to be a “major” threat, an increase over three years ago when 62% of them described it as a threat to their freedom and 47% said it was a “major” threat. By comparison, there is little change in opinion among Democrats; 38% say the government poses a threat to their personal freedoms and 16% view it as “major.” . . .
Since Barack Obama’s first year in office, favorable assessments of the federal government dropped 14 points . . . For the first time since Obama became president, more Democrats say they have an unfavorable view of the federal government in Washington than a favorable view (51% unfavorable vs. 41% favorable) . . . .
Currently, Americans say by a 56 to 35% margin that they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger one . . . .
The trend in public opinion favoring a smaller role for government is reflected in declining support for the social safety net.
Not surprisingly, even the smartest and the most even-handed political commentators working today have fallen into the trap of claiming that “nobody in Washington” is offering solutions to the problems that face the country, or that “both sides” are equally at a loss about what to do to fix this nation’s troubled economic and entitlement policy problems.
Last week, for example, Robert Samuelson, the well respected and even-tempered centrist columnist, wrote a nice column about the pending entitlement crisis that threatens the country. Unfortunately, the column took a turn toward the surreal near the end, when Samuelson fell into the “pox on both houses” mindset that dominates much of the otherwise earnest discussion of political problems in this country. Specifically, he put it this way:
A better balance between retirees and everything else needs to be found.
But no one is looking. Budget debates and the media focus on deficits and debt ceilings. This makes people seem engaged when they are actually evading explicit choices of what programs to cut and taxes to raise. Both liberals and conservatives are complicit in this charade, but liberals are more so because their unwillingness to discuss Social Security and Medicare benefits candidly is the crux of the budget stalemate.
Now, with all due respect to Robert Samuelson, this last bit, the bit about “both liberals and conservatives” being “complicit” in Washington’s budget/entitlement neglect, is what we in the business call a “lie.” It is simply inaccurate – and wildly so – to suggest that both parties are equally to blame for the entitlement denial that grips the nation’s capital. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that the Republican response to all of this has been surprisingly substantive on both the intellectual/abstract and the policy levels.
In each of the last three years, for example, the House of Representatives has passed a budget proposal, introduced by erstwhile Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, which addressed the single most critical entitlement issue, the future costs of Medicare. And in each of the last three years, the Democrats aggressively demonized both Ryan and the GOP for having the temerity to talk about the pending crisis, while voting in lock-step to defeat the proposal.
And the Ryan plan, which has become the GOP default, is only the beginning of the GOP reform movement. Over the last several months, the conservative wing of the Republican party, and so-called “Tea Party” members in particular, have proposed several innovative and appealing approaches to deal with some of this country’s more intractable policy problems. In a series of recent columns, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ token conservative, gives further lie to the notion that policy inertia is a bipartisan problem.
The conservative policy larder was genuinely bare by the end of the Bush presidency. But that changed, reasonably swiftly, across President Obama’s first term. A new journal, National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin, began incubating alternatives to a re-ascendant liberalism. The older magazines and think tanks were reinvigorated, and played host to increasingly lively policy debates. And a new generation of conservative thinkers coalesced: James Capretta and Avik Roy on health care, Brad Wilcox and Kay Hymowitz on social policy, Ramesh Ponnuru on taxes and monetary policy, James Pethokoukis on financial regulation, Reihan Salam on all of the above, and many others.
By 2012, it was possible to discern the outlines of a plausible right-of-center agenda on domestic polity — a new “reform conservatism,” if you will . . . .
Reform conservatism did have one partial champion in Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored the only plausible Obamacare alternative in Congress, and whose evolving Medicare proposal drew on ideas Levin and others had proposed . . . .
[T]he most consequential recent development for the G.O.P. might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.
The first is Mike Lee, the junior Senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: in the last six months, his office has proposed a new family friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.
The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal antipoverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.
Taken together, Lee’s and Rubio’s proposals are already more interesting and promising than almost anything Republicans campaigned on in 2012 — and there may be more to come, from them and perhaps from Ryan as well.
If you take all of this, add in the war on drugs/incarceration ideas being pushed by Rand Paul, mix in the dying but not yet dead notion that Social Security should be reformed, and place it all next to the Democrats’ sole idea to promote growth – namely the “stimulus” that turned five years old yesterday – and it would seem to be a no-brainer that conservatism would be ascendant in American politics, and along with it the GOP.
But that’s not the case. As the Washington Post put it in reference to its aforementioned pre-State of the Union poll:
Confidence in Democrats and Republicans in Congress, however, is even lower than for President Obama. Twenty-seven percent say they have confidence in Democrats to make the right decisions for the country, while 72 percent do not, and just 19 percent have confidence in Republicans, while 80 percent do not. Almost half lack confidence in all three.
Less than one in five Americans has confidence in the Republicans. The Democrats have destroyed nearly everything they’ve touched over the last five-plus years – from health care to taxes, foreign policy to the jobs market – and yet FEWER THAN one in five Americans trusts the GOP to do the right thing in any given situation.
How can this possibly be? And what does all of this suggest about the future of American politics and the future of the Republican party more specifically?
Obviously, these are complicated questions with a great many complicated answers. Some answers are obvious. Some are not. And, of course, some are better than others.
For starters, as we have long argued in these pages, the broad conflict between the Left and the Right can best be seen as a seven-decade-long battle between two conflicting moral systems. And we have further maintained that the Right is badly losing this fight.
Indeed, the fact is that the Left has been overwhelmingly successful in following Antonio Gramsci’s advice to conduct a “long march through the institutions,” taking control of and using them – and especially the educational establishment – to inculcate the population in the finer points of the what might broadly be called the counter-culture. And the result has been the systematic destruction of the dominant cultural influences in the country (and the West more generally), thereby all but abolishing the cultural consensus that once existed.
In this midst of this cultural revolution, the Right is off balance, as causes and effects become conflated and the relative importance of various issues changes almost overnight.
In an important essay published just a few weeks ago, the screenwriter and novelist Roger L. Simon, one of the more astute recent converts from Left to Right and one of the driving forces behind the burgeoning right-leaning media, maintained that the Right is losing the war for the hearts and minds of Americans because it is woefully out of tune with the broader culture and the youth culture in particular on a small handful of issues, none of which seemed to matter much only a few short years ago. With respect to the most significant of these issues, he put it this way:
This analysis of the (admittedly macro) political trends in our country tracks well with my personal observation. Being an older guy with a teenage daughter, I have been blessed in many ways — not the least of which is considerable contact with the younger generation. Much of that contact is circumscribed, but not all of it. Recently I have had the opportunity to interview high school students from many different social classes and ethnicities.
Although I didn’t ask them directly about their politics — that was off the table for the interviews I was conducting — I got a fair glimpse of their views as time went on just through the flow of the conversation. Worry about their economic future is, not surprisingly, pervasive, but there was practically universal skepticism of government’s ability to solve it. They saw themselves as individual actors, libertarian, in most cases, without even realizing it. They were also highly aware of Obamacare and its innate unfairness to the younger generation, as well as its overweening bureaucratic disorganization.
In fact, when you come down to it, virtually nothing associated with the liberal platform met with their approval — even legalization of marijuana was dealt with in most instances with a shrug — except, you guessed it, same-sex marriage.
That appears to be the one issue militating against a coming Republican majority, but it is an exceptionally potent one because it is used, fairly or not, to paint the right as bigots. And young people, again not surprisingly, don’t want to hang with bigots — so the whole house of cards goes down . . . .
I have to say in all candor that political opposition to same-sex marriage is the Achilles’ heel of the right going into 2016. Social conservatives who intend to make a serious issue out of it should realize that the fallout from their views could adversely affect all of us in a catastrophic way.
Of course, there is a certain tautology involved here. The Right is losing because the kids are in favor of same sex marriage. And the kids are in favor of same-sex marriage because the Left is winning. But be that as it may, Simon does seem to be on to something, that being that the Right has a serious problem, namely that the Left is able not simply to direct cultural change, but is also able to pick and choose the issue du jour, based on the prevailing cultural winds.
It is worth remembering here, we think, that less than six years ago, when he was running for his first term, Barack Obama was adamantly opposed to gay marriage. Of course, when he and his handlers discovered that gay marriage is an issue that not only carries considerable weight among a large and growing segment of the population but may have the potential to alter the entire political landscape, his “values,” – such as they are – changed rapidly.
Now, Simon doesn’t say as much, but others who have read his piece and commented on their similar thoughts have suggested that this means that Republicans need to shut up about cultural issues and about gay marriage in particular. Republicans, they say, need to drop the culture crap and focus on the important stuff, stuff like taxes and regulation, liberty and individualism. Leave the old fogies of the Church in the Church and get back to the business of making government leaner and less intrusive.
If this argument sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It is the same thing that various factions within the party have been saying about various social issues for at least half a century. Give up on the abortion business! It’s a loser! You’re killing the party! Quit prattling on about birth control and religious freedom! It’s over! The American people have spoken. Pay for pills and shut up about it already!
There are, unfortunately, at least two problems with arguments such as these. First, they are empirically backward. We could argue all day about the GOP’s relative strengths and appeals, but the fact of the matter is that the GOP did not begin its climb out post-New Deal electoral irrelevancy until it embraced social issues and abortion in particular. More to the point, we suppose, you will note that neither Simon nor anyone else mentions abortion as a particularly hot button issue among young voters these days. That’s due in large part to the fact that this fight has, more or less, been won.
Most Americans believe that abortion should be restricted after 20 weeks. Most Americans believe that parental consent should be required before young teenage mothers can have an abortion. Most importantly, every successive generation in American politics is more pro-Life than its predecessor, in defiance of the predictions made both by the Left and by the anti-social-issues Right. The realities of abortion – the pain felt by fetuses of a certain age, the arbitrary nature of this “choice” to impose death, the advances in fetal medicine and especially fetal imaging – all work against the notion that this baby is, in reality, a “choice.” The battle is hardly over, and the culture is still not as welcoming to “life” as many of us would like, but all of the progress is in the right direction. The culture has been turned, in spite of the institutions.
The second problem with the argument that Republicans should abandon social issues is that it is also normatively backward. The presumption that social issues and economic issues can be separated is both foolish and dangerous. There are no purely social issues, just as there are no purely economic issues. They are all part and parcel of the same worldview, the same interpretation of moral culture, if you prefer. We have addressed this subject countless times in these pages, perhaps most comprehensively in a piece on Rick Santorum from early 2012, in which we wrote the following:
For the fact of the matter is that the nation is bifurcating into two distinct classes, separated by a vast chasm on matters of values, culture, responsibility, and governance. Examples abound. There are those who support the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and there are those, like us, who think it’s comprised principally of a bunch of whiny kids with nothing better to do; there are those who think that income inequality is the most serious issue in politics these days and there are those, like us, who think that a little income inequality is not only good and represents the ultimate reward for the unleashing of entrepreneurial spirits in an economy, but also reflects well the potential economic returns of political liberty; there are those who think that the disappearing middle class is the result of flattening tax brackets and failed industrial policy and there are those, like us, who think the disappearing middle class is the result of a number of factors including the failure of the liberal-bureaucratic state itself.
As we have argued over the last several weeks, and as the eminent Charles Murray has noted in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, this national bifurcation has common roots with the culture wars. The battles over sex, sexual liberty, contraception, abortion, the role and definition of the family, and all sorts of other cultural issues over which liberals and conservatives have been fighting for some 40 years or more, turn out also to be critical variables in any serious and comprehensive model of the social breakdown and concomitant economic dislocation that has taken place over those four decades as well.
All of which is to say that you cannot have a serious debate in this country about matters such as income inequality or the rise of a “new elite” or the “death” of the middle class without tackling as well the issues of the sexual revolution, sexual license, increased out-of-wedlock birth, the disintegration of the traditional family, and the cumulative impact of single-parenting on children’s prospects for overcoming poverty and achieving economic success.
Enter Rick Santorum.
We would argue that Rick Santorum’s current position in the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest is not merely a case of him being the last Non-Romney. We would argue that it’s not really about his purported populist skill either. Most especially, we would argue that all of the commentators and critics who have declared that Santorum remains involved in this contest in spite of rather than because of his positions on cultural issues, and specifically issues related to sex, family, and birth control, have it precisely backwards. Rick Santorum, culture warrior, is in this race because he is, in fact, Rick Santorum, culture warrior.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the idea that the GOP can simply abandon cultural issues and carry on as if everything else is equal is just plain nuts. The cultural issues are the economic issues are the cultural issues. And so on.
What this means, then, is that the GOP is in a bit of a spot – and it’s a spot that will directly affect the future of the country because it affects the electoral viability of Republican candidates, the only possible tonic for the Democrat-induced pathologies from which the nation is currently suffering.
On the surface, it might appear simple, even given the admonition against the GOP dropping cultural issues entirely: make peace with gay marriage and move on. But it doesn’t work that way, much as we and countless others may wish.
The fact of the matter is that gay marriage is not a discreet issue, easily separated from the rest. Gay marriage is not just about feelings about homosexuality and equality and the rights of men and women “love whomever they want.” It is, in the end, about religious liberty and the future of religion in this country.
As we have said countless times, we are actually rather sympathetic to the cause of gay marriage. At the same time, we know that the political Left is manipulating this issue for its own benefit. We know as well that the push for gay marriage won’t end once it is legal. It will end only when no one – and we mean NO ONE – is able to oppose such unions and still be a part of “respectable” society.
Gay men and women may want nothing more than the rights and responsibilities of that straight men and women have. And who can object to that? But the ideology pushing the issue knows that there is far more at stake and that this issue in particular gives them the opportunity to severely cripple the one institution responsible for maintaining the old cultural hegemony, namely traditional religion, Christianity and Judaism specifically.
Last week, the Kansas House passed a bill that made it legal for individuals and businesses in the state to deny services to gay couples if they object to such couplings on religious grounds. The reaction was both swift and furious: “Kansas to permit anti-gay discrimination!” the headline screamed. And while we agree that this was an ill-advised and ham-handed attempt to address the issue, we can certainly understand why some people believe that such legislation is necessary. If a baker in Colorado can be forced by law to make cakes for gay weddings, then what’s to stop anyone who holds a traditional view of marriage from being compelled to offer their services to or sanction gay marriage? And if anyone can be compelled to violate his or her religious beliefs in such a way, then what is left of religious liberty? What is left of liberty in general?
At the top of this piece, we quoted Rand Paul, arguing that the GOP has to change if it is going to the majority party in this country. In his estimation, Republicans need to be better at presenting their message, at making their pitch based on “liberty” rather than just tax cuts. That sounds great to us. But how, exactly, does it work in practice? How do you promote “liberty” in the case of gay marriage, knowing full well that the extremists on one side of the issue wish to use the push for “liberty” in choosing life-partners to do as much damage as possible to religious liberty? How does one resolve the conflict over liberty, when both sides stake their claim to it and both sides seek to enhance their own by destroying the others’?
Obviously, we don’t have the answers to these questions. And if we did, we’d be big shot 1%-ers advising the next President of the United States, not political hacks working in our jammies in our basements.
In the final analysis, we suspect that this fight – like all of the important fights – will not be won in Washington. As we have said many times, Washington is merely where the score is kept. The battle itself will be fought and decided, as Gramsci knew, in the nation’s churches and synagogues, schools and universities, media and entertainment centers, and living rooms and dining rooms where family discussions occur and where children learn from the adults around them about morals, mores, manners, values, honor, prudence, courage, and what it means to be responsible citizens.
Neither Rand Paul nor any other conservative politician can win this battle in the halls of Congress. The Right faces an exceptionally delicate task. Winning the hearts and minds of the voters by promising more liberty sounds easy. But doing so while balancing competing notions of liberty and simultaneously battling those who prefer power to liberty is a far greater challenge.