Every few years the commentariat becomes fixated on the great American conservative “crack-up.” These bouts of panic tend to coincide with lame-duck presidencies and low poll numbers, but epidemics can break out at any time. When they do, conservatives holler (a la The Six Million Dollar Man), “We can’t hold it, she’s breaking up!” Liberals yell, “Whoopee!”
We’re in just such a moment now. Every few weeks, a new book rolls out decrying George W. Bush’s apostasy from the One True Faith (variously defined). Suddenly, conservative writers have found op-ed pages more welcoming as they lament the unraveling of this, the implosion of that, and the betrayal of the other thing.
Gleeful liberals and conservative Chicken Littles are misreading the data. Liberals, as is their wont, are letting their schadenfreude get the better of them. They see libertarians banging their spoons on their highchairs, Christian “zealots” pounding their Bibles, and Republican moderates shaking their New York Times with a harrumph over their whole-grain breakfasts, and gloat: “Aha, the conservative coalition is falling apart!” The trouble is that fighting like cats and dogs is what winning political coalitions do. There is a center-right political majority in American politics and there has been since Ronald Reagan. This “red-state coalition” would not exist if the electorate tilted left.
Bill Clinton, human weather vane that he was, understood this implicitly, which is why he campaigned as a free trader, welfare reformer, Sister Souljah critic, pro-death penalty southern Democrat. His wife understands this too, which is why she keeps trying to move to Bush’s right on immigration and the Iraq war.
Majority coalitions have big internal arguments for the same reason that pirates fight over buried treasure after they find it and not when they’re still looking for it: They have something to fight over. They have to govern, which means pleasing some constituencies and infuriating others. The FDR coalition had segregationists and black freedom fighters, socialist Jews and western populists all working under the same big Democratic tent. With lots of infighting, this coalition lasted for two generations. The two Republicans who won the presidency during this era–Nixon and Eisenhower–were liberal Republicans who promised to do what the Democrats were doing, but more efficiently.
Liberals look at the infighting within the red-state coalition and think they see signs of collapse. But what they really see is just plain old American politics. It looks catastrophic because liberals aren’t in on the wheeling and dealing, and they want it to be catastrophic. Indeed, now that they are without a pie to carve up, they think ideological purity is everything.
And so do quite a few conservatives. I agree that these are trying times for our tribe. Compassionate conservatism wasn’t necessarily an intellectual train wreck in the hands of conservative intellectuals such as Marvin Olasky, but when it was translated into a political agenda, it largely became a clever marketing ploy for constituent-pleasing pork and an attempt to prove to suburban soccer moms that Republicans are “nice.”
The simple, tragic fact is that conservatism isn’t popular. It just ain’t. (Nor is doctrinaire liberalism, to be sure.) If you drafted a political program designed to implement National Review’s idea of nirvana, it would get crushed at the polls. Americans like government more than card-carrying conservatives do. They value security where libertarians celebrate freedom, and they celebrate freedom where conservatives emphasize virtue.
Reagan conservatives came of age as an intellectual insurgency. They rode to glory on popular issues such as anti-communism, welfare reform and tax cuts (when taxes were really, really high). Today, those issues are either gone or less inspiring.
Enter George Bush, whose brand of compassionate conservatism abandoned or downplayed such conservative standbys as limited government, federalism and opposition to quotas in order to win, just as Bill Clinton abandoned the Ted Kennedy playbook. This can be lamentable, tactically or philosophically. For example, a majority of Americans, including blacks and Latinos, oppose racial preferences for the same reason conservatives do: Quotas are wrong. But politicians who say so sound “mean.” So Bush defenestrated the issue.
Politicians do this sort of thing all the time because they care about winning elections. And here lies the irony. As the center-right majority in this country expands, conservatives become just another constituency, to be placated when possible, snubbed when necessary. So movement conservatives are panicky because they are less important to Republican success than they once were.
But conservatives were willing to overlook Bush’s transgressions when he was riding high in the polls. Now that he’s on the ropes, they claim Bush’s apostasy is to blame, even though such apostasy got him elected in the first place. Such is the seduction of political power.
But liberals shouldn’t be too giddy. After all, these are the problems that come from finding treasure. Liberals are still hunting for it in the wilderness.
(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services