Politics & Policy

The Conservative Moment

Sen. Mitch McConnell meets the press (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
GOP leaders squelched the opportunity offered by the Tea Party, but it’s not too late to get it right.

Mitch McConnell is a man of his word. He said that he would crush the Tea Party, and he did. He not only got himself renominated in Kentucky, but he helped renominate fellow GOP senators who, like him, had been primaried by tea-party opponents: Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), John Cornyn (Texas), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), and Thad Cochran (Miss.).

Those could turn out to be expensive victories.

I followed the Mississippi campaign from early on. The first thing you notice about Thad Cochran, if you haven’t seen him in a while, is that he’s adopted an old man’s shuffle. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m working on one myself. But it’s not a good look when you’re campaigning at the age of 76 for a six-year term. And then there’s the short-term-memory thing. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans whether you happen to be in Smithtown or Jonesville, but the locals tend to fuss over the distinction.

Cochran told friends late last year that he was packing it in after 36 years in the Senate. Enough was enough, he said. Then he reversed himself and filed for reelection. He may have been right the first time.

The second thing you notice is how different Mississippi is from her neighbors. I live in north Florida, which is about as far south as you can get. We share a political culture with extra-Atlanta Georgia and much of Alabama, a salutary blend of small-business Republicans and disaffected southern Democrats that produces a rich, red soil. Put it this way: My home county went bigger for Romney-Ryan than did either Romney’s or Ryan’s home counties. We don’t just preach the limited-government gospel. Some of the time, anyway, we practice it.

All of that private-sector buzz stops dead at the Mississippi border, where the dominant economic and political player is your federal (and apparently unlimited) government. Drive down Magnolia Boulevard, any Magnolia Boulevard, and everywhere you look there are government complexes, defense contractors, welfare dispensaries, all of them fueled by a D.C. pipeline serviced diligently over the years by Democrats (James Eastland, John Stennis) and Republicans (Trent Lott, Thad Cochran). Lott is speaking for this bipartisan effort when he explains, “Pork is federal spending north of Memphis.” If the states can be divided between givers and takers, count Mississippi as a taker and, dadgummit, proudly so.

You have probably heard that Cochran ran second in the GOP primary to an obscure state legislator from the Jackson suburbs. That was an upset. Big time. But then the wiliest political operation in the state, Haley Barbour’s, went to Plan B and brought in enough Democrats to put Cochran over the top in a runoff.

Some dust kicked up. There were those who thought it wasn’t right for the Democrats to nominate the candidates for both parties. Others thought it wasn’t right and maybe borderline illegal to toss walking-around money into black precincts in the Delta and center-city Jackson, which benefactions seemed to have had the effect of spiking Cochran’s support in those areas from roughly “none” to roughly “all.”

There was something else that may not have been right. I’m skeptical of the notion that, for 15 bucks a head, you can get large numbers of black Democrats to vote in a Republican primary for an old white guy. Some of those blowout precinct numbers suggest a top-down deal more than store-bought deference to the white power structure. My surmise is that there was a sit-down and that the black leaders didn’t open the conversation by saying: “Mr. Thad, we’re worried sick about the national debt. How can we return to fiscal discipline?” More likely, it was something along the lines of: “Mr. Thad, we understand that you’re in line to chair the Appropriations Committee. Should that blessed event occur, what tangible form might your gratitude take?”   

What we know as a matter of public record is that, for his big finish, the six-term incumbent rolled out his former colleague and current lobbyist-sidekick, Trent Lott, to make the point the candidate might have preferred not to make himself. Said Lott, directly and repeatedly: Cochran’s defeat could cost government jobs. That’s right. In the closing days of a Republican runoff in the deep-red state of Mississippi, the airwaves were filled not with cries of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” but with cries of “Government jobs! Government jobs! Government jobs!”

Now, none of us here at Conspiracy Central is a stickler for doctrinal conservatism, but let’s be clear: It’s time that we checked our ideological coordinates.

To ask where we went wrong.

And to set a corrected course.

Sub specie aeternitatis, it could be said that we went wrong with that first bite of the apple in the garden, or indeed, at almost any point along the bumpy road of the human story. But for the present purpose, let’s throw a dart at the calendar and take a look at the turning point of 1985.

Ronald Reagan had come to the Oval Office in 1981 having promised to a) prosecute more vigorously the Cold War against the Soviets, b) revive what was then diagnosed as a stagflationary economy, and c) push back against an ever-encroaching Leviathan state. History’s preemptory judgment is that he succeeded splendidly on the first two commitments and whiffed on the third.

The dispositive test, for some of us at least, was the debate over the Department of Education. During his campaign, Reagan had promised to abolish it, and, in the flush of his sweeping victory, a shutdown seemed well within his grasp. The department was brand-new — it had been launched hurriedly in 1979 as a Jimmy Carter/teachers’ union concoction — and it was moving ahead with all the speed and coherence of an Obamacare website launch. Conditions were thus optimal for a real-world test of constitutional conservatism: Could the federal bureaucracy actually be rolled back? Could a government agency that had not even found its purpose, much less outlived it, be discontinued?

The answer, at that time and in that circumstance, was: apparently not. At first, Reagan waffled, appointing a placeholder as secretary of the DOE while he mulled his options. But then, in a wobbly moment, Reagan was seduced by the statist conceit — namely, that government can be a force for good if only we can put the right people in power, if only we can put our people in power.

The right person in 1985, for Reagan as well as for everybody to the right of the hard-Left, was William J. Bennett. Roundly educated, morally grounded, stunningly articulate — the day that William J. Bennett was appointed secretary was a great day for the Department of Education. He excelled at the job and, in doing so, assured the new agency of eternal bureaucratic life. The problem for the rest of us was that Secretary Bennett did not himself achieve eternal life, at least not in his corporeal form.

It’s useful to remember that the process of bureaucratic evolution is not easily analogized to the progress of the human race. We’ve all seen that graphic representation of human evolution that begins with a hirsute ape squatting at the far left, who then transitions into a close relative of Piltdown Man, who then finally elides at the far right into Mr. Perfect, rising resplendently from all fours to his hind feet, well-formed and smooth of brow. Upward, ever upward.

That’s not typically the arc of bureaucratic evolution. A bureaucracy can just as easily begin with a William J. Bennett, wise and leonine, and then morph into a Kathleen Sebelius, imperious and unapologetic, before taking final form as a Lois Lerner, riled and eager to inflict pain on her adversaries. Our cicerone Hayek could have predicted it all, and in fact he did.

In 1985, to skip to the bottom line, we came eyeball to eyeball with Leviathan, and we blinked. Even worse than the lost opportunity was the fact that we were persuaded to learn The Lesson, which went like this: If not even Ronald Reagan, the sainted Ronald Reagan, could trim or pinch or crimp the edge of bureaucratic sprawl, well then, nobody could. The Lesson to be learned, in other words, was that ours was an impossible dream: The cause of limited government was lost, and men and women of sound mind would be well advised not to waste their time blowing on the embers or sifting through the rubble.

That proposition, dubious from the outset but puffed assiduously by the Beltway chirpers, held for a generation and might have held for several more but for two signal developments. First, the government went broke — not in the sense that it was unable to pay its bills, but in the sense that it could continue to cover obligations only by cooking the books and fudging the statements issued to creditors. The second development was that a group of citizens came together to protest the cooked books and the fudged statements.

This new citizen group was, in political terms, both unconventional and asymmetric. They were a genuinely grassroots organization, spontaneously combusted. They sprang, most of them, from the managerial class, with large contingents from small business and the military. And most of them, serendipitously, were either too old to remember or too young to have learned The Lesson. What was most striking about them, in fact, was their unshakable belief in core Republican rhetoric about low taxes, sensible regulation, and balanced budgets.

The response to the arrival of these concerned citizens by the media was comical. It reminded me of nothing so much as those network reporters, back in the mid Seventies, doing stand-ups from the nicely trimmed lawn of the Baptist church in Plains, Ga. These drop-in correspondents would interview Jimmy Carter’s fellow parishioners and report, with a mixture of smirk and befuddlement, “Many of these Carter supporters, David, say they have been ‘born again.’” The network types might as well have been saying: “Many of these Carter supporters, Walter, say that they arrived last night from the Planet Dweebo.” There are certain political stories that only political reporters are perfectly equipped to misunderstand. This was one of them. Those supporters who said they had been born again were the base of the Carter campaign, and, in the tens of millions, they carried him to the White House.

Just so with the new citizen group. The media refused to believe that the new group was a genuine political force. Why, they had no headquarters on K Street. They had no talking heads. They didn’t even have a PR guy. “Heck,” said the cable talkers to each other. “They can’t be that important. I’ve asked my neighbors in Georgetown, and nobody knows anything about them.”

For the national media, the concept of American citizens assembling freely to exercise their constitutional rights was beyond their ken. These citizens were off the media grid, every bit as invisible as those born-again Christians 40 years earlier. And so, as we have seen over the past few years, the national political press, its analytical powers exhausted, slipped into default mode. These concerned citizens, whoever they were, must be . . . racists. The ones, that is, who weren’t homophobes or domestic terrorists.

The response to the arrival of the concerned citizens by the Republican party was not comical.

Imagine if you would a prayer breakfast in Washington attended by the leadership of the GOP — Messrs. Boehner, McConnell, Priebus, and their associates. They drop to their knees, bow their heads, and invoke divine intercession in the country’s troubled affairs, and in the party’s parlous condition. Would it be too much to ask Him to deliver unto them a mass political movement, self-financed and benignly led, God-fearing and well-mannered, almost all of whose members believed in the literal version of the Republican platform and almost none of whose members wanted anything from the federal government but constitutional restraint?   

Yes, it would have been too much to ask, but, yes, it has been given unto them, anyway. The Tea Party arrived in vast, friendly numbers and said to the GOP, “We’re not from the federal government and we’re here to help.”

What happened next was not pretty. Or smart. The GOP brass responded with insults, attack ads, collaborative media trashing, and, finally, over the past six months, the charge of McConnell’s geezer brigade seeking to “crush” the Tea Party. And here we thought congressional Republicans were too prone to compromise, too quick to split the difference.

Our colleague M. Stanton Evans once said of the two-party system: “One is the evil party and the other is the stupid party. I’m proud to be a member of the stupid party.” I am as well, but sometimes party stupidity asks too much. Here we have before us an epochal opportunity to revive the national enterprise, and we are woefully (and smugly) ill prepared to realize it. As we look forward to 2016, where do we find ourselves? We find ourselves, in my estimate, with no candidate, no message, no coalitional unity, and a thoroughly rusted party machine. Only this question remains: Can we rally in time to save the country from a terminal identity politics that could over the next few cycles bring us not principled and experienced leaders, but (regardless of their qualifications) the first woman president, the first Hispanic president, the first gay president?

I wouldn’t bet the rent money on us. But I know that we have no chance whatsoever unless we divide the labor and begin to engage now. So let’s roll.

To our friends at the Republican National Committee and its affiliates: You’ve told us that you have closed the digital deficit (by which you mean the technical capabilities to identify potential supporters, micro-target messages to them, and deliver them to the polls). You’ve told us that you have learned how to poll effectively in a wireless world. You’ve told us that you will eliminate the fundraising gap between the parties. Effective November 5, please commission an outside, independent audit of your performance in these three program areas.

To our friends at National Review: Please develop and promote a fusionist foreign policy. All we have now is Rand Paul’s demobilization, Marco Rubio’s interventionism, and the vast chasm between them. What we need is a policy that will a) serve national purpose, b) abjure ideological abstraction, and c) command majority right-center support.

You have done it before. Former NR editor Willmoore Kendall once memorably said: “An emergency phone call between [Frank] Meyer and [Brent] Bozell is one that interrupts the regular call between Meyer and Bozell.” The product of that endless phone call — a fusionist conservatism that conjoined Meyer’s freedom and Bozell’s virtue — was so compelling that William F. Buckley Jr. signed on for life.

To our friends at AEI, Cato, and Heritage: Please develop and promote a pedal-to-the-metal program for economic growth. No meliorism, thank you. And we are looking for some pride of co-authorship.

To our friends on Capitol Hill: The Obama administration reports that fewer of its senior appointees have come from private industry than in any previous administration. Please confront this managerial solecism. A good place to start would be to call up, at least monthly, Obama’s new and astonishing choice to head the Veterans Administration — Robert McDonald, a West Point graduate and former CEO of Procter & Gamble.

Mr. Speaker, please don’t pummel McDonald with sound bites. Work with him, encourage him, wrap him up in a big, teary, bipartisan hug. The mistreatment of veterans is both a national disgrace and an egregious management failure. Seize it as a teachable moment, Mr. Speaker, an occasion to remind every government executive that the essence of the job is to allocate limited resources. 

And to our friends in the GOP: Make nice, Mitch. Nobody likes a sore winner.

— Neal B. Freeman is a former editor, Washington correspondent, and columnist for National Review.

Neal B. FreemanNeal Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.


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