Politics & Policy

True True Conservatism


While I am an admirer of his work, Ross Douthat’s New York Times post-mortem on the candidacy of Ted Cruz is a caricature of “True Conservatism,” the demise of which he undertakes to explain.

Devoid of any context except reaction to the futilities of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” Ross builds his straw man:

Thus True Conservatism’s determination to avoid both anything that savored of big government and anything that smacked of compromise. Where Bush had been softhearted, True Conservatism would be sternly Ayn Randian; where Bush had been free-spending, True Conservatism would be austere; where Bush had taken working-class Americans off the tax rolls, True Conservatism would put them back on — for their own good. And above all, where Bush had sometimes reached for the center, True Conservatism would stand on principle, fight hard, and win.

This is warped because it fails to tell even half the story.

President Bush’s conservative heresies had not merely “reached for the center” or, as Ross elsewhere puts it, “led the Republican Party into a ditch.” They had paved the way for President Obama and the radical Left to lead the country into a bottomless pit. The national debt that Bush and the Republican Congress would double to $10 trillion, Obama would double again, to $20 trillion. The unsustainable entitlements that Bush added to, Obama would double-down on — including with Obamacare, which (unlike Bush’s well-meaning prescription entitlement) is about government control, not government compassion. The Bush bailouts became Obama mega-bailouts cum stimulus. The push for “comprehensive immigration reform” became the systematic non-enforcement of the immigration laws, the breakdown of border security, and a Justice Department crackdown on states that tried to affirm the rule of law. The conflation of national security with Muslim outreach, oxymoronic sharia-democracy building, and the pie-in-the-sky notion that Iran could be a helpful force for regional stability became willful blindness on steroids, Muslim Brotherhood promotion, and an Iran deal that combines nuclear proliferation with the provision of material support to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

In the interim, Republicans pleading to be returned to power repeatedly promised to use all constitutional means at their disposal, particularly the power of the purse, to thwart Obama’s steamrolling agenda. Typical was Mitch McConnell, GOP leader in the Senate, who thundered that Obama “needs to be challenged” and vowed “to do that through the funding process.” Here is McConnell, for example, in the run-up to the 2014 midterms:

In the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.

Yet, as soon as conservative voters put them in control, Republicans promptly dropped the combative rhetoric and forfeited the power of the purse. With Obama applauding, they funded the administration’s priorities while leaving themselves no leverage to fight the excesses that were sure to come and are sure to continue through the next eight months.

No sensible conservative is against compromise. We see the country being destroyed. We were and are reacting to a crisis. This is not an Ayn Rand seminar. We have simply wanted the bleeding stopped by — radical as this may sound — having Republicans do what they promised to do in order to get us to elect them.

No sensible conservative is against compromise.

Even in the government-shutdown episode that Ross refers to and that the GOP establishment is fond of banging on about, compromise was abundant: The proposal was to fund every other part of the budget except Obamacare. That meant swallowing a lot of what conservatives believe is unprincipled, astronomically absurd, and fiscally reckless, in order to fight on the narrow, favorable ground on which Republicans had promised to fight.

Had Republicans hung together — had they done what they told us during the campaign they were going to do — it would have been Obama shutting down the runaway government we were otherwise agreeing to fund over a health-care law that was broadly unpopular. We would probably have lost the skirmish, but there is honor and benefit in choosing where to draw the line and picking an important fight. Without such battles, a movement can’t persuade people over the long haul. And bear in mind: Obamacare was about to kick into gear. The stark choice, if you were really committed to trying to stop Obamacare, as Republicans told us they were, was to either pull the plug on it right there and then, or live with it. After all, as soon became evident, Republicans had no plausible alternative plan to undo it.

It was, as they say, a tactical disagreement. But the conservatives who wanted a budget battle over Obamacare funding were not unwilling to compromise. We were not expecting a repeal; we would have taken a delay in implementation — which can’t have been impossible, because Obama himself was delaying implementation with his selective, unconstitutional “waivers.” Conservatives were just unwilling to surrender without a fight — the same approach for which Ross’s newspaper routinely lionizes Democrats.

#share#Conservatives have also demanded real resistance because it has become clear that Republicans engage in cynical games designed to feign resistance. They use parliamentary procedures to arrange show votes that enable them to enact Obama agenda items while pretending to oppose them. On extending the debt limit and the Iran deal, to take two prominent examples, McConnell and his ally, Senator Bob Corker, orchestrated procedural sleight-of-hand that subverted the Constitution’s processes for enacting legislation and ratifying treaties — allowing intensely unpopular proposals to win approval while Republicans pretended to vote against them.

Conservatives grasp the intersection of principle and politics.

That’s what we are reacting to. As a conservative who believes in the Constitution’s framework, I’m against a great deal of what the federal government does: If I had my druthers, I’d repeal lots of laws, zero out lots of programs, return lots of responsibilities to state and local governments, cut up the government’s credit cards, organize foreign policy and national security around vital American interests, withdraw from most multilateral institutions (especially those whose original missions have ended), and so on. I do not, however, expect to get my way most of the time.

Conservatives grasp the intersection of principle and politics. I wrote a book recounting how the Framers saw impeachment of lawless presidents as vital to the proper operation of our constitutional system, yet contending that it would be a mistake to impeach the sitting lawless president in the absence of overwhelming public support (of which there was no prospect).

In general, I humbly hope to posit arguments that are good enough to bend things, however slightly, in the right direction. Then I move on to the next round, because I expect no permanent victories or defeats. I continue to think the promotion of liberty is not just an abstraction but works when applied practically. I would not narrowly target the message to evangelicals and to conservatives who already agree with me.

Still, politics is always give-and-take. You have to be prepared to listen as well as to advocate; “compromise” is not a dirty word as long as the public good is actually being advanced. Surrender camouflaged as “compromise” and “moderation,” however, is cowardice in a time of fiscal crisis, national-security threat, and the very real possibility that our governing framework is being dismantled irreparably.

The temporary triumph of Trumpism does not change that.


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