Thursday, December 20, 2007

Shopping for a real conservative

From Real Clear Politics:

Conservatism helped to win the Cold War and to discredit socialism, fulfilling two of the modern Right's defining objectives. After such sweeping success, it may seem ungrateful to ask about conservatism's second act. But by its own lights the movement has left vital goals unfulfilled--ending or rolling back or "conservatizing" big government, and restoring America to moral and cultural health. Unlike the defeat of Communism and socialism, goals shared by all conservatives and functioning as the movement's great amalgam and inspiration, shrinking the state and rehabilitating American morals are the favorite causes of different, and to some degree differing, parts of the Right.

Conservatism's slow loss of focus after the Cold War's end was predictable (and often predicted). That the "crack-up" never occurred quite as predicted, however, shows that a broad agreement persists among conservatives. Nonetheless, the bonds between libertarian and social conservatives have weakened. Although 9/11 revealed a new common enemy, the effect was more to change the subject than to forge a new consensus on the Right. After all, the issues that remain--how to limit government again, whether and how government should promote virtue, and more generally, how to restore the republic along the lines of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--are difficult.

As a result, Republican presidential candidates are tempted, indeed almost compelled, to reinvent conservatism for our times. George W. Bush tried this with "compassionate conservatism." Mike Huckabee has his own blend of faith-based social nostrums and ambitious economic reforms. In fact, he combines the two in a Hail-Mary proposal to replace the income and payroll taxes with a national sales tax. He has less to say about foreign policy or small government. Indeed, he suggests, somewhat in the manner of a European Christian Democrat, that government should apply Christian charity in its programs as a way of correcting the excesses of capitalism and individualism.

This nails Huckabee. He is a European-style Christian Democrat with a deep distrust of capitalism and individualism, the two things which have made America the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Rudy Giuliani seeks to recast conservatism as the concern for limited government (shown notably in his proposals for health care reform) together with a fierce willingness to wage war on terrorism. By almost explicitly excluding religious and moral conservatism from his definition, he comes close to pointing the American Right in the direction of a robust form of libertarianism or old-style European liberalism. But count on his own spirited concern for public morals, prominently displayed when he was mayor of New York, for many detours from such a path.

Except that Rudy's actions in doing things like cleaning up Times Square were not motivated by any offence to his morals. A person's true inner moral state is shown by his private actions not his public words or deeds. Giuliani's private live is a moral cesspool. Giuliani's actions as Mayor in getting the sex shops and street whores and drug dealers out of the public view had far more to do with his desire to control the crime that concentrations of those types of activity attract as well as increase property values and grow the tax base. In his heart Giuliani views his success in this area as triumphs for order, not morality.

Mitt Romney aspires, with some success, to be a conservative for all seasons. But his emphasis on his achievements as a businessman and consultant--crunching the numbers with Jack Bauer ruthlessness until they confess their secrets--so ill-fits our wartime situation that it is no wonder that conservatives doubt his seriousness on moral and foreign policy questions. No one wonders about John McCain's seriousness, of course, but many wonder if his noble disdain of self-interested actions (whether campaign contributions or waterboarding) may not go too far in the other direction. Fred Thompson, for all his virtues, seems to want to play Ronald Reagan redux. But the challenges facing the Right occur in a new context and require fresh thinking; and in any event, the sequel is rarely as compelling as the original.

People do doubt Romney's seriousness because of his flip-flops. There is also the problem of his Mormonism. You may think that is unfortunate and you may be right. But it is there and it is not going to go away.

As for Fred he has three problems. One is that he looks old. In a culture obsessed with youth and good looks that is a problem. I wish it wasn't but it is. It is less of a problem for men than for women, but it is still a problem.

The next problem Fred has in the media. Even many right-wing talkers and writers have a problem with him because he got in late, after they had made their choices, and upset the dynamic. They had already stated their reasons why it was OK to not have a real conservative as the nominee then a real conservative came along. They had to either risk appearing fickle by switching over to Fred or place their ego over their patriotism by inventing reasons to not support Fred.

The final, and by far the biggest, problem Fred has is his unwillingness to engage in a conventional political campaign and his insistence on framing that unwillingness as a mater of personal choice. Sean Hannity has had Fred on his radio show a number of times and just about every time Fred has repeated the fact that if voters want a candidate who (then he lists several style related things that the other people are doing that he will not do) they have plenty to choose from, but it won't be him.

Does he not understand that he is coming off like an elitist snob who holds his personal dignity to be of higher value than the future of the Republic? I don't believe that Fred really feels that way, but every time he declares himself to be unwilling to get down in the mud with the other candidates he is sending the message that he doesn't care enough about the country to get his hands dirty saving it.

I honestly believe that this is the single most important reason why he is not leading in every poll in every state. I honestly believe that if the next president is a disaster like Elmer Gantry, Julie Annie or Mrs. Bill Clinton it will be because Fred Thompson told the Republican Party "it's my way or the highway guys cause I'm not changing a thing".

One could go on. The problem is that Republican voters don't recognize any of these trial versions of conservatism as the real deal, a distillation of American principles for our time; and they're right. In the meantime, however, there is a president to nominate and elect.

So let's suck it up and take off our coats and lay them across the mud puddle so that Fred can step into the limousine which will drive him to the inauguration without getting his feet dirty.

And pray really really hard for the future of the nation.