A second week into Chris Christie’s soap opera, one sign of trouble is pretty hard to dispute: subpoenas and inquiries from federal prosecutors almost never end well for politicians, and the newest allegation, of conditioning access to federal grant money on a political favor, fits the four corners of federal criminal statutes much more neatly than the traffic tie-up element of the affair. And of course, if the legal side of the equation unravels, the political side collapses with it.
Assuming that the worst case doesn’t transpire, the Christie camp ought to still fear something else, and it goes beyond the conventional wisdom that Christie looks petty, vindictive, and guilty of fostering a culture of retaliation. That risk is obviously real enough, but probably more likely to rub off on insiders than Republican caucus and primary voters, and may not ultimately prove more damaging to voters than Ted Cruz’s embrace of obstructionism or the more exotic pieces of Rand Paul’s profile.
In fact, there are already early signs that Christie is being insulated with Republicans for the simple reason that his sharpest inquisitors are a left-wing cable network and the ever disreputable beast in Republican circles, the mainstream media.
And therein lies the more subtle danger to Christie—the possibility that his effort to armor himself by donning the hardware of conservative resentment remakes the governor into the partisan warrior he has so assiduously avoided becoming. To put this in perspective, consider that the general election promise of a Christie candidacy has always had two related components: (1) that he is not the kind of Republican who revels in pseudo theories about socialist conspiracies being cooked up in Washington and (2) that his best (and shrewdest) critique of Barack Obama has arisen from a high ground that is not terribly partisan, namely that five years of liberal ascension have contributed to rather than softened the country’s divisions.
That profile explains how Christie has so effectively assailed liberal interest group politics in New Jersey as a threat to the common good without seeming overly ideological. It is also what enabled Christie to practice a genuinely coalitional reelection strategy last year, which was stunningly effective in splintering the Democratic voting base, from Latinos to blacks to suburban female professionals.
It is hardly that Christie is some anodyne, passionless figure who keeps votes in play by saying little and offending no sacred cows. Instead, the Christie persona has been that he is the rare Republican whose anger seems less directed at lost cultural ground, or Obama’s presumptions, or dark fantasies about diminished liberty, and more at the dysfunction and smallness of the current political landscape.
Can that image survive if Christie’s mainline of defense is that he is just another Republican under siege by the left? How much is left of Christie’s national appeal if he is about to morph into another Fox Republican? And even in the context of the Republican nomination, just how sustainable is the path of conservative warrior for a politician who has been known to bristle at right-wing orthodoxy on guns, the environment, and healthcare?
Assuming that Christie’s fingerprints aren’t found any places that they shouldn’t be, I would still bet that the verdict on the governor’s character and political style will end up being rendered by the primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, not the thirty-somethings at MSNBC and Politico, much less a handful of government lawyers. But Christie’s center-right admirers ought to worry that the tactics of survival don’t end up erasing what made Christie worth admiring in the first place.
To be sure, there are numerous things that Marco Rubio’s anti-poverty speech this week failed to do: the list of omissions run frominsisting on budget neutrality for his proposals without giving any hint exactly how and what he would cut to support them; to not addressing whether his plan to block grant antipoverty programs would end up with the red-state, blue-state disparity that characterizes Medicaid and TANF; to vagueness on how his job training condition for extended unemployment benefits would function in distressed communities that have no reliable higher wage jobs available.
These aren’t quibbles, and some of them leave Rubio’s ideas vulnerable to the charge that they would in practice gut or outright eliminate subsistence for millions of low income Americans in the name of “upgrading” the War on Poverty.
But to enlarge the discussion beyond policy specifics, there are arguably two broader dimensions to the Rubio address, each of which illustrates the challenges Republicans face when they venture into this arena. First, the senator’s context from start to finish was that a (relatively) bipartisan generation of antipoverty legislation amounts to a massive systems failure. Liberal commentators were correct to shoot this overstatement down: a country stripped of Medicaid, SSI disability, Title I education funding and food stamps would not only be fundamentally crueler, it would have inevitably fractured into revolt under the strains of the Great Recession. In the same way that De Blasio style liberals have glossed over the contributions the Giuliani/Bloomberg run made to a safer, more livable New York City, the “failure” critique that Rubio and most conservatives advance regarding the War on Poverty is too glib, too shallow.
This criticism, by the way, isn’t just finding fault with rhetoric. The legislative challenge for a President Rubio would be assembling a coalition of a unified Republican Party and more centrist Democrats to enact a new anti-poverty agenda: and one of the primary requirements for attracting any Democrats into that coalition would be the preservation of most of the anti-poverty regime that exists today. Could Rubio even begin to sell the right wing of his party on such a trade-off if his premise has been that the status quo is a disaster?
And that leads to the second challenge that Rubio tackled, but not forcefully enough. The leading ideological sensibilities of today’s GOP voters are that (1) poverty is not really systemic and is a product of either inept economic management by Barack Obama or of weak individual choices and that (2) stirring up public interest in poverty or income inequality is usually “class warfare” based pandering. Rubio has earned credit for implicitly rebuking this mindset by bringing up the issue at all.
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Artur Davis: What Rubio Did and Did Not Say About Poverty
A year ago, in lieu of resolutions or predictions, I offered a more guarded set of wishes for the new calendar year. Could the track record have been worse? There was the melancholy: Mandela no longer lives; while George H.W. Bush survives, his conciliatory brand of leadership is discredited in his own and seems impossible to revive nationally. There was the embarrassingly off base: describing Virginia’s likely soon to be indicted Bob McDonnell as a politician without a single ethical blemish, and a much too laudatory take on the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III were the low points.
There were rosy hopes that didn’t pan out: some of my favorite center-right thinkers have added a lot of wisdom to the internal Republican debate without influencing it very much; Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed, rather than soaring, is the latest southern black politician whose ambitions suffer the limitations of his party’s “electability” mantra; and Bobby Jindal is a much longer presidential shot now than he appeared 12 months ago.
And there were the parts that really made my label of “wishful thinking” unintended irony. Let’s just say that Phil Robertson isn’t the principled voice of federalism on same sex marriage that I had in mind; that the Heritage Foundation’s assault on food stamps is not quite the anti-poverty agenda I was hoping for; and that education reform continues to lie in the overstocked, undersold column on aisle 32.
So, in the hopes of doing better, a more guarded set of wishes for 2014:
(1) That a year from now, some Republican has decided to run for President unabashedly as a center-right alternative, with policy ideas and campaign message to match. Whether that individual is Chris Christie, the most successful coalition builder in big league politics today, or Paul Ryan, who should keep channeling his former mentor Jack Kemp’s vision that upward mobility is a legitimate conservative aspiration, or someone to be named later, it would be to the good of Republicans and domestic politics in general if a presidential level Republican owned the notion of a vital center rather than running from it.
(2) That George Packer’s superb “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” follow up its National Book Award with a Pulitzer. One can take issue with Packer for skimping on the fine points of economics, or for staying vague on solutions, but this is the most gripping account that has emerged of what the guts of the country looked like in the depths of the Great Recession. He nails the development of alienation that has eroded normal ideological boundaries. And if Packer’s subtle narrative maneuver of reducing national politics to the margins seemed incomplete to critics, it surely captures how the swamp on the Potomac registered to most rank and file Americans.
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Artur Davis: Wishful Thinking for the New Year, Part II
Thanks, I made one minor subject very edit and one other small change: please use the version below!
Nelson Mandela should rank as the Man of the 20th Century and I would go so far as to say the honor is really not in dispute. If Franklin Roosevelt overcame a broken body and marshaled the world to conquer a monster, remember that 27 years in prison should have broken both a body and a spirit, and appreciate that Mandela had no global army to conquer his beast. There were other democratic founders who were tested in prison—Walesa, Havel—but no one else mastered conciliation so skillfully that they made their captors voluntarily negotiate the terms of their own political demise.
There were other visionaries who spoke to the soul, from Gandhi and John Paul II to Martin Luther King, but no one but Mandela translated vision to power deftly enough to re-make a nation so thoroughly and so swiftly.
Another measure of his stature is that to emulate him seems superhuman. The moral nature of Mandela, from the forbearance to the forgiveness to the restraints he self-imposed in response to a people who would have made him a civil king, is about as foreign to our fractious ways, and our self-promoting mindset, as our technology would be to a caveman.
There is one other aspect to Mandela that gets overlooked. He understood that the measure of a society is not its elegant constitutions or robust markets or even the most egalitarian laws but the extent to which its culture enshrines mutual respect. (Pay attention, liberals and conservatives!) The heartbreak of his life may well have been watching the ways apartheid kept diminishing his country, years after its rules were buried: the insidious manner in which the children of apartheid were too predisposed to turn into thugs; or demagogues who stuffed their pockets; or men who abused their women or women who debased their own bodies. The most gifted politician of the 20th Century knew that politics by itself cannot rebuild what a culture breaks.
If you are an American over sixty, you remember when you learned that John F. Kennedy had died. If you are one of my contemporaries—too young to have experienced Kennedy, too old to be a cynic about his aura—you may recall a different snapshot, of the moment you thought Jack Kennedy had been reborn in the form of some youthful contender who could turn an inspirational phrase and stab a finger in the air.
Your moment might seem absurd now: Gary Hart in the glow of winning New Hampshire in 1984. Or bittersweet—the November night in 1992 when Bill Clinton retired the WWII generation. Yours might be agonizingly recent – Barack Obama on a dream-lit stage in Grant Park in 2008. It’s been the longest quest in modern politics, the effort to recreate an ideal of power that was extinguished exactly 50 years ago, and it has never ended well.
Pretenders like Hart imitated the style without Kennedy’s strength of purpose. Clinton, Kennedy’s equal as a tactician, never matched his capacity to lift the country’s moral tone. As for Obama, he has gone steadily backward in terms of his hold on the public’s imagination. Kennedy did the opposite, expanding a one vote per precinct squeaker into the last presidency that never dropped below fifty percent approval.
The consistent take on Kennedy, which Chris Matthews argues in his 2011 book “Elusive Hero” and Thurston Clarke reprises in his recent effort, “JFK’s Last Hundred Days”, is that the late president’s genius was his disdain for conventional wisdom, whether it was about the grip of the decaying boss structure in his party, the permanence of the Cold War, or the rigidity of social barriers like racism. True, as is their assessment that JFK never stopped growing and adjusting to circumstances: he reversed his worst blunder, the Bay of Pigs, with his mastery during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and one doesn’t have to share Clarke’s cherry picked rendition of Kennedy’s last few months to appreciate that the leader who died in Dallas was wiser and more substantial than the image-meister who barely left a footprint in the Senate.
But Kennedy’s strategic deftness in avoiding war with a country that no longer exists surely is not what resonates with this post-nuclear generation: nor is the hedging on civil rights and Vietnam that kept his popularity intact the quality that frames him as an exemplar of presidential vision. To account for why he still outranks all of his presidential peers in public esteem, to find why a presidency whose early days exist only in black and white newsreel still resonates, requires understanding two other elements of Camelot.
First, Kennedy is the last president who consistently challenged rather than promised. JFK’s successors have outdone themselves in bidding to give us more of what we want – the liberal ones offering more entitlement, the conservatives offering to return more tax dollars to us, or to restrain your tax dollars from being squandered on “them”. Kennedy read the country’s mood as less self-absorbed than that, and America rewarded him.
And then there is the fact that Kennedy managed to invigorate his supporters without ever really pitting Americans against each other. The rhetoric of politics has been set on a different course ever since: modern liberals describe a country weighted down by privileged interests that have stacked the deck; modern conservatives paint a picture of a society under siege from permissive forces who are burdening success and undermining our values. You can search Kennedy’s speeches in fine detail, and the trait that is missing is a demonization of his domestic antagonists.
He must have been tempted: dogs were being marshaled against children in Birmingham, southern governors were re-litigating the Civil War, and can anyone dispute that the Republicans of his day genuinely were Neanderthals on poverty and health care? That Kennedy resisted the urge to define American politics as a clash of light versus darkness yielded a practical dividend for him – no president since has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings from his rival party – but it was also borne out of the skepticism the old war hero had for blood-feud ideology.
The ironic side of Kennedy no doubt admired Shakespeare’s passage about the Welshman who brags that he can “call spirits from the vasty deep,” and the rejoinder that “So can I, so can any man. But will they come when you do call them?” More than a few charismatic politicians have issued their share of high-flown calls. The last one we have answered, and kept answering, is John Kennedy.
A version of this essay was published in Politico in November, 2011.
The prospect of a genuine strategic rethink by Virginia Republicans lasted about two hours, before the off base exit polls gave way to a far narrower than expected loss by Ken Cuccinelli—the kind of “might have been” that provokes more rationalizations than insights. Perhaps predictably, I am in the camp that thinks a game plan of squeezing every last drop out of the political base with no credible appeal to the center, and abandoning state issues in the quest for a referendum on national healthcare policy, was actually lucky to hit 46 percent of the vote (and required a final week of Democratic coasting to get that close).
Because the first part of that formulation has been analyzed to death, I’ll dwell on the second part: the curiosity that the famously articulate Cuccinelli never defined on his own terms why his unfettered conservatism was a virtue. In the perverse way that opposites tend to resemble each other, Cuccinelli’s campaign actually mimicked his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe , by avoiding any discussion of much of the policy landscape that will surface on the next governor’s desk: neither nominee got around to addressing the decision by the state’s flagship university to downscale its tuition assistance plan for low income students; both offered weak and shifting positions on the nature of the state’s energy production future; neither spoke to the question of whether federally adopted Common Core standards ought to be adopted in local school districts; and the subject of whether Virginia will move toward softer or tougher standards for unemployment assistance never came up. The unresolved dilemma of what or who will make up the difference if the federal internet sales tax proposals that are intended to finance a chunk of Virginia’s new transportation plan never materialize? It’s a wide open guess that neither would-be governor got around to mentioning.
The one state level issue that was debated in the race that just ended was, of course, whether Virginia should accept federal expansion of its Medicaid program. But “debated” is a relative term, given that Cuccinelli framed the subject almost exclusively as one of whether Virginia should embrace the Affordable Care Act writ large and McAuliffe’s advocacy for expansion never made its way into a single one of about 35 iterations of his statewide ad buy.
McAuliffe’s contribution to the substance free nature of the race at least made political sense: in focusing on Cuccinelli’s hard edged positions, McAuliffe made the point that his opponent’s governorship might pursue its share of distractions and that coalition building was not exactly a dominant part of Cuccinelli’s history. Fair or not, complete or not, that is at least an accounting of the risks in right-wing leadership, and McAuliffe’s shortchanging of specifics was a necessary concession to his own thin public record and his penchant for superficiality over fine print.
In contrast, a Republican candidate with a reputation for smarts and fluency in defending his views left his agenda so vague, so insubstantial that McAuliffe’s parody of those same views was all but uncontested–unless an undecided voter or a moderate Democrat was persuaded that the kind of man who is “attentive to details and serious” (one stunningly bland GOP ad) and who labored to overturn a wrongful conviction (another Cuccinelli spot that got lost in its own weeds) couldn’t possibly wage a crusade against birth control).
My own guess is that Cuccinelli’s advisors concluded that the social issue terrain was too unwinnable to defend and that a counter-attack on McAuliffe for, say, favoring late trimester abortions offered more risk than reward. (and presumably, that reminding voters of Cuccinellii’s principled opposition to mandatory ultrasound exams in advance of abortions would only dampen the fervor of the pro life grassroots who had been career long allies). It is also true that Cuccinelli took a stab at some of the themes that are at the essence of conservative reform—like middle income tax relief and expanding charter schools and parental choice in school district assignments. But the reform bent of his candidacy was overwhelmed by the exponentially greater advertising dollars and rhetorical energy attacking McAuliffe on ethics and investments; and on the related bet that “McAuliffe, the flashy wheeler dealer” would prove more off-putting than “Cuccinelli the extremist.”
It’s telling that a Republican who extols the benefit of state government at the expense of federal power offered such a scattered narrative about what conservative state governance would actually look like. Its telling and depressing that Team Cuccinelli assumed that the substance of a conservative policy platform wouldn’t provide the potential of both energizing his base and co-opting independents. It’s not only the center that seems to lack confidence in its persuasive powers.
There was every reason to think that Jeff Greenfield’s alternative history of John F. Kennedy surviving Dallas would be one of the most compelling of the hundred or so commemoratives about the late president’s legacy during this 50th anniversary of his death. Greenfield’s last venture into political counter-factual, his 2011 Then Everything Changed (three novellas that sketch a Cuban Missile Crisis that turned into a short war, a Robert Kennedy victory in 1968 and a 1980 election that made Gary Hart President), is just a few shades away from brilliant and never ceases to be briskly entertaining. There is also a finely tuned precision in each scenario that captures just how much of history hinges on narrow moments, and how one altered tide rearranges careers and social structures alike.
Somehow, all of the gifts on display in Greenfield’s prior effort fail to strike gold a second time. His If Kennedy Lived seems oddly un-ambitious: the surprises are too unimaginative, the turns too predictable, and there is the unmistakable feel of a 2000 word magazine piece that was stretched into the more lucrative territory of a book. The earlier work seemed more inventive and poignant; the sequel appears burdened by the low expectation politics of the dismal three years since the original.
For example, Then Everything Changed is typically credited for its navigation between two points of historical determinism—one emphasizing the nuances of personalities and tactics, the other favoring elements like the country’s social and ideological mood. Therefore, war or peace in Cuba are linked to the finer points of Lyndon Johnson’s insecurities while two hundred pages later, a plausible path is sketched for how a certain kind of political tide could have carried a vessel as imperfect as Gary Hart to the presidency. There is cleverness in letting the reader see the extremes of both perspectives and inviting internal argument over which seems more predictive.
If Kennedy Lived seems to wage the same debate over historical causality but to lean much more heavily toward the version that regards even the most talented figures as relatively incidental characters. The result is eight years of Kennedy that mimic the imperfections of his less glamorous succesors. In Greenfield’s account, we get the following ambivalent outcomes: a secret bargain that trades a Civil Rights Act for southern congressional hawks blessing a negotiated end to the Vietnam War, the misuse of regulatory power to smash a newspaper that was digging into Kennedy’s dirty sexual laundry, and a profile of domestic achievement that is respectable but not breathtaking. There is a sustained but uneven economic prosperity; a vague, short on substance campaign for more civic responsibility; a Voting Rights Act but a tepid assault on poverty; no urban riots but a rising sense of cultural polarization.
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Artur Davis: A JFK Fantasy that Doesn’t Inspire
In one rosy scenario, the self destructive streak of Ted Cruz and House Republicans burns out without a default, with Barack Obama incurring his share of the national disgust, and with the public’s frustration over the Affordable Care Act eventually cancelling out memories of the shutdown itself. And in that same optimal place, Republicans absorb their lessons with something like the synthesis that Ross Douthat writes about in his Sunday column:
“..Republicans need to seek a kind of integration, which embraces the positive aspects of the new populism—its hostility to K Street and Wall Street, its relative openness to policy innovation, its desire to speak on behalf of Middle America and the middle class—while tempering its [nihilistic] streak with prudence, realism, and savoir-fare.”
As good as Douthat has been in outlining during the last few weeks why the shutdown strategy is painfully flawed, from even a right-leaning perspective, he is engaging in his own bit of wishful thinking about the lines of a Republican comeback and its worth taking some space to say why. First, as I suggested in my last column, the shutdown is best understood not as some bridge too far from the populism he describes but a pretty natural outgrowth of it. The reality is that the right’s populism has had a consistent unifying principle since the spring of 2009: it is that the federal government is posing an unprecedented threat to liberty, and that it presents an existential danger to a particular ideal of American society. That apocalyptic claim has played out in any number of contexts, from suspicions about Barack Obama’s citizenship, to cries of socialized medicine, to the painting of liberalism as a subversive scheme. It’s not the sort of rhetorical tendency that distinguishes between programs based on their relative effectiveness or which weeds out obtainable goals from unrealistic ones. It’s absolutely a worldview that has made any approach to Obamacare other than all out obstruction or resistance seem like unprincipled softness.
Is there a middle class friendly legislative vision waiting to burst of all that anti government zeal? Not so far at the grassroots level, and not inside the rarified air of various conservative conferences. And as Bobby Jindal’s swift fade from prominence since last winter, and Marco Rubio’s slippage from “can’t miss” status to the mid tier of 2016 contenders indicate, the more potent currency in conservative settings has not been an appeal to more policy creativity or substantive rebranding on issues like immigration, but the fundamentalism offered by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz: and as Douthat himself has pointed out, their message is either decidedly vague on details (Cruz) or a rehash of conventional top heavy tax cut plans that shortchange the middle class (Paul).
The “integration” between populism and reform that Douthat pines for is not a fantasy: the conservative populism of the Obama era has opened a window to the alienation downscale whites felt through the last decade of American politics, when Bush Republicans seemed indifferent to wage stagnation and Obama Democrats seemed incapable of reversing the erosion of working class security. But the right’s most conspicuous rising stars have expended virtually no capital on building or selling any type of actual policy framework to activists: even a conservative with an authentic record of engaging topics like inner city poverty and educational inequality, Ben Carson, has seen fit to downplay that history in favor of diatribes equating slavery with Obamacare.
I’ve written that the populist right’s tilt toward radicalism isn’t likely to be self-correcting and requires a much more forceful counter-argument from the center right. And unlike Douthat, I have become skeptical that it is a simple matter of a candidate with “movement credibility” combining the right’s passions with a more tenable market oriented reform vision. The more plausible fact may well be that a reform vision is temperamentally and substantively at odds with right wing populism’s intense distrust of public institutions. Breaking through that tension might not be a pipe dream, but it is hard to imagine without a sustained case about what public (and conservative) purposes can legitimately be accomplished through government.
And without question, the kind of accommodation and outreach that builds coalitions is discredited when conflict has been over-dramatized into a clash between freedom and darker impulses. Is the antidote what Douthat describes as declaring war on the GOP base? Not at all, but given the base’s demonstrated inability to strengthen the party’s electability, there is a distinct need to challenge that base’s grip on the meaning of conservatism and its monopoly on defining legitimacy within the party. I’ve come to the mindset that the challenge will require more toughness than politeness.
Count me as skeptical that for all of the damage Republicans have incurred from the failed shutdown, the lesson has genuinely been learned. Not when there is an emerging narrative that the House GOP simply picked the wrong fight (allegedly, either draconian cuts to income support programs , or perhaps, a balanced budget amendment would have been more costly for Barack Obama to reject); not when a majority of the House GOP caucus still voted to perpetuate the shut-down; not when critics inside the party are framing the scope of the party’s dilemma almost entirely in terms of one specific faction, and therefore limiting their solutions to well funded primary interventions against the Tea Partiers.
Some of the “what if” shadow dancing mimics the misreading of public opinion that has haunted the right since the successes of the 2010 midterms: conservatives have consistently confused swing voter angst over Obamacare with a broad based rejection of a government “power grab” over healthcare as opposed to a notably specific distaste for aspects of the law: from scaled back coverage dictated by the “Cadillac tax” on high value policies; to diminished consumer autonomy to enroll spouses in employer plans; to the pressure on small businesses to pare their full-time workforce to avoid mandates. And the shift from declaring the Affordable Care Act so toxic that it would validate the shutdown strategy to suggestions that a softer political target like low income groups or a “support that is a mile wide and an inch deep” variation like the balanced budget amendment would have paid Republicans more dividends? The haziness of wishful thinking, overshadowed by a deeper failure to appreciate that shutdown itself validates the obstructionist label, the impression of being too inflexible to govern, that so threatens the party nationally and is even starting to creep into red states like Georgia and Louisiana.
There is a different kind of miscalculation driving the…take your pick..more responsible, more establishment, more centrist…wing of the party (which, as the one silver lining of this fortnight, seems finally emboldened). It is the assumption that mobilizing to downsize the Tea Party is an endgame by itself. The 144 Republican no notes that emerged in the House may be minimized as “throwaways” who were trying to forestall primary contests and could do so with the knowledge that their votes were not essential: but that misses the reality that such a sizable portion of the party’s elected representatives, well more than the 40 to 50 members of the Tea Party Caucus, felt so constrained politically, and evidence that the sensibilities behind the shutdown have much greater currency in the party than Republicans are comfortable acknowledging.
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Artur Davis: Lesson Learned?
The conventional take on the government shutdown is that it is a colossal blunder, but one largely of tactical dimensions: John Boehner underestimating the risk of trying to co-opt Ted Cruz’s brinksmanship gambit; Cruz and his think tank strategists miscalculating public angst over the healthcare law as a license for obstructionism. All true, but at the danger of missing the more substantial reality: the shutdown continues because it is remarkably popular on much of the political right. That is still the case after a week of unmitigated bad publicity for Republicans; it will likely remain so up to and after the point someone invents a fig leaf to make it end. And a Republican base that is undaunted in the face of such a debacle will keep limiting the party’s options with its ready-made barbs about sell-outs and pandering.
And what is an even more depressing truth? Those Republicans who are most at odds with the shutdown have some complicity here too. And no, it is not that they have been weak-kneed deal-cutters whose moderation created a demand for “principled” confrontation. (I have seen only two genuine deals in Washington in nine years: Democrats bending on top bracket tax cuts in late 2010 and Republicans doing the same, from the opposite vantage point, in early 2011, and I don’t hear tax relief for millionaires as an applause line in many Tea Party venues).
The real culpability for us right of center types? They (we) have been too timid in dealing not with Democrats but with a certain variation of conservatism. Those of us on the right who envision conservatism as a brand of public policy and not an enemy of the concept, who conceive that a more cohesive society is a legitimate conservative mission, and don’t confuse the left’s newest ill conceived initiatives with the fading hours before a socialist midnight, could and should have fought harder to keep the right from becoming radicalized. Instead, we soft-pedaled our own sense of responsibility. We bargained on absorbing a hard-right insurgency when we should have been looking harder at its assumptions, and its radicalism.
When it got fashionable to peddle theories that voters—that is, our fellow citizens—were divided between productive contributors to capitalism and coddled takers of government giveaways, too much of the thought leadership of the party sagely nodded. And then when our presidential nominee got caught saying the same thing, we rolled our eyes at his political tin ear without acknowledging that what he said was actually an article of faith in some of our ranks.
We allowed a lot of simplicities to frame our positions on complex issues. For example, we undermined our valid skepticism about the Democratic environmental agenda with muddled charges that science is a conspiracy. We cheapened our warnings about the lingering depth of the Great Recession with pot-shots that the media and the Labor Department were cooking the unemployment numbers.
We showed a little resistance to the hard-right’s musings about abortion and “legitimate rape” and did our share of distancing from mandatory ultrasounds and personhood laws. But the noisiness of these culture wars seemed to worry us more than their inherently un-conservative, big government character—and in our too tepid responses, we missed a chance to arrest the gender gap that is single-handedly turning states like Virginia.
We just shifted in our seat when the diatribes about the machinations of our liberal opponents crossed lines. When the jabs evolved from ritualistic partisanship into an insinuation that we were facing enemies who didn’t share our reverence for the country, our silence implicitly condoned the vitriol.
We didn’t stress enough over the evidence of a gulf between Americans in our respective visions of culture, of the economy, of the very legitimacy of government. If we were bothered that people who view their adversaries as illegitimate will coarsen civic dialogue, we rarely said so, unless it was the left throwing stones at our crowd.
We properly celebrated the grassroots populism on the right for the pragmatic reason that it finally gave Republicans the organizing mechanism to turn our base out; and for the intrinsic reason that activism is the essence of our democracy. But we weren’t quick enough to insist to the movement-minded among us that a political party is at its core not a movement: a party exists to mobilize to win campaigns and in a fractured electorate, winning requires being coalitional rather than ideologically pristine. We developed a weakness for rewarding provocateurs with the spotlight, as if unseriousness were not a ticket to perpetual minority party status.
We were entirely justified in noticing that conservatism had been demonized into the one permissible category for ridicule and verbal abuse. But we seemed so frustrated at our lost ground that we were tone deaf about how our partisan anger played to a middle class preoccupied with its own struggles—therefore, we missed the impression that we were more outraged about our own powerlessness than the powerlessness of the blue collars who not so long ago were part of our political base.
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Artur Davis: How the Right Turned Radical