Strange Politics: The Rise of the Not-So-Conservative Conservatives

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

There are several issues ahead, such as immigration, deficits of all sorts, and energy dependence, that have the potential to erode conservatives’ appeal to the general public. There is also no guarantee that the Democratic party is going to stay politically suicidal, as if an embarrassing Barbara Boxer or an unhinged Michael Moore will always remain self-appointed symbols of the opposition.

The president’s immigration proposals are probably unworkable. A conservative base bristles at the idea that perhaps as many as 20 million illegal aliens now reside in the U.S. There are no proposed enforceable mechanisms such as stiff employer fines for unlawful hiring. Closing the border is never mentioned. Yet how are we to avoid a continued illegal presence in tandem with a legal guest-worker program without stern coercive measures — as if suddenly one million aliens annually will cease coming north because they did not qualify for the program?

Rather than dealing forthrightly with the crisis of national sovereignty and respect for the legal system, the issue is demagogued by the race industry on the left and by the laissez-faire Right that wants cheap labor, leaving most Americans in the middle and increasingly frustrated. Even Hollywood millionaires are now clamoring for legal protections for their illegal-alien nannies and gardeners, though such elites would hardly countenance a similar legal laxity that would allow foreign film technicians, screenwriters, and actors to flood southern California to work in their industry for a fourth of their own pay.

The only solution — enforcement of existing laws, employer sanctions, legal and measured immigration, closed borders, a radical return to assimilationist policies in education and government, a one-time (not a rolling) amnesty for those here for a decade or more — is palatable to most Americans but ignored by both parties. Yet the Left will give no credit to the president for what turns out to be a de facto continuation of its own open-border policy; it will only ankle-bite that the motivation for Bush’s apparent liberalism is not humanitarian but mercenary appeasement of the corporate Right.

Note also that the critique against trade deficits, budget shortfalls, national debt, and a weak dollar comes from Democrats. Far from applauding such expansionary policy and the spectacular growth in entitlement spending, they are now sounding like old-time sober conservatives. True, free-market supply siders can make the argument that as a percentage of GDP, current shortfalls are not that serious, or that the trade deficit and weak dollar are inherently self-correcting. But at a time of war, perception — not reason, much less long-term trends — is everything.

Americans might not mind a weak currency with a balanced budget, or a rising national debt with trade surpluses. Yet the combination of all these hyped depressing statistics overwhelms the senses, and makes the far more important and positive news about low inflation, low unemployment, low interest rates, and good annual growth seem almost irrelevant — or couched in terms that such good barometers cannot last much longer. It is a peculiarity of our political system that liberal pacifists get a free pass to bomb and war as they please, even as fiscal conservatives are allowed without much censure to run up large deficits.

Many of the massive expenditures that cause our budget deficits are indefensible, from farm subsidies to Pentagon spending on a new high-tech Raptor fighter that will siphon billions away from more immediate needs. Take the former: In 1996, the so-called Freedom-to-Farm bill promised a phase-out. Instead, that $9 billion a year payout has soared to over $20 billion, with over $170 billion slated to be spent in the next decade.

But it gets worse. Seventy-five percent of the largess goes to 10 percent of the recipients — the largest and least needy. Yet the number of family farmers — whose survival was the most publicized rationale for the welfare program — still shrinks, as agrarians are injured by an unfair advantage that favors mostly corporate competitors. If the program was aimed at ensuring the self-sufficiency of our food supply and the avoidance of foreign dependency as happened to our energy supplies, then the opposite has occurred: Next year for the first time in our history we will probably become a net importer of food. In short, we instinctively feel that we are spending too much money that we do not have. Such borrowing endangers everything from the war against the Islamists to greater overall military preparedness.

The per-capita American use of petroleum is probably unsustainable in the long run, while right now our profligacy means sending dollars to terrorist abettors who wind up helping to kill Americans. In 1970 we could say that the market could, if necessary, “correct” the American idea of driving a 7,000 pound, 13 mile-per-gallon gas hog by a simple increase in the gas price. Of course, it can and will do that eventually, but in the meantime a lot of American dollars are going to the wrong people at the wrong time and making energy a question of national security rather than market economics.

More important, we are losing some of the competitiveness and domestic material production that allows us the cash to pay for our imported petroleum. So a renewed policy that ties necessary drilling in the Arctic and nuclear power to fuel efficiency and conservation offers a lot of political room for future candidates, especially if couched not in green rhetoric but in hard-headed terms of America’s national security. It will be interesting to see whether the Right embraces conservation before the Left sees the need for increased energy production; but the first to combine the two approaches will gain the greater political advantage.

Most Americans do not trust the Democratic party’s foreign policy, its commitment to a government-mandated equality of result rather than of opportunity, and its divisive identity politics that seek to cobble together angry interest groups — radical gay activists, ossified D.C. civil-rights insiders, abortion-rights advocates, and types who distrust the United States — in lieu of a grassroots national majority. Yet even such political self-destructiveness does not necessarily mean that the Democrats cannot regain the presidency even without a centrist candidate like Zell Miller or Joe Lieberman. In 2008, we could see another splintering of conservatives as happened in 1992 and 1996. A sober, stable Ross Perot-like national populist could well siphon off discontents — perhaps 5 to 7 percent of the conservative electorate — furious about immigration, deficits, and a sense of American financial impotence abroad.

In response, a liberal triangulating Clintonian — and there is one still left — could suddenly talk about sober spending limits, faith-based initiatives, the need to enforce immigration laws, moderation on abortion, American energy independence, and an end to unnecessary corporate subsidies, and win by capturing 45 percent of the voters.

If we are at peace in 2008, then perhaps such a change of politics might seem for many to be irrelevant. But if we are not, it could prove disastrous — in the manner that a President Gore after 9/11 most surely would have been.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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