What Went Wrong?

Well, it wasn’t conservatism.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Conservatives have already in the three weeks after the election come up with three competing explanations — and remedies — for their congressional defeats and the victory of the relatively unknown Barack Obama. 

Post-election voting patterns and statistical data can be interpreted in various ways to support any of the following three exegeses, which I understand as being roughly the following:

It was a sort of fluke. Party faithful will shrug that almost everything conspired this year against the conservative brand: two wars; the sinking economy; eight years of presidential incumbency; a biased, unethical media; Bush’s low ratings; the absence of an incumbent president or VP candidate on the ticket; more exposed Republican congressional seats than Democratic ones; a charismatic path-breaking opposition candidate, etc. The stars were wrong, rather than the ideas.

So, the theory goes, just make McCain appear a little younger, Obama sound a little bit more like John Kerry, and take away the mid-September financial meltdown, and — presto! — a Republican would now be in the White House.

Remedy? Not much other than fielding younger, more charismatic candidates. The failure was people, not ideas, and best symbolized by the damage done by the creepy Jack Abramoff, Larry Craig, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, or Ted Stevens whose ethical lapses became the Republican bumper-sticker.

Even had an ethical but colorless Bob Dole or Gerry Ford run in 1980 on Reagan’s identical platform, he would have most likely lost to Carter. So it’s the candidate, stupid.

In this way of thinking, someone like Jindal, Palin, and other fresh new faces will save the party in 2012, especially as hope and change soon proves neither hopeful nor different. Democrats, after all, just replaced their 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee with equally entrenched 84-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye; and are now talking about re-empowering the big unions that helped ruin Detroit, are hiring all the Clinton retreads for a second try in the Obama administration, and seem to want to use the ancient Freddie/Fannie/postal service model to expand the government.

It was too narrow a base, too exclusionary a message. This second theory — favored by New York and D.C. columnists, Schwarzenegger Republicans, and “helpful” Democrats of the “we miss the old good McCain of 2000” school — posits that all these new young, minority, and independent voters can’t break through the anti–gay marriage, anti–illegal immigration, anti–affirmative action, anti-abortion firewall, and so are diverted from the low-taxes, small-government, and strong national defense message that they otherwise might welcome.

Remedy? Junk the social agenda. Become more libertarian. Try to make existing Great Society programs run more efficiently, rather than shrilly barking at what you couldn’t cut, even if you wanted to. Be a little more neo-isolationist abroad, a little more laid back at home. Turn off talk radio, and read more of the Wall Street Journal.

It was the namby-pamby, con-lite sell-out that did us in. In this view, conservatives and evangelicals didn’t turn out as in the past, because the ticket and its short coat-tails abandoned a conservative message. Take away Bush’s mega-deficits, and conservatives could have run on fiscal sanity. Why were right-wingers boasting about federal bailouts? Why print more money on top of the $10-trillion-and-rising national debt? No drilling in ANWR? Close down Gitmo? No talk about creepy Islamic terrorists? No more “personal responsibility” lectures about drugs, alcohol, illegitimacy, crime, and drop-out rates? Didn’t the party see that gay marriage lost everywhere, and with help from minorities as well?

Remedy? Run as a true conservative, energize the base, and out-debate and outthink your liberal opponents.

I supposed one could cop out, and claim that there is truth in all three explanations. But my sense is that most people — who, after all, get a job, eventually buy a house and have to maintain it, have children, and respect the traditions of their families’ past — end up by necessity more conservative than liberal. The challenge is not to water down the conservative message, but to beef it up, even while making it more persuasive to those who are skeptical.

Take so-called Hispanics. (I say “so-called” since the liberal notion of millions of progressive unassimilated brown block voters is mythical, given high rates of intermarriage, mutual suspicion between Cubans, Central Americans, and Mexicans, and right-wing tendencies among Spanish-speaking minorities.) Take race completely out of the equation and start with the notion that enforcing the border is the only way to restore the respect for immigration statutes whose non-enforcement is currently an embarrassment to every citizen who believes in the rule of law.

Automatic Mexican-American support for open borders is simply not a given. Why wouldn’t Hispanic citizens bristle should a freighter beach on the coast of Northern California each day, to unload 1,000 illegal Chinese would-be immigrants? Given historical and present geographical realities, existing levels of legal immigration already privilege Hispanics over all other groups of immigrants. Conservative should emphasize and welcome that mostly neglected fact.

Legal immigration must be distinguished from illegal immigration at every juncture. It is no surprise that La Raza, the Democratic Left, and the cheap-labor, open-borders Right always make charges of “anti-immigrant” rather than anti–illegal immigration, since, if they cannot both personalize the issue and conflate it with legal immigration, they lose the debate. Conservatives’ chief talking point should be the deleterious effect of unchecked illegal immigration on the wages of poor workers, coupled with the employers’ discrimination against Mexican-American second-generation and African-American entry-level workers in preference for off-the-books and cheaper illegal laborers.

If one were to talk of party betrayal, it would involve supposedly conservative corporate elites who talk disingenuously of diversity and opportunity while they lobbied to ignore the law, and get their hands on as many illegal cheap laborers as they could to the callous detriment of the working citizen poor.

On social issues, there has to be some conservative touchstone, like reverence for uniqueness and beauty of individual life. What unites skepticism about euthanasia, abortion on demand, or embryonic stem-cell research is fear of a sort of soulless Brave New World notion that individuals don’t matter, that ease of lifestyle trumps every other difficult moral consideration, and that such thinking is the beginning — not the end — of something frightening.

Rather than demonizing gay-marriage, conservatives should emphasize the availability of civil unions — and then ask: What exactly is not enough protection in such current contracts, and how can such legal statutes be improved to protect the legal rights of gay couples? Civil unions should be seen as an avant-garde institution for novel times, while traditional marriage is reserved as a retrograde stuffy institution for the hopelessly straight.

The problem with liberal notions of high taxes and big government (besides the obvious problem that they don’t work) should be that they are elitist. Those born into particular social and economic castes are frozen: the government supplies just enough subsidized housing, food, and fuel for those in untaxed lower-income brackets to remind those citizens that it is not all that bad staying there. Meanwhile, those struggling to become prosperous and leave capital behind for their children are suddenly taxed to death just as they begin to succeed — as if, once the hyper-wealthy have gotten theirs, the rules change and no one else can follow.

The reason why Wall Street zillionaires like a Ted Turner, Warren Buffet, or George Soros endorse Obama’s tax plan is that they make so much that increased taxes don’t matter, or they can hire costly consultants to find exemptions not available to most plumbers or electrical contractors. Even when they choose to endow favorite causes they prefer tax exemptions — either now with write-offs, or postmortem without estate taxes — and de facto have the taxpayer subsidize their particular take on proper policy. Unfortunately, the Republicans failed even to develop such an argument that the very poor and the very wealthy in cynical fashion support liberal policies, while those in between who struggle in entrepreneurial fashion to do even better are caricatured as unpatriotic and selfish.

On foreign policy and national security, the battle of ideas is already won. A more articulate, persuasive defense of existing foreign policy, without gratuitous “they’re wimps” lingo would help. But come January, the Left will in surprising fashion emulate most of what Bush did abroad, albeit under a fuzzy, kumbaya veneer. The removal of Saddam, the humiliating defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the creation of a constitutional government in Baghdad will seem better, not worse, as each month passes in which we see little American combat violence approaching a likely 2011 withdrawal date.

So for all the big talk of a cabal of Jewish neo-cons, I doubt Democrats want to promote Mubarak and the House of Saud as “at least they’re our SOBs.” They may dream grandly of flipping Syria and Iran, but shortly will remember how Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton utterly failed on that score. They may close Gitmo (both trials and transference home of the detainees will prove a public-relations nightmare), but I doubt we will see precipitous pullouts from Iraq, repeal of the Patriot Act, or the end of the FISA accords. “Shredding the Constitution” is an opposition’s cheap slur; in contrast, when responsible for governance or in fear of rumors of another attack, such former critics will worry more about suffering another 9/11 on their watch.

Should the Left dismantle homeland-security provisions taken since 2001, and embrace therapeutic approaches to radical Islam abroad — and as a result we then see a single repeat of September 11 — the credibility of the Democratic Party will be lost for a decade. For all the campaign talk of a trumped-up, constructed war on terror, Obama’s advisors — at least when they speak privately — know that keeping America safe since 9/11 was a Bush achievement rather than a natural occurrence. They also privately advise that Obama emulate Bush on key substantive foreign-policy issues (Iran really is a big threat, and can’t have nuclear weapons; current strikes on terrorists in Pakistan are necessary, etc.), while grandstanding about “being liked” again.

The key is not to abandon conservative positions, but to explain them in novel ways to the majority who might find them more in tune with human nature — and consequently more humanitarian than their usual caricatures of being too selfish, tough, or insensitive. The conservative message the last eight years was to support freedom abroad as an absolute value that appealed to all, regardless of culture and background; the liberal multicultural message was not to rely on universal standards to judge the “other” — since supposed past oppression allows the “victim” to redefine morality on his own terms. The conservative message was that government without checks and balances, whether at the U.N., the E.U., or here in the massive bureaucracies of the federal government, naturally seeks to bully and stifle rather than empower the individual.

A final note. Conservatism also applies to bearing and comportment. There was something repugnant about greedy CEO and speculators on Wall Street wildly raking in hundreds of millions under the guise of “free-market conservatism” — as if Ace hardware store owners, truck drivers, and farmers would find them kindred spirits. Conservatism’s social message used to be something like “Don’t do all the things that you are otherwise free to do” or “Just because we don’t make all your appetites illegal, does not mean that some are not immoral.” Conservative populism is not anti-intellectualism at all, but rather a disdain for excess and arm-chair elitism.

In short, explain why conservatism appeals to the innate values of most ordinary Americans and the squabbling about the proper message disappears.

©2008 Victor Davis Hanson

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