The Republican shipwreck

The mighty right-wing Titanic is sinking, and McCain is desperately blaming Bush. But the problem isn't the captain -- it's the ship.

Published October 28, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

The modern conservative movement is dying in front of our eyes, and its death throes aren't pretty. As John McCain heads for likely defeat, the GOP is eating itself. Right-wing politicians and pundits who never criticized Bush in eight years are suddenly jumping ship like rats, while bitter-end loyalists angrily accuse them of being "pathetically opportunistic." After months of veering from one tactic to the next, McCain has finally settled on one message for his campaign, but it's absurd: claiming that the party whose signature is tax cuts for the rich is really on the side of Joe the Plumber.

Meanwhile, 3.1 million real Joe the Plumbers across America are sending Barack Obama hundreds of millions of dollars, a torrent of cash that is helping to flush the GOP down the national toilet.

Right-wing hacks like Palin and Minn. Rep. Michele Bachman respond by doing the only thing they know how to do -- attack, demonize and divide. They wave the flag like a cutlass, dividing the country up into "pro-America areas" and "anti-America" ones. But this old pseudo-patriotic trick that has served the GOP so well for so long doesn't work anymore. In a development that showed just how much the political landscape has changed, the attack dogs have been forced to apologize -- something neither Bush nor his party nor conservative pundits ever did while they were trashing the country during the last eight years.

McCain's choice of the insultingly unqualified Palin to be his running mate was right out of the GOP's old culture-wars playbook, but it has backfired disastrously. The changing demographics of the country are working against the right wing. The party is lost, and it doesn't have a clue what to do next.

There's something surreal about how fast the GOP has gone from arrogant triumphalism to its death throes. Just yesterday, the GOP's mighty Titanic was cruising along, its opulent decks lined with fat-cat financiers and neoconservative warmongers, all smoking cigars, drinking champagne and extolling the deathless virtues of their fearless captain. The compliant media issued glowing dispatches. Karl Rove cackled with glee as he plotted out a permanent Republican majority.

Then the luxury liner hit an iceberg known as reality. The biggest damage was done by the Wall Street crisis, which happened just in time to tilt a close race toward Obama. But the economic meltdown was only one of the disasters for which the GOP is largely responsible. The war that was going to establish American hegemony forever turned out to be one of the worst foreign-policy blunders in our nation's history. The GOP's free-market idolatry led to the gravest financial crisis since the Depression. Its ideological insistence on cutting taxes for the richest Americans ran up a record deficit. Its embrace of torture and denial of due process assaulted the Constitution and eroded America's moral standing. Its doctrine of the "unitary executive" concentrated unprecedented power in the hands of the executive branch. Its anti-scientific denial of global warming endangered the entire planet.

It's a historic shipwreck, and the American people are diving off the foundering GOP hulk in droves.

In desperation, McCain has tried to blame everything on the ship's captain. Last week, he launched a bitter attack on Bush. In an interview with the Washington Times, he accused Bush of running up a ruinous debt, failing to fund his vast Medicare expansion, abusing his executive powers, failing to regulate the financial sector, ignoring global warming and mismanaging the war in Iraq. "We just let things get completely out of hand," he lamented.

But the problem isn't Bush, it's American conservatism itself -- or at least the debased, intellectually bankrupt and utterly failed thing that American conservatism has become. For McCain to truly renounce Bush, he'd have to renounce the tax-cut ideologues who have bankrupted the country. He'd have to renounce the neoconservatives who led us into a catastrophic war. He'd have to renounce the culture-war attack dogs like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin who have coarsened conservatism's soul.

In short, he'd have to renounce the Republican Party -- and himself.

Yes, there's some part of McCain that stands apart from the disaster that his party has become. In the past, he has courageously taken principled stands on issues ranging from taxes to immigration to torture. He has some laudable independent instincts. His barely concealed rage and frustration, as he watches himself being pulled under by the enormous suction of the sinking GOP ship, bears witness to this. But his occasional maverick stands cannot change the fact that on the key issues, McCain is a faithful supporter of George W. Bush's policies. As Obama ads incessantly remind voters, McCain himself boasted that he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time. It's too late for him now to suddenly pretend that he represents anything other than more of the same.

Some conservatives have tried to argue that Bush betrayed true conservatism by running up a ruinous deficit and expanding entitlement programs like Medicare. They compare him unfavorably to Ronald Reagan, modern conservatism's patron saint. But this revisionism gets the historical record wrong. The truth is that Saint Reagan expanded entitlements, grew the federal government -- including a $165 billion bailout of Social Security -- and raised taxes. The right-wing myth of Reagan as an anti-government, anti-tax purist is just that: a myth. The same is true for his anti-Communism. Reagan talked a tough game, calling the USSR an "evil empire" and rattling his saber, but usually behaved pragmatically. When his ill-considered intervention in Lebanon failed, he wisely pulled U.S. troops out. In short, Reagan's ideology and his practice were often at odds.

The dirty little secret of modern conservativism is that Bush is more like "Reagan" -- the mythical Reagan, that is -- than Reagan himself ever was. Bush actually did what Reagan just said he was going to: He cut taxes for the wealthy, handed over the keys to the economy to corporate interests and deregulated everything in sight. His most glaring and destructive imitation of the mythical Reagan was his catastrophic decision to invade Iraq. Fatally, Bush really believed his own Churchillian rhetoric. He decided the fight against Islamist terrorism was an epochal showdown of good vs. evil -- and unlike Reagan, he proceeded to act militarily on this grandiose belief. (Yes, Reagan illegally tried to overthrow the Nicaraguan regime, but the Iran/Contra scandal that tainted his legacy wouldn't even make the Top Ten list of Bush's misdeeds.)

This is why, to this day, the Republican Party and the mainstream right wing has never repudiated Bush. (To their credit, "Paleoconservatives" like Pat Buchanan and right-libertarians like Ron Paul and Antiwar's Justin Raimondo broke with Bush on Iraq, but they are marginal figures on the right.) How can conservatives repudiate someone who put into practice all of their most cherished ideas? To criticize Bush on substantive grounds, they'd have to explain not only why his policies violated conservative orthodoxy, but why they never once made that argument for the last eight years. They can't do either, which is why they are forced to take the evasive, intellectually dishonest line of blaming Bush's failures on his arrogance and incompetence. Of course Bush was arrogant and incompetent, but those shortcomings don't explain his failed presidency. He failed because he acted on the extreme right-wing ideas that Reagan only paid lip service to.

The right wing is running as far away as it can get from Bush, but it still shares his beliefs. That's why it cannot and will not muster any real arguments against his policies.

This explains both McCain's impotent campaign and the failure of the right-wing brain trust to understand the disaster that has befallen the GOP. With very few exceptions -- most notably David Brooks, who on Sunday called for the GOP to reinvent itself as a "progressive conservative" party in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt -- the right-wing intelligentsia is still reciting its worn-out ideological mantras, claiming that an Obama victory would mean the death of "freedom," the triumph of socialistic "big government" and abject surrender to our enemies.

For example, in a Weekly Standard column titled "McCain versus the juggernaut," neoconservative pundit William Kristol warned that an "Obama-Biden administration -- working with a Democratic Congress -- would mean a more debilitating nanny state at home and a weaker nation facing our enemies abroad." It takes a deep obliviousness to reality for an ardent Bush supporter to be sounding the alarm about the "nanny state" at the same time that his beloved president and party are solicitously spoon-feeding their wailing Wall Street brat out of a $700 billion jar of Gerber's. As for Kristol's claim that Obama would be "weaker" in facing our enemies abroad, if the great "strength" shown by Bush is the alternative, "weakness" looks good. Bush's "strength" led him to wage an unnecessary and disastrous war that has empowered Islamist terrorists and made America much less safe. That's why al-Qaida supports McCain: A continuation of Bush's policies is its best recruiting tool.

Then there's Peggy Noonan, who writes herself into a typical cloud of lyrical nonsense in a Wall Street Journal column. Striving to hit a Whitmanesque note in praise of the 52 million Americans who say they support McCain, she writes, "They are the beating heart of conservatism, and to watch most television is to forget they exist, for they are not shown much, except at rallies. But they are there, and this is a center-right nation, and many of them have been pushing hard against the age for 40 years now, and more. For some time they have sensed that something large and stable is being swept away, maybe has been swept away, and yet you still have to fight for it. They will not give up without a fight, and they will make their way to the polls."

The "age" that our allegedly "center-right nation" has been "pushing hard against" is relativist, secular, progressive, scientific. And the "something large and stable" that's being swept away is tradition, patriotism, morality, family values, community, God. Noonan believes that conservative Americans have been waging a heroic battle for these Republican-associated virtues for decades. But she never quite reconciles the fact that the last 40-plus years have been dominated by Republican presidents and policies. Apparently "the age," like a Spenglerian villain, works its evil, values-corroding magic independently of whatever party is actually in power. For Noonan, of course, it has to -- because if it didn't, then Republicans would be just as much or more to blame for the corrosion of tradition and morality as Democrats.

And Kristol and Noonan are the restrained face of the conservative reaction. More typical of the Limbaugh-inflected (or infected) movement as a whole is the apocalyptic attitude of right-wing columnist Mark Steyn, who thundered that an Obama victory "would be a 'point of no return,' the most explicit repudiation of the animating principles of America."

The ludicrous hyperbole of such Jeremiads is self-refuting. Americans are desperate to fix their economy, end a ruinous, endless war and restore a sense of common purpose to civic life. As they face these challenging real-world goals, the abstract buzzwords trotted out by the right ring hollow.

The emptiness of these arguments reveals that American conservatism no longer has any purpose except perpetuating its own power and concentrating as much wealth as possible in the hands of the already wealthy. Its internal contradictions can no longer be glossed over. It poses as the guardian of tradition and morality, but its obeisance to an amoral free-market ideology is far more destructive of tradition than the regulated capitalism championed by liberals. It preaches small government, but insists that abortion rights, recreational drug use and gay marriage fall within the purview of the state.

This is not a "movement" that means anything that anyone can explain. As Christopher Buckley, the son of the late William F. Buckley, intellectual father of modern American conservativism, put it in a much-discussed piece in the Daily Beast announcing his support for Obama, "I no longer have any clear idea what, exactly, the modern conservative movement stands for. Eight years of 'conservative' government has brought us a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance. As a sideshow, it brought us a truly obscene attempt at federal intervention in the Terry Schiavo case."

The GOP stands at a crossroads. Republicans can pretend that nothing has really changed, that this is still a "center-right" nation, and that only an ill-timed economic meltdown cost them the White House. This means leaving their party in the hands of the "movement conservatives" who have dominated the GOP for decades: the demagogues of reaction and resentment, the Christian rightists, the "values" voters, the anti-tax, anti-government zealots, the nativists, anti-rationalists and anti-secularists. The culmination of this approach would be to nominate Sarah Palin as their presidential candidate in 2016. Or they can move to the center, accept that progressive taxation is not just necessary to run a country but that it is a legitimate part of the social contract, accept that markets need some regulation, and try to reach out to all Americans, not just their base.

If Republicans choose the first option, the GOP will be taking the first steps toward becoming a marginal party, one that will eventually end up an object of curiosity in the historical display case along with such extinct specimens as the Know-Nothing Party. If they choose the second, they will not only save their party, they could help heal the grievous wounds their divisive politics have inflicted on the country.

If conservatives' track record over the last 40 years is any guide, they will choose the first. And I won't be putting any flowers on their grave.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party