Is the Republican Party bent on defining itself out of existence?
Recent squabbles between the neoconservative Old Guard (Chris Christie, Peter King) and the scions (political as well as biological) of Ron Paul suggest this.
The Republican Party exists as an alliance of several distinct ideological groups: social conservatives, libertarianish fiscal conservatives, and the neocons.
The neoconservative movement, the most successful ideological force for big government within the party — as expressed not only in military power overseas but also in terms of enthusiasm for the War on Drugs and a general indifference towards spending growth and debt — has dominated the partys presidential candidate selections for some time, especially with the back room maneuvering for John McCain and Mitt Romney.
But Americans repudiated the GOP largely because of the failures of the neocon wing during the Bush years (remember that two Nixon operatives, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, almost defined the Bush Administration, and were themselves almost defining of the neocon-in-politics). And the spectacular lack of success of the McCain and the Romney presidential runs has shown the lack of resonance that Americans feel with neocon policies and personalities.
Repeated thwackings at the polls are enough to give any power-obsessed group palpitations. And now with the rise in popularity and respect of Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Ted Cruz and other limited government crusaders, actual pain is being expressed, no mere fluttering of valves.
The recent bout of invective began with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He famously expressed alarm at the Rand Paul wing who he thinks undermines national security; he ominously conjured up the images of the two towers falling on 9/11/2001 to bolster his position on a strong defense. The fact that his statements did not in any way defend any specific foreign policy position, or deal directly with any criticism of neoconservative policy, somehow did not make the news. What made the news was the insider fight, whether the Republican Party should be a big tent or small one.
The next week, Representative Peter King (R-NY) stated that someone like Rand Paul has set the Republican Party back 50 years. King confessed to a hankering for a 2016 run at the Top Banana Spot. He says, to win.
But, if Ive guessed the tides of opinion right, hell run to lose . . . and perhaps set the GOP back much further than 50 years.
You see, big government flows naturally along with big military and repeated (constant) military adventuring. Limited government fits with skepticism about imperial over-reach. As long as the Republicans cling to the rhetoric of limited government in one sphere, but huge, intrusive government in another, theyll continue to lose support.
But whether Paul, Amash, or Cruz can persuasively restate the critique of expansive military and foreign policy in ways that bring in moderate and independent voters, as well as convince social conservatives and Main Streeters of their practicality, remains to be seen. Strategic disengagement from the Middle East — and the Old World entirely? — makes a lot of sense. The sheer incompetence of past efforts, the continuing gales of blowback, and the great drain on the American taxpayer, are three reasons enough.
The great trend in partisan politics in my lifetime has been that of ideological re-alignment. When I was young — the putative good ol days that old hacks at the major dinosaurs, uh, newspapers whine about — the two parties each contained liberal and moderate and conservative wings. Nowadays the conservatives have moved behind the R brand, while the liberals and progressives have moved to D.
Hence the very different relationship between the parties today, compared to yesteryear.
Interestingly, says political scientist Morris Fiorina, the percentage of folks in America who are liberal or whatever havent changed much. Its the parties that have changed.
But its also the case that support for increasing the size and scope of government has tended to be directed into two distinct streams. Republicans like to talk about diminishing the role of government . . . except when it comes to the wielding of naked power. Conservatives have long chafed at constitutional constraints on police power, have been the most enthusiastic proponents of the War on Drugs, and tend to be the ones who bring up patriotism when it comes to questions of foreign wars. Liberal-progressives, on the other hand, have long chafed at constitutional constraints on regulatory and redistributive power, have been enthusiastic proponents of the War on Poverty, and tend to be the ones who bring up humanitarian concerns when discussing military actions.
The great story of our time has been the mounting evidence against the policies of big government, whether supported by Rs or Ds. The War on Drugs has been a disaster. The War on Poverty even more so. Americans are generally protected from witnessing foreign policy disasters, so the extent of the horrors — and the futility of most efforts — is lost on an uneducated public. And the spectacle of the land of the free with the largest prison population (both in real numbers and per capita) should be a disgrace, but still registers barely as a blip in the cultural dialogue.
Interestingly, as the evidence for big governments failure mounts, both parties have indulged a tendency to double down. Republicans, uniting both houses of Congress and the Executive Branch in the 2000s, proved unable to constrain spending in toto, and actively increased the size of the welfare state as well as of the warfare states scope of action. (Multiple land wars in Asia — what could go wrong?) Democrats, leveraging Americans rejection of Bush Era nonsense, elected the peace candidate over Hillary Clinton and then celebrated by pushing through a cockamamie medical industry reform bill whose unworkability might prove either their undoing or their ultimate hope, in that it will have to be reformed to morph into the thing they want most, a national, socialized health care system.
And meanwhile, as Chris Christie rightly remarked, Obama the peace candidate turned Nobel Peace Prize-winning oval-office occupant has carried over the bulk of the Bush Administrations foreign and spy policies, as well as a sorry record on civil liberties.
The truth is that the transformation of the parties is incomplete. The Democratic Party nurtures an entelechy towards becoming the All-Around-Big-Gov advocacy group. The Republican Party has speechified about Limited Government for years, but almost always honored the notion in the breach.
At some point, could the two parties (if both survive — a big if) become completely coherent and completely ideological? Will Democrats embrace Big Government, red in tooth and claw, and all its ways and byways, butter and guns? Will Republicans finally extend the logic of their limited government rhetoric beyond July Fourth grandstands and actually apply it consistently, and to the benefit of all mankind?
I dont know. I hesitate to express my hope for change.
What we are stuck with, now, are neoconservatives in the GOP, pretending that the best defense is eternal offense (and debt) along with a certain looseness concerning civil liberties, and liberals in the Democratic Party, pretending that the Constitution is only what they say it is.
Meanwhile, around the country, GOP insiders continue to run roughshod over serious Tea Party activists. In Maine, recently, a prominent limited government activist elected to the Republican National Committee and his friends formally resigned their positions in the Republican Party, because the party had betrayed them . . . on the issue of natural, raw milk. Its still illegal in Maine to buy raw milk from farmers.
Agriculture is agribiz, to political insiders, and allowing one niche of freedom to those few folks who want to drink whole, raw milk, or churn their own butter, is unthinkable.
As long as such libertarian (or, as Chris Christie might put it, dangerous) thought remains unthinkable to high-placed Republicans, success — real success, real constraints on out-of-control government — will remain elusive.
So goes Maine? So goes the country. And the Republican brand. [further reading]
August 25, 2013
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.