Using The 2006 Election In The 2008 Election

Where has Fred Siegel been living these past few years? He writes:

Who could be more authentically representative of Rove-era Republicanism than Mike Huckabee, a pioneer-stock evangelical Baptist who wants to reclaim Americans for Christ?

As it happens, I think Huckabee does represent many elements of Bushism, of which his evangelical Christianity is in some ways the least important element (as it was the least important in the actual content of Bushism), but “Rove-era Republicanism” had no interest in reclaiming anything for Christ. “Rove-era Republicanism” was the ultimate expression of the GOP’s habit of exploiting social conservatives for electoral support and then largely ignoring everything they wanted once in power. As a big-government and “compassionate” conservative, Huckabee would be Bush’s heir, at least in domestic policy, and he has all the instincts of Gerson’s activist do-gooding vision of conservatism (i.e., Gerson’s non-conservative agenda).

As Ross points out, however, this has absolutely nothing to do with the lessons of the 2006 elections.

In my view, the lessons of 2006 should make the Republicans want to rally behind their lone antiwar candidate, but somehow I don’t think most Republicans would agree with that, either. More on this in a moment. If you accept the criticism of Huckabee that he is clueless on foreign policy (and I have mostly been persuaded that he is), which his embrace of Friedman and Gaffney does nothing to refute, then in a very narrow way you can say that Huckabee’s ineptitude on foreign policy will be rejected by voters much as the administration’s was last year. That is presumably not the message that Fred Siegel wants to send.

Returning to an older post by Ross on the GOP field, and touching on Noah’s response, I think all of us, myself included, have been framing things in slightly misleading way. Ross and I look at the field and see candidates who have irreconcilable differences with key constituencies, while Noah sees a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Ross and I will often describe these differences in “ideological” terms, but they are really differences over practical policy and the party’s self-definition. What I think we have all been missing is that the party is trying to convince itself that it is the same Republican Party of the ’80s and ’90s and has a desperate need to reaffirm the traditional definitions of the pre-Bush GOP, according to which almost all members of the modern party are disqualified. That is why there has been so much weepy Reagan nostalgia and why the Fred Thompson boomlet happened at all. Many Republicans at some level know the last seven years have been a disaster for them and for the country, but the reasons they give for the disaster are entirely different from what many of us would give. The explanation has become, as conservatives have become used to saying, that it was insufficient dedication to principles that led to policy failure and electoral defeat. In one sense, I think this analysis is correct, but really it gets things as wrong as possible, because it is always framed in terms of “runaway spending” and corruption. In my view, the Iraq war has been a failure and a disaster because of a departure from conservative wisdom and prudence, and it has been Iraq that brought about the GOP’s downfall, but these are not the principles that most Republicans think they have violated. Incredibly, they believe that the public rejected them because of deficit spending and earmarks. (Granted, massive spending and earmarks didn’t help their cause, but they were not the main cause of public discontent.) Blind to their largest weakness of all, most of the GOP field has been striving to adhere to the traditional definitions, which has required them to engage in so many ridiculous contortions.

Then you realise that the reason why GOP candidates have so much trouble declaring themselves to be the defenders of small government and social conservative values at the same time is that many of the GOP’s elected officials around the country have never been able to embrace both of these things, underscoring the social conservatives’ far greater importance to the coalition as a matter of electoal politics. Initially, and I think mistakenly, the idea was that national security would trump all other questions, so it followed that the anointed “national security conservatives” would dominate the race, namely McCain and Giuliani. What the supporters of these candidates missed is that hard-line, aggressive foreign policy has so completely taken over the majority of the GOP’s politicians and pundits that all of the other candidates could mouth the appropriately bellicose and confrontational phrases and undermine the rationale for the candidacies of McCain and Giuliani. In a somewhat hilarious reversal of fortunes, it is now anti-jihadism and hegemonism that receive the lip service and social and cultural conservatism that take center stage. The GOP has reached a consensus on national security and foreign policy, which is now taken as something of a given. Obviously, I think the consensus they have reached is terrible, but it is there. It is excellent that Ron Paul struggles against that consensus, which is horrible and needs to be overturned, but one reason I think he has such high unfavourables among Republicans in poll after poll is that he is repudiating something that the majority of the party now regards as fundamental.

Because it has become fundamental for the GOP, it is no longer the province of the fanatical proponents of aggressive foreign policy. It has entered into the party’s bloodstream. I think it will kill the party, but the majority thinks that it is life-giving and essential. Once the assumptions of neoconservatism become a new norm, which, despite everything that has happened, appears to be taking place, the most outspoken candidates who have become associated with neoconservatism lose their edge. If you can take for granted that almost everyone in the field supports some form of interventionism, other issues can come to the fore and dominate the debate. Thus foreign policy weakness becomes a kind of strength, since it compels the candidates who are weakest on that issue to cling all the more strongly to the new consensus and thus avoid any direct or sharp conflicts with the people who defend the consensus. Huckabee may have said reasonable things about Iran policy, but given enough time I’m sure he can be talked out it, just as Bush was turned away from “realism” towards the current course.

If you can have Huckabee, who is a genuine social conservative and who takes his foreign policy cues from Frank Gaffney, you hardly need Giuliani with all of his baggage and the danger that he will alienate social conservatives. Romney’s problem is that he can nail down the economic conservatives on taxes and trade, but primarily economic conservatives aren’t very numerous and have their greatest influence in the conservative media and think tanks, while he has difficulty persuasing social conservatives that he has joined them. However, both can effectively neutralise the main rationale of Giuliani’s candidacy by shouting about the dangers of “Islamofascism” and “the caliphate,” which is roughly how sophisticated Giuliani’s foreign policy vision is to start with.

Huckabee’s campaign is shaping up to be an anti-elite campaign not simply because he uses economic populist rhetoric, but because he represents the broad base of the party in social conservatives and the middle-class and he clashes with the movement and party establishments over their deference to corporate interests. With his new, utterly cynical and absurd flip-flop on immigration, his opposition to those interests now appears complete (though he has recently said positive things about NAFTA that make his gestures towards protectionism seem much emptier than I had thought they were). It may be that the forces Huckabee is trying to use to propel his campaign are akin to what Sam Francis discussed in his writings on the Middle American Radicals, but it is extremely doubtful that Huckabee has any intention of governing in the interests of the MARs. Nonetheless, it is the danger that this is what Huckabee represents that has the establishment terrified. It is the much greater likelihood that he represents another iteration of Bush that makes me dread a Huckabee nomination.

Noah wrote:

So, basically, I don’t expect a brokered convention, and I don’t expect a long, drawn-out struggle for a nominee, and I don’t expect a nominee that has espoused any meaningful heterodoxies. Maybe that’s why this contest has been so maddening: because it could be about something, but the major candidates are determined to see that it isn’t, and yet this contest about nothing still has an uncertain outcome.

But, as usual, the contest really is over who can best patch up the broken, bleeding body of the GOP coalition and get into fighting condition for the next election. The thing that Noah finds frustrating is that all of the candidates, save Ron Paul, have come up with essentially the same answer to how to fix the coalition—by pretending there’s basically nothing wrong with it and by pretending that they are all perfectly good representatives of most of its constituent members. We all know this isn’t true, so the play-acting seems frustratingly pointless. The failure in ’06, as all of the other candidates would have you believe, was the result of deviating from the old script of fiscal responsibility and controlling the growth of government, but these were the least of the GOP’s problems. These are the kinds of things that bother deficit hawks and Ron Paul supporters, which is obviously not what most Republicans are, to say nothing of most Americans. Since most of the candidates are judging the party’s failures according to the old script (Romney’s three-legged stool of social-fiscal-national security conservatism is a good example of this), voters have also started judging the candidates by that script and necessarily found them all badly wanting. Republican voters tried to have someone who was “solid” on just some of the issues (i.e., Bush), and they found that they didn’t like a lot of the things where he wasn’t very “solid.” The trouble with all of this is that the GOP really has become a Bushist party, as Ross correctly argued earlier this year, and the old ’90s-era script has little or no bearing on the coalition politics of the modern party.

Obviously, the increased importance of immigration as a major issue also introduces a fissure into the nominating contest that wasn’t nearly so significant in the past. Many GOP pols have to play catch-up and have to change their positions on this because the issue has become a burning one for Republican voters, while it had been something that the party leaders could effectively ignore in the past. Those who were elected in the ’90s and early ’00s were liable to have awful records on this issue because there was no strong incentive to be sound (i.e., pro-enforcement and restrictionist) on it, but now these same pols have to respond to the backlash against “comprehensive” reform. Had the “comprehensive” reform crowd left well enough alone, it is questionable whether Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani and even McCain would have to be bending over backwards to pretend that they care about border security and enforcement of immigration laws.

There has been an assumption that a post-Bush era would entail a change in the balance of political power within the coalition. Attempts to pin the failure of ’06 on one part of the coalition or the other (where the prime culprits are, implausibly, the social conservatives, or, much more credibly, the “national security” conservatives) are efforts to shape the future coalition. Socially liberal Republicans have wanted to pin the blame for ’06 on social conservatives even before the votes were counted, not because the social conservatives contributed to GOP defeat (they had essentially nothing to do with it) but because the defeat was an opportunity to clear out the kinds of people the “libertarians” and Giuliani-supporting secular conservatives didn’t care for. In the end, Huckabee probably won’t be nominated, despite this early surge, and even if he were American voters might not go for Huckabee. But if they don’t it will be because his policy proposals are an incoherent mish-mash, his history of pardoning heinous criminals will make them question his judgement and his smiley preacher spiel will ultimately irritate them rather than charm them. It will not be because he talked about taking back America for Christ.

Cross-posted at Eunomia