Sullivan's Travels

Without Andrew Sullivan, blogging wouldn’t exist, or at least not in the form that we know it. But I have to admit that I’m having troubling understanding what he means here.

I don’t want to take Andrew out of context, so here’s the big chunk:

“the fact that Bush’s departures from small-government conservatism have frequently been more popular than his instances of adherence to it. [from Ramesh]”

This exhausted excuse is going to be trotted out relentlessly in the next four years. It will not make it more right.

There will always be a deep divide between two parties in the Anglo-American world; the party of bigger government and the party of smaller government. When the party of smaller government adds the biggest new entitlement since LBJ, doubles the debt debt and turns the presidency into a near-dictatorship, it destroys itself and its core brand and rationale.

When will Ross and Reihan and Ramesh start asking what they believe in, rather than what coalitions can be built around policies? They are not Rovian; but they breathe the stale, acrid, cynical air he has been exhaling for eight years.

There’s a lot to tackle here. Let’s start by asking a few questions: a) Is what Ramesh notes about Bush, notably that his prescription-drug benefit and No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) act are, in fact, the least unpopular parts of his legacy, untrue, or an “excuse”? b) Is what Ross, Reihan, and Ramesh (and David Brooks and David Frum and Yuval Levin) believe in different than what they propose, or are their proposals a concession to popular will? c) In what ways does Andrew’s critique differ from Rush Limbaugh’s attack on reform conservatism?

I think it’s clear that the least unpopular (oh the tortuous syntax required of Mr. 25 Percent) of W’s policies are the drug benefit and NCLB. In fact, most of the critique of them has been from the left (and that being that each should have been funded even more heartily). Torture, despite being an abomination, isn’t that unpopular (it was favored during the Republican primaries, and was an applause line during Sarah Palin’s speech). Does Andrew believe that a Bush presidency without prescription drugs and without NCLB would be a more popular presidency? Does Sullivan think that if Bush had pushed harder to privatize Social Security he wouldn’t be Mr. 25 Percent? If Bush had been a greater advocate of deregulation, a defanged FDA and FTC? Would Kmiec and Powell support McCain in the wake of a Bush presidency less fiscally profligate? Would Sullivan support McCain over Obama in that case? Obviously not.

And let’s not tell anyone this secret, but non-homeland security domestic discretionary spending barely budged under Mr. 25 Percent. That dog won’t hunt as a reason for his failed presidency, and it makes even less sense as a rationale to endorse Obama. In what way is Obama less the candidate of extending the welfare state, especially in these parlous economic times? I think it’s clear that the critique of Bush from the right over spending, which then suggests that fiscal restraint is a reason to endorse Obama over McCain, is an incoherent critique, birthed in fever swamps that wish to marry the romantic swell of Utopian change with the blue stamp of Tory sentiment. After all, McCain promises policies far closer to Sullivan’s fantasy of what Thatcher believed than Obama’s, and yet those policies seem to be among McCain’s least popular offerings. Which has played better: market rate health care, or Joe the Plumber? Lowering the corporate tax rate or comparing Obama to Fidel?

So let’s talk about what the reformist conservatives believe (and the ways that interacts with policy for which the people might actually vote). I can’t speak for Ross, Reihan, or Ramesh (although I hear that they can combine into a super-pundit robot, Rohanmesh, the Reformer!), but I hear in each of their disparate offerings a belief in the grace of God, a belief in the families of this country, a belief that Conservative means “limited-government pragmatism rather than a small-government purism.” Not just the pursuit of lower taxes but the support of a socio-economic order where the pursuit of a dignified livelihood is possible. They’ve offered many different solutions – from family friendly tax reform to infrastructure spending to vocational education to a more targeted EITC – but their main impetus is the same: to secure the dignity of the working American, to provide an alternative equality of opportunity to the static equality of a redistributive handout. I can think of only one slander more calumnious than that of the know-it-all who dismisses the recognition of economic insecurity as “big government,” and that’s the slander that dismisses these policies as Rovian coalition building rather than a vision of that tall proud city on the hill, America.

And that brings me to my last point: in what way is the broadside that Sullivan levels against Rohanmesh and Frumlevbrooks different from Rush Limbaugh’s? Each pundit moves not from his coppery, keen claws, surveying the landscape, and decrying the moderate masses below, and yet each delivers an atavistic cry, yearning for past politicians who were not nearly as ideologically pure as they are remembered. If Andrew wants the Republicans to stop appealing to the lowest common denominator with a purely semiotic campaign, than he might think about the circumstances in which the voter who can’t pay for his wife’s medicine and doesn’t know if he’ll have a job next year might trust limited government. Sarah Palin does not represent reformist conservatism, she represents a nod to its tax bracket. Until Republicans help secure that tax bracket against the breakdown of order and security in their lives, a fundamental tenet of conservatism, that voter will careen towards the populist, romantic ideologies of right (Palin) and left (Obama). Until “conservatives” like Andrew Sullivan realize that extremism in the defence of rhetoric is no virtue, moderation in the pursuit of political success no vice, then we will be left with a rump party and an unopposed left polity. “An informed patriotism is what we want,” said one of my heroes, not the ressentiments of a Thatcherite in love.