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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Conservative Battle Fatigue?

Democracy Project's Bruce Kesler has an interesting post up in which he argues with his usual direct, no-nonsense approach that folks like me on the Right - whom he believes are talking about sitting out the 2006 election - are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Referring to yours truly as well as Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters and Professor Stephen Bainbridge, Bruce opines that we suffer as a result of being "worn down by defending difficult positions at the forefront of the battle against irredentist Democrats in Congress and their fifth-column in the media."

That Bruce is posting on the issue is a good sign that I am succeeding in one of my goals, which is to encourage a dicussion in the Blogosphere about whether the GOP deserves the continued support and loyalty of those millions of us who since the 1960s have provided most of the party's human, intellectual and financial muscle.

Bruce is not alone in thinking my view that the GOP has forfeited conservative support is in error, as Powerline's Paul Mirengoff also posted earlier this week a thoughtful and direct response to an editorial I wrote in The Washington Examiner that encapsulates the conservative dissatisfaction with Bush and the GOP.

I will have much more to say in response to Bruce and Paul, but for now I urge readers to read their posts carefully and seriously consider their arguments. Other than that concerning the War on Terror and its associated issues, there is no more important political discussion in America right now than that beginning among conservatives about what in coming months and years should be our proper course of action to restore the vibrancy and effectiveness of the age-old struggle for individual liberty and limited government.

And make no mistake about it folks, that is what is ultimately at stake as we debate what to do about November 2006 and beyond.

UPDATE: Political Bad Faith, Not Iraq, is the Problem

Unlike Professor Bainbridge and others of a more libertarian bent, I find much to laud in President Bush's conduct of the War on Terror and his decision to invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein and maintain a U.S. military presence as the Middle East's second (Israel being the first) genuine democracy is birthed.

Indeed, Bush as war-time president and his federal judicial appointments are two strong reasons why many conservatives who otherwise find his domestic policies objectionable would continue to support him, if only grudgingly and for lack of a better alternative, if he was on the ballot.

But it is not President Bush, it is the congressional wing of the GOP - and by extension the national party apparatus that goes on regardless of who is in the White House - that is on the ballot and it is chiefly to them that I find myself no longer willing to extend the benefit of the doubt for two reasons:

First, I am no longer convinced that it makes a sufficiently critical difference in the day-to-day function of government that the Bill Frists, Trent Lotts, Jerry Lewises and Bill Youngs are in control of Congress instead of Harry Reid, Teddy Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi.

The GOP majority has hiked spending and expanded entitlements at a rate that would astound LBJ. Congressional oversight has become a mere memory under the GOP's control for the past dozen years. It was under a GOP majority in the House and with Bush in the White House that campaign finance reform was approved, thus setting in motion the most extensive undermining of the First Amendment and political speech since Lincoln threw opposition newspaper editors in jail during the Civil War.

I could go on because the list of essentially liberal programs and policies enacted and/or expanded under GOP control is lengthy. I didn't come to Washington 30 years ago to help Me, Too Republicans further the Liberal Democrats' Leviathan state; I came to help put it back in the cage that is the Constitution, traditionally understood.

So, with national security issues, Roberts and Alito on the Supreme Court, the 2001 tax cuts and welfare reform of 1996 excepted, having this GOP majority for the past dozen years has accomplished very little. Given how the GOP congressional leadership avoids genuine congressional oversight of the federal bureaucracy and is terror-stricken by the prospect of actually engaging in sustained and determined political hand-to-hand combat with the Democrats, odds are even these accomplishments are anything but permanent.

In short, what the GOP majority has done is waste a unique historical opportunity - one that voters might not ever grant them again.

Second, there is the congressional and national GOP's bad faith with conservatives for lo these many years as they've frittered away their opportunity. John N. Mitchell, Nixon's first Attorney General, reassured worried liberals that Nixon's conservative campaign rhetoric of 1968 was nothing more than talk.

"Watch what we do, not what we say," Mitchell cooed in a pattern that has been evident ever since, with only the Reagan years being an exception (and even then not always). This is why the GOP Establishment loves the conservatives voter on Election Day but the day after always forgets the promises made to get us to the polls.

Conservatives end up getting lots of smoke and mirrors talk, but little genuine accomplishment. The GOP wants our money, our energy and our votes, but then they expect us to sit down and shut up until the next election while they perpetuate Big Government.

Put simply, the GOP has been giving conservatives the idiot's treatment since 1968.

UPDATE II: What is to be Done?

Bruce and Paul assume that the key point of what I advocate is having conservatives stay at home on election day this year. It is never so simple as that. I am at least partially responsible for this misconception since I've not previously gone into any detail on what I think conservatives should do. I've focused instead on describing why conservatives are upset and assessing the response to date of the White House and Hill GOP.

So what is to be done? Three things:

First, conservatives should make clear to the White House and national GOP leadership that who we vote for, work for and provide financial support for this November depends absolutely upon what is accomplished in Congress between now and Election Day.

With Congress' approval rating at near-record lows, the GOP leadership has nothing to lose but everything to gain by embarking on an emergency campaign to enact long-promised major conservative reforms and thereby to challenge the Democrats - and President Bush - to say no on the core issues of the conservative agenda.

Cancel all congressional recesses between now and the election. Stay in session on Mondays and Fridays. Read and study on Saturdays. Rest on Sundays. Forget about kissing babies back home. The campaign that determines your future is right here in the nation's capitol. The time for talk is past, it is time to act.

The Democrats think they are nationalizing the election via Iraq. Most Americans just want the GOP to do what its been promising to do for years. Nationalize the election with actual reforms, not mere promises of reform.

Consistent majorities of the American people have for decades supported essential conservative reforms, so a succession of roll call votes making those reforms real between now and November is likely the GOP's only hope (short of total lunacy on the Left, a possibility I don't for a minute dismiss).

What kind of reforms?

* Immigration reform, including building the wall and whatever other measures are required to secure our borders and disavowing any form of amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in America. These measures are essential because as 9/11 made clear we must know who is coming into our country and who is already here.

* Federal spending must be brought under control, starting with an end of all earmarks. If doing this means out-of-touch Old Bulls like Ted Stevens, Trent Lott, Thad Cochran or Arlen Specter resign, so much the better. Sen. Tom Coburn would make an outstanding Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman.

* Entitlements must be controlled. We simply cannot afford to pay the benefits promised to the Baby Boomers (of which I am one) under Social Security and Medicare. The Liberal welfare state's defined benefit-based retirement program is bankrupt and must be replaced with a defined contribution-based program (compare the Civil Service Retirement System to the Federal Employees Retirement System for respective models).

Similarly, the current system in which government bureaucrats make the basic decisions about the nation's health care must be replaced with one that puts the power of consumer choice in the hands of health care consumers and the integrity of treatment choices in the hands of doctors. As The Heritage Foundation's Bob Moffit has argued for decades, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is a suitable model here.

* The size and scope of federal power must be reduced and rebalanced. Congress must create the equivalent of a Base Re-Alignment and Closure (BRAC) process for the federal bureaucracy. The budget process must be reformed. Duplicative federal programs must be eliminated. Here's a suitable blueprint.

* President Bush's judicial nominees must all receive up or down votes before Labor Day.

* Repeal McCain-Feingold. It is the shame of the GOP that under the party's watch Congress abrogated to itself authority to regulate political speech. President Bush's decision to punt the constitutional issue to the Supreme Court was the worst decision of his tenure.

As George Will notes in today's edition of The Washington Post, it is "sinister" to argue that the government should determine what is and is not appropriate political speech in campaigns to determine control of the government. Repeal is the only way the GOP can erase this terrible blackmark on its record.

* Pass the Cornyn-Leahy Open Government Act of 2005. Transparency is Big Government's biggest enemy and individual liberty's greatest ally. Making the federal Freedom of Information Act effective is an essential first step towards making the federal government functionally transparent. The second step is putting all government spending, contracts and supporting documentation on the Internet so that any citizen can see how his or her tax dollars are being spent with just a few clicks of the mouse.

If the GOP majority in Congress makes acceptable progress on these issues in coming months, conservatives will work, contribute and vote accordingly. If Congress doesn't act on these issues - or merely goes through the same old rhetorical motions - it will be clear beyond any further doubt that GOP majority really doesn't care about enacting conservative reforms and the GOP is useless as a tool for advancing political liberty.

Second, if the GOP majority fails to act or merely continues to talk about it, conservatives then have an obligation to find or create a new party. I'm not unaware of the immense difficulties that face new parties in American politics. The GOP's sucess in coming to power in only three elections (1856, 58 and 60) is the great exception to the norm for minority parties.

I'm not talking here of a political Kamikaze ala Bob Smith of New Hampshire. The reason the GOP succeeded in the pre-Civil War era was it provided a new home for dissatisfied Whigs and Democrats. The hard work of creating and sustaining a new home for conservatives leaving the GOP is what must be done before any Member of Congress, sitting governor, state legislator or other elected GOP official switches parties.

How to do that? There is no shortage of third parties already out there, including perhaps most prominently the Libertarian Party. But for a variety of reasons, I don't think the answer will be found in an existing entity. If the GOP loses its majority in November, millions of conservatives are going to be willing as never before to consider a new party.

At that point, the historical analogies for third parties in American politics may not be so applicable, thanks to the advent of the Internet in general and the Blogosphere in particular. Thanks to cyberspace, it may still take several elections to gain a new majority, but the time required to make potential recruits aware of a new option and to provide them with tangible courses of actions to empower that option sufficiently to make it a genuine factor in the next election could well be months rather than years. (Yes, I am also aware of the ballot access difficulties placed by the major parties in the way of aspiring political parties.)

Odds are also excellent that the first wave of Karl Roves of the Internet era of American politics is already out there, most likely consisting of politically savvy conservative/libertarian Thirty-Somethings old enough to have seen up close and been repelled by the present system and young enough to recognize and seize the opportunity afforded by developing and perfecting the new tools provided by the internet.

This is why skeptics in the GOP (and the Democrats, too, for that matter) should beware: What the Internet has done to the mainstream media - see Dan Rather and CBS for a relevant example - can and most likely will be done to all of the "Bigs" of our society, including Big Government and the political parties that live by it. See Hugh Hewitt's "Blog" and Glenn Reynolds' "An Army of Davids."

Third, there is no reason for conservatives to lose heart. If anything, this is the time conservatives should be most optimistic and energized. The Hewitt and Reynolds works make clear the incredible opportunity that has been given the present and emerging generations of conservatives by the internet.

President Reagan in his First Innaugural Address famously asked of liberals who dominated the previous era of American politics: "If no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" The trenchancy of Reagan's query for us today is brought home as never before by the Internet.

With the internet, the capacity of every individual to govern himself is immensely expanded and the capacity of networks of individuals to engage in concerted action for the common good is similarly magnified. The need for massive bureaucracies is less now than ever before (if indeed it ever really was needed) and the opportunities created by the internet to expand the realm of individual freedom are without historical precedent.

But human nature and history being what that they are, there are no guarantees. The Left is aware of these opportunities as well and in some ways is ahead of the Right. Thus, conservatives must embrace the internet and make it our own. There is no time to waste, my friends.

In conclusion, allow me to correct one point that is a frequent theme among those who believe it inappropriate to discuss these matters. The term Bruce used to describe us summarily in this regard was, I believe, "petulant."

Traditional American liberty has never been more threatened, either externally or domestically, thanks to the Jihadists and continued expansion of Leviathan at home. I hope this foregoing analysis and explanation is sufficient illustration of the inaccuracy of such a description.

UPDATE III: Jim Gerahty at TKS Responds

With a flood of election prophesies that ought to scare the bejeebers out of everybody on the Right. His is among many responses to the dialogue begun by Bruce Kesler at Democracy Project.

It looks like there will be more substantial responses this week, so I have started a new post that you will find here for the TKS and subsequent posts in the discussion.