The Coming Conservative Crack-up

In Washington over the last week, there were lots of ideas about what a bailout of Wall Street ought to look like. But none had less chance of becoming law than the plan put out by the core of the House GOP caucus, the conservatives known as the Republican Study Committee. The members of this group (which has more than its share of extremists and buffoons) offered as the cure to our current woes the removal of regulations on businesses and a suspension of the capital-gains tax, as though they were the congressional equivalent of those Japanese soldiers hunkered down on remote islands, unaware that the war had ended years before and that their side lost.

Not that anyone much cares what the Republican Study Committee thinks. But its desperate attempt to head off government intervention into the smoothly humming operation of the free market, comical though it might be, tells us something about what our politics will look like after this election. The conservative movement that has dominated American politics for the last three decades is sputtering toward the end of its relevance. Its various factions, so willing in the past to put their differences aside in service of the goal of obtaining and holding power, are heading for a civil war. Whether the movement can remake itself will determine whether progressives are beginning their own long period of ideological supremacy.

Unless something truly extraordinary happens to change the subject -- the outbreak of nuclear war between Pakistan and India, or perhaps Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan getting trapped together in a well -- the economic mess will dominate all political discussion between here and Election Day. Given the unpopularity of President Bush and the particular nature of this crisis, the most likely outcome of Nov. 4 is a dramatic repudiation of Republicans at all levels. Even the staunchest Republican partisans acknowledge that it's a bad time to be a member of their party. In Washington state, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi successfully moved to be listed on the ballot as "prefers GOP party," lest voters see the dreaded "R" word next to his name.

To some in the conservative movement, a crushing loss would be just what the doctor ordered. If a defeat comes, they hope it will be a cleansing one like 1964, one that leads to a dramatic rebirth. After Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by 22 points, there were more than two Democrats for every Republican in both houses of Congress. Yet four years later the GOP took back the White House, and 12 years after that, a politician nurtured in the conservative movement that had championed Goldwater became president.

In his quest for this year's Republican nomination, John McCain was blessed with a particularly unpalatable group of competitors -- the shape-shifting Massachusetts governor with all the sincerity of a used-car salesman, the repellent New York City mayor who grew more unpopular with each passing week, the goofy ex-pastor who has now found his true calling as a TV host. Simply by sticking around until they all fell away, McCain got his party's nod, but he never had to unify his party's factions in any meaningful way. The national-security conservatives (whom we might call the party's Buck Turgidson wing) loved McCain for his evident thirst for endless war, while the business conservatives, ever pragmatic, looked at McCain's economic plans and knew he would be their guy. It was the social conservatives -- the ones who actually get out the vote -- whom McCain needed to woo.

And woo them he did, by picking one of their own as his running mate. But now there is something of an anti-Sarah Palin revolt going on among establishment conservatives, particularly as she seems to grow less informed with each passing day and the novelty of a politician with moose-butchering skills wears off. George Will, perhaps America's most influential commentator, lamented the Palin pick (it had something to do with the Federalist Papers). Kathleen Parker, a conservative whose syndicated column runs in over 300 newspapers across the country, wrote of Palin's disastrous interviews, "My cringe reflex is exhausted," and called for Palin to pull herself off the Republican ticket: "Do it for your country." David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, agreed that Palin is grossly under-qualified, but also put the problem in more explicitly ideological terms. "So this is the future of the Republican Party you are looking at," he wrote. "A future in which national security has bumped down the list of priorities behind abortion politics, gender politics, and energy politics. Ms. Palin is a bold pick, and probably a shrewd one. It's not nearly so clear that she is a responsible pick, or a wise one."

Bumping abortion and other social issues to the top of the Republican agenda isn't how things are supposed to work -- those issues are supposed to be the opiate for the Republican masses, doled out generously at campaign time with the understanding that they'll have little importance once power is obtained. Palin, in fact, is the first Republican vice-presidential nominee drawn from that wing of the party obsessed with what other people are doing with their dirty parts. Look at the GOP running mates since Watergate: Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole. All may have had the appropriately conservative positions on social issues, but each was far more concerned with economics and foreign policy.

If McCain loses the election, each of the three main conservative factions will have a case to make about the others' failure. The war the neocon dreamers cooked up turned out to be a disaster, one in which virtually every Republican was implicated. Future Democrats will only need to say, "Oh yeah? Well you thought the Iraq War was a good idea!" in order to put Republicans on their heels. The Palin pick will no doubt be seen as one of the worst in memory, more embarrassing than even Quayle, offering a rebuke to every social conservative who embraced her with such lip-quivering joy. And the economic disaster that came right before the 2008 election convinced nearly the entire country that deregulation failed, the free market can't be left to its own devices, and government must be the guarantor of economic security.

In other words, all the pillars that have held up conservatism for so long are crumbling. When the dust settles, it will be difficult to know just what it means to be a conservative. Is a conservative who doesn't proclaim the perfection of the free market and the evil of government still a conservative? What about a conservative who thinks his comrades ought to quit yapping about gay marriage and get into the 21st century? What about a conservative who wants to accede to the public's desire for a less bellicose foreign policy?

One of the right's greatest strengths in the last few decades was that they knew precisely what the answers to these questions were (no, no, and no, in case you're wondering). But if they go down to defeat five weeks from now, they won't be so sure. And nothing is less appealing to the public than a political movement that doesn't know what it believes.

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