Many liberals in recent years have been smitten with political envy. The conservative movement and Republican Party have seemed so much shrewder in their use of language, tougher in their tactics, and better organized than their progressive and Democratic counterparts. Perhaps so. But let us put to rest one supposed source of advantage for conservatives: the coherence of their philosophy. Intellectually, conservatism in the Bush era is a mess.
Only yesterday, it seems, conservative intellectuals were reveling in the audacity of a president who by flexing American muscle abroad, while cutting taxes and seeking to roll back government at home, was following a course they had charted. But conservatives might have remembered, especially when venturing into Mesopotamia, the lesson of ancient fables: Watch what you wish for.
In both foreign and domestic affairs, things are not working out the way conservatives expected. Indeed, in Iraq they are not working at all. The first line of defense in any such situation is a refusal to acknowledge reality. Whether the issue is global warming, rising economic inequality, or the chaos in Baghdad, the conservative in denial has become a stock figure of our public life. Yet, sooner or later, stubborn facts intrude on lovely illusions, and the intellectuals who sought, sold, and celebrated right-wing policies will have to reckon with their failure.
The premise of the Bush foreign policy was that as the only remaining superpower, the United States no longer needed cumbersome alliances and international institutions and could act unilaterally to reshape world politics. Instead of waiting for enemies to attack us at home, we would preemptively strike them overseas. Instead of negotiating with hostile regimes, we could just replace them. Democracy would have magical effects in the Middle East not seen since the days of Aladdin.
The decision to fight the Iraq War epitomized this frame of mind—at once belligerent and delusional. And the ensuing disaster has epitomized everything wrong with it. A foreign policy that was supposed to demonstrate America's might has become an ongoing source of weakness. The war that was supposed to prevent a rogue state from obtaining nuclear weapons has led two others, Iran and North Korea, to spur their development. And by empowering the Shia in Iraq while tying up U.S. forces there, the Bush strategy has strengthened Iran. Some on the right blame the administration for its execution of the war. But the strategic conception was a blunder from the start.
Like Rumsfeld and company, the intellectuals who agitated for war now have no credible plan for victory. It is not even clear what kind of a triumph for America it would be to stabilize the current Iraqi regime, which includes groups affiliated with the militias responsible for continuing sectarian violence. Bush's aim seems to be to postpone the recognition of failure until he can go home to Texas. Perhaps the eventual blame for failure can then be laid at the door of his successor.
The domestic side of the Bush revolution is also headed toward collapse. Bush's tax cuts, faith-based programs, and support for partial privatization of Social Security all seemed to point toward a counterrevolution against the welfare state. But while the Republicans have cut taxes, they haven't dared to cut spending proportionately. Instead, while putting the nation on a path toward fiscal crisis as the costs of Medicare and Social Security increase, they have come up against the reality that those programs are genuinely popular.
Some on the right now talk about accepting big government and turning it to conservative ends. But given the opposition to taxes and regulation of business in the Republican Party, it seems unlikely that they can create a coherent strategy of that kind. The Medicare prescription drug program is representative of the problem: Enacted without any revenue, the program is a boon for the drug and insurance industry, but a wretchedly bad plan for the elderly. To get effective government, Americans will have to turn to people who genuinely believe in it.
This fall the voters will have a chance to pass a verdict on the kind of government Republicans have given them. I don't underestimate the political capacities of the conservatives. They may be shrewder, tougher, and better organized. But they suffer from one grave debility. Their ideas are wrong.
Editors' Note: We're pleased to announce that Bob Kuttner will be dividing his time between the Prospect, where he will continue writing and editing as founding co-editor, and Demos, where he will be a distinguished senior fellow.