Movement Conservatism: An Obituary

(I was going to save this for after the election, but Kevin Drum beat me to the punch, so I’ll lay it out now before the bandwagon gets too crowded.)

Goldwater was before my time, but I remember Reagan well enough. However you define “movement conservatism,” his presidency was its apex. “Conservative” stopped being a dirty word, and “liberal” started to become one. The notion that government action was, a priori, troublesome and suspect took root. Taxes became a “burden” that required “relief.” In terms of policy and in terms of language, conservatives succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate their way.

By movement conservatism I mean the long-term campaign to consciously return Republicans (especially the anti-government, socially conservative types) to and maintain them in power. That word is very important, because for the Grover Norquist wing of the Republican party, ideology and policy priorities take a back seat to getting power and holding on to it. Only by remembering that focus on the reigns of power can we make any sense out of conservative behavior during the Clinton years. He was, by all accounts, a moderate, but he was laid into as if he was a left-wing extremist. Well-coordinated operations that crossed and blended the boundaries between political and media operatives tried to dig up dirt out of his past. They mounted a blatantly sexist smear campaign against his wife. They started all this not as election season was ramping up, but at the very moment he took office.

Clinton ended up digging his own grave by lying about the Lewinsky affair, but even that wasn’t enough to get their guy elected President. It took recorded-setting amounts of money funneled to George W. Bush, a candidate carefully groomed for mass appeal over depth or substance. It took ruthless attacks on a kindred spirit to manage victory in the primaries. It took a lousy Gore campaign that distanced itself from Clinton to its detrement, among many other mistakes. And, of course, it took the Supreme Court. Bush won by a hair, but that didn’t stop him from grinding “compassionate conservatism” under his heel the minute he started appointing his Cabinet. With Bush, over the past four years, we have seen the endpoint of movement conservatism. He is where win-at-any-cost power politics will take you. He has been a hollow president, unconcerned with matters of policy, speaking only in the broad strokes of what passes in his own mind as “principle,” while all the time every move of his handlers is motivated always, first and foremost, by the goal of holding on to power. It has been a disaster.

Movement conservatism’s days are numbered no matter who wins the election. Fundamentally, its tactics are not those of a movement confident that the natural direction of change is heading their way. They are the tactics of people who know that history is not on their side, and that the only way to stay viable is to fight, tooth and nail, and never give up. This is admirable to the extent that their ends are good ones—which is to say, not very admirable at all. As Kevin notes, traditional conservatism is fast losing ground on social issues, especially gay rights, and the long-term solutions for Social Security and Medicare are going to involve bigger government in the years to come. Indeed, while people are perfectly happy to pay less taxes, they also want more from the government when it comes to a safety net, and the notion that you can have both is starting to wear thin.

When I think of movement conservatism these days I think of Bush and the machinery that got him into power. I think of Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, and Grover Norquist. They are the “they” behind movement conservatism, but they are not all Republicans. When I was a kid in West Michigan, our U.S. representative was Paul Henry, a Republican who happily got the votes of my parents and countless other local Democrats because he was a circumspect, principled legislator, universally admired. After his tragic death he was replaced by Republican Vern Ehlers, a former physics professor, whom my wife (a Democrat) was happy to work for for a number of years. Suanna then went on to work for Connecticut Republican Nancy Johnson, one of those moderate New England Republicans that used to be the heart of the party but are now a dying breed. They, and those like them, outnumber the party thugs. If they can be faulted it is only for not stepping up to resist the influence of movement conservatism on their own party.

If Republicans are smart they will realize that the train wreck of the Bush Administration is exactly where movement conservatism has taken them. They will see the writing on the wall, and change course. I think this is inevitable in the long run, but the movement won’t go down without a fight—the battles of which will make for some interesting politics in the first months of the Kerry Administration.