Examining the crisis in conservatism

Former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards, author of  “Reclaiming Conservatism,” said at the University of Minnesota Monday afternoon that the Republican Party had lost its principles, and lost its respect for the Constitution, and betrayed the essence of Conservatism over recent years:

“If Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton had ever declared — just one time —  that ‘As the president of the United States, I reserve the right to decide for myself whether I am bound by the laws that I have I just signed,’ we would have marched on Washington in protest. [This was a reference to President Bush’s use of signing statements to modify laws based on his own interpretation.]

“If Barack Obama becomes president and declares, ‘I have the right to conduct electronic surveillance without a court warrant, even though that’s a violation of federal law, because federal law requires a court warrant (or did at the time [Bush] undertook it), we would have marched on Washington in protest.

“If people who worked in the White House declared that they could not be questioned by the Congress about whatever the Congress subpoenas them for, they don’t have to obey a subpoena because they have executive privilege even though their conversations were not with the president [as Bush administration officials have done], we would have protested. We would have written op-eds, we would have done everything we could.

“We have found in the last few years that conservatives have lost track of principle and become Republicans first, driven by political power. And that, whereas at one point we believed in the separation of powers, and we believed in the Constitution, and we believed in a limited form of government, we actually understood that the president is not the head of government but only the head of one of the three separate and equal and independent branches.

“We have crossed the line now to where if there is a Republican president, Republican members of Congress believe it is their job not to serve as a check on him but to surround him and protect him and defend him because he’s not the head of another branch but he is the head of their party.

“That’s the basic thrust of my book. At one point we were motivated by a sincere belief in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the rights of the American people. We have set those aside in pursuit of raw political power.

“So when I talk about reclaiming conservatism, what I’m talking about is let’s go back to remembering why we’re in this, what are our principles what we wanted to achieve, why the Constitution says what it says, which is a system that is supposed to protect the American people from the government and not the government from the American people.”

New books
Edwards and three other Republicans in town for the convention spoke at the Humphrey Institute in a forum titled “Conservatism Today,” part of an ambitious four-day series of symposia put together by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance to take advantage of convention week. (Full schedule. [PDF] All events are free and open but advance reservations are recommended.)

Three of the four have written recent books decrying the crisis of conservatism. Ross Douthit’s book “Grand New Party” argues that Republicans thrived and became a party that relied on working class support from the Nixon era until recently because they were a party of welfare state reform. But now they have accomplished many of the reforms that years of liberal excess had made necessary and are “victims of their own success,” because now the main thing they have to offer is “welfare state shrinkage,” which is less popular.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum’s discussion of his new book “Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again,” included this rather glum picture of how the Republican Party is doing:

No Republican ticket since 1988 has carried the majority of votes of those under 30 and Frum expects Obama to carry that demographic was 20 points or more this year. If you sort the states by the average education level of its citizens, seven of the 10 most educated states are Democratic strongholds, the other three are swing states (Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia, in which Dems are surging this year). Nine of the 10 least educated are Republican strongholds (the 10th, Nevada, is a swing state).

The wealthiest zip codes in the country are now dominated by Democrats. Having lost the educated, the young and the rich and most ethnic minorities, the GOP has been reduced to a party relying on the white working class, and the poor economic performance, at least as it has affected that group, has Republicans losing their grip on that demographic.

The Republican Party is offering solutions to the problems of 30 years ago, Frum said. “We don’t have answers to the questions now being asked.”

Vin Weber’s view
Former Congressman (now lobbyist) Vin Weber of Minnesota was the fourth panelist. He hasn’t written a book about the struggles of conservatism and didn’t directly challenge the authors who spoke before him. But Weber said that the big electoral setback to Republicans occurred only in the 2006 midterms and, as far as he understands, was caused largely by the botching of Hurricane Katrina, the unpopularity of the Iraq war and corruption scandals that knocked out several Republican congressional incumbents — not a widespread rejection of Republican principles.

Liberal columnist/author E.J. Dionne, who moderated, analogized this year’s presidential race to the 1980 election. The incumbent Jimmy Carter presided over a high-inflation economy and U.S. humiliation over the Iran hostage crisis. Reagan won, not because of his ideas, but because the public was ready to reject Carter.

Edwards later went over the same analogy. Carter was unpopular but still the polls showed the race close most of the year because, Edwards said, of questions about Reagan’s readiness. Once those questions were resolved, Reagan won easily. He wondered whether the same dynamic now exists, that the only making the race seems close at present is that the public is working through its doubts about Obama. If they do, he could cruise.

Edwards suggested that this may explain McCain’s surprising choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Although the polls are close, McCain felt he had to gamble or he would lose.

Frum said he views the Palin pick with a “growing sense of unease,” and gave this hilarious analogy for McCain’s gambit:

“If you take the month’s mortgage money to the casino and bet it on the black, and you win, you’re a very lucky guy. But it’s still not a good decision.”

So here it is the Republican convention, and the all of these panelists are prominent Republican/conservatives. Just so you don’t think they are all completely dispirited with their party and enthralled with Obama, here is Frum’s reaction to Obama’s acceptance speech from last Thursday:

“I thought Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention was his second biggest mistake of the campaign, second only to his calamitous Philadelphia race speech… Up to that point, people thought if we elect Obama we can put the race problem behind us.

“The race speech served notice that no, every time I get in trouble, I’m going to give a one-hour speech on race. So brace yourself for a lot of talk about it.

“In the same way that speech at the convention was like Walter Mondale returned to life… The success of the Democratic Party in the 1990s came about through understanding that that kind of liberalism was gone forever. And that the Democratic Party would be a responsible manager of markets. This was the insight that successful left-of-center parties finally, painfully, reached in the 1990s. If they lose it, they will have done themselves tremendous damage.”

For the truly obsessed, you can watch the entire session, and all four of the Monday sessions in the series, here.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/02/2008 - 02:19 pm.

    As one disillusioned with both political parties ever since the time of Eagleton, it is no surprise to me to see both parties trampling on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the truth, the good of the people, and anything else that gets in the way of fight to the death victory over the hated enemy.

    “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a saying the truth of which seems to be demonstrated daily in our national capitol.

    (Unfortunately, the infection seems also to have spread to our mass media.

    Example: I have from sources I respect information that the whole unwed mother thing that they so focus on this morning was in fact started from a dfl campaign site accusing the repub vp nominee of not having born a child in April. Yet not one of the gleeful commentators/interviewers has mentioned it. One can only speculate as to the motives.)

    When two senators are the leading candidates for the office of the executive, neither provides any hope for meaningful change from the disaster both sides have daily set before us over the past twenty years.

    In my opinion Gingerich started it with his “no holds barred” campaign to bring republican victory, as did Quie at the state level with his deliberate insertion of Washington political tactics into state government.

    But, like mice in the walls, once allowed to intrude, these evils are nearly impossible to control, let alone exterminate.

    My father, of southern Mediterranean origin, once said “They’re alla crooks, and ever so often you got to get rid of them so the new ones canna get rid of the old ones. But sometimes there’s nothing you canna do. You just gotta lina them up anna shoot em.”

    All my life I have lived in hope that his remarks were wrong, attributable to his European background. As I watch the unending parade of corruption and vicious infighting, however, I have sometimes begun to wonder.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/08/2008 - 10:28 am.

    Lord Acton may have been right about power corrupting (and absolute power corrupting absolutely), but some people are still more corrupt than others, and it makes a difference.
    Don’t know if you were voting back in 1968, but I remember people saying that they weren’t going to vote because Humphrey wasn’t any different than Nixon.
    They weren’t saying that a couple of years later.

  3. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/08/2008 - 02:52 pm.

    I was, and voted for Humphrey.

    Degree of corruption, however, is a choice we should not have to make: evil is evil.

    I would like to see “None of the above” as an alternate choice on every ballot position, and force a 60 day runoff which must include new candidates when the previous ones are rejected.

    The very possibility of such an outcome would, I think, make the big party players think twice about putting up a Nixon or a number of others now running for office.

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