January 30, 2007

Conservatives in the Wilderness

Just as winter must come to the Northern Hemisphere once a year, winter must come to the (allegedly) conservative party, the GOP every other decade or so. These things are cyclical and we've been living on borrowed fumes for quite awhile now. Bear with me while I begin my disassociative phase of '08 politics by focusing on '08 politics. Counter-intuitive, but it helps to write about it so as to forget about it. It looks pretty bleak, but, as that stirring Animal House line goes, was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

Surely a bit of gratitude is in order. The last eight years have been pure gift*, although a gift admittedly spoiled by Iraq. We got a couple sane Supreme Court justices. And we don't export abortion as under Clinton. But the truth is America is not a conservative country. She simply does not want smaller government, nor does she accept the premise that the Bush tax cuts were in any way correlative with the low inflation/unemployment environment. Far more shocking is that America is not a very socially conservative country. Terri Schiavo's plight garnered little sympathy. Abortion goes unchecked ad nauseum. Killing embryonic stem cells for Michael Fox seems a good trade. But it begins with abortion. Principles are abstract; mentally-functioning people are "real". And people can see and hear Michael J. Fox. Principle is such a weak and fragile thing in the tsunami of image and emotion, is it not? I feel it every day my own self, how Heaven can feel like a principle while earth seems more real.

But let's take a step back to 2000, the annulus miraculous. Note:
General Rules of Presidential Politics:
  • Sitting governors beat sitting senators.
  • The politician who smiles more, wins. ('68s Nixon-Humphrey exception duly noted.)
  • If your father was president that helps.
  • In 2000, George Bush had the wind at his back. Gore was considered an environmental wacko who wrote about eliminating the combustion engine, though it never seemed to come up during the campaign. Bush was a serious candidate because a few years before he shocked the nation by beating the formidable Ann Richards, a Texas institution. He was, as they say, a comer. He played well with others according to the Democratic Texas pols.

    He also smiled a lot, and often more genuinely than Al.

    And his father had been president. People like legacies because they think they come by their dishonesty honestly. Sure Gore was the son of a senator, but no one outside of Tennessee has ever heard of Al Gore Sr. and Dana Carvey wasn't imitating him.

    So Bush should've won by ten points or more, right? Electoral landslide? No. Gore came within a whisker of winning. This is what we amateur pundits refer to as a "wake up call". Which means that even though we won the battle it had the strong taste of the pyrrhic to it, like the last call for alcohol. Shocked by the narrowness of victory, I thought "well George, fire all of your guns at once and explode into space" because that's where the conservative party is going to be soon. November of 2000 was the point at which we conservatives could say, basking in the afterglow, "it's all gravy now": four years guaranteed. Well the gravy's done run out.

    The not-so-secret secret is that the American electorate is not very conservative. The only conservative president we've had in the last fifty years was Ronald Reagan and he won partially on a lark, a reaction against Carter (the Gray Davis to Reagan's Schwarzneggar) who managed to drive up inflation and unemployment to astronomical levels - a feat many economists had previously thought nearly impossible. But now we've seen prosperity generated by lowered taxes and rejected it. We've seen record lows in the unemployment rate and we're not satisfied. (Tis true that the Clinton Administration, restrained by a firebrand Gingrich-led Congress, maintained a fine economy.)

    Certainly I'm with Limbaugh. Nobody excites me in the '08 Republican field. Brownback, God love him, can't win, so I alternate between McCain and Romney. Ohio polls show Clinton beating everybody head-to-head, which is amazing. Too soon to tell, but it's possible Ohio might've officially switched to blue state status.

    And what of national security? Who can we trust with matters that make managing the economy look like child's play? By default most think it's about exercising strength but we've learned in Iraq it's also about exercising wisdom and dexterity. Looking at the field, it seems a seller's market. Hillary's brazen ambition implies she'll be ambitious in defending the U.S; it actually works to her favor to be seen as ruthless and calculating. It's a perfect storm in her favor. Having read Peggy Noonan's book, I'm amazed Hillary is as poll-bouyant as she apparently is. I always thought that people would prefer the not-yet-corrupt-but-probably-will-be to the already-proven-to-be-corrupt. But she smiles a lot. She knows the secret to victory. Peggy Noonan wrote that book in order to try to influence the New York senatorial race. She failed miserably, and I wonder if she feels disappointed at the wasted effort. And yet I come back again and again to the marvelous line in Mother Teresa's message (said to be inscribed on the wall of her Children's Home in Calcutta) that goes "what you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway":
    If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
    ...Be honest and frank anyway.

    What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
    ...Build anyway.

    If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
    ...Be happy anyway.

    The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
    ...Do good anyway.

    Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
    ...Give the world the best you've got anyway.

    You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
    It was never between you and them anyway.
    I don't mean to imply anything by quoting Mother T in relation to politics. That's not worthy of her message. Should things go badly fiscally or militarily, they are as small potatoes to the moral environment. That is what needs to be re-built. And there's little sign that politics can do anything about that anyway. Spiritual renewal isn't brought about by presidents.
    ___

    UPDATE: * - By 'pure gift' I meant more in the sense of the narrowness of the 2000 victory rather than what we actually received.

    My political opinions are minutiae - which is why I try not to overload this blog with them - but it's fun playing the contrarian. It's hard not to see Iraq as an abysmal failure, which is why I caveated the giftedness of this Administration with "though spoiled by Iraq". That caveat might well be like saying of a girl "she's pretty but for that rock-sized mole on her face" but...

    I think Bush has been relatively straightforward in the sense that he governed the way he said he would. He said he would appoint strict constructionist judges without the litmus test of abortion, which he did. He said he would govern from a 'compassionate' conservative position, which he did (No Child Left Behind, money for AIDS in Africa, Medicare enlargement, etc...). He said he would lower taxes and he did. He spent money like a drunken sailor, which was somewhat surprising, but he never promised a balanced budget either.

    The bureaucracy that the president today presides over is mind-bendingly large (which he made worse). The federal government is gigantic and somewhat ungovernable. Conservatives believe a large central gov't to be inherently inefficient, so I can't get as exercised as many do for his not evacuating or immediately rebuilding New Orleans (even liberal historian Douglas Brinkley says that Bush's main fault was that he didn't have a New York "bullhorn moment" immediately after Katrina, which seemed less a managerial problem than a stylistic concern), or for Abu Graibh. I also don't blame him or Clinton for 9/11 because 9/11 was so over-the-top that a failure of imagination plagued not only two presidents (of different parties and philosophies) but just about all pundits -- none of whom much cared or talked about the threat of Islamic terrorism before 9/11 despite the '93 bombing of the World Trade Center and numerous other attacks. If the people and pundits don't much care, the politicians rarely will. I don't know to the extent terror was used or exported, but I've heard that prisoners at Guantanamo are treated far better than American prisoners. But it seems wrong to hold them there indefinitely without trials or tribunals or something.

    As for the pro-life issues I wish he'd done more, but he put his neck out reasonably far on the embryonic stem cell issue. He's to the right of the country's opinion on that and made an issue out of what would not even have been an issue in any other Administration (most, Republican or Democrat, would've supported federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in a heartbeat). Sometimes holding the line is the best you can do though you'll never get credit for.

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