24 January 2012

The destruction of the conservative mind

Newt Gingrich is the Obama-era conservative movement's id, bridging the two most enduringly terrible impulses of modern conservatism.

On one hand, he exemplifies everything that went so terribly wrong with the conservative movement under Bush, as evidenced by his unabashed record of supporting massive federal interventions. He's a disgraced former lobbyist who supported federal education and healthcare mandates, lobbied incessantly for pharmaceutical companies and ethanol interests, once proposed executing people who use marijuana, and supported a prescription drug benefit that has blown a $16 trillion hole in the country's long-term finances.

Every signature initiative that Gingrich threw his weight behind during the Bush era was, arguably, a bill that would garner near-universal support from Barack Obama's Democratic Party in 2012. Based on his record alone, there is nothing remotely "small-government" or "conservative" about Gingrich's professed domestic policy agenda. And this analysis doesn't even touch his toxic theories of executive power and foreign intervention, which are ideas that would have gotten him branded as a lunatic in the age of Reagan.

GIngrich's personal indiscretions and horrendous record of congressional leadership aside, his voting record and policy positions are fundamentally unconservative. For any bloc of Republican voters to find Gingrich preferable to Romney is absurd. It shows that the Republican primary electorate clearly has no idea what it's doing, or who it's voting for.

On the other hand, Gingrich's rhetoric and vitriol is representative of the unhinged rage plaguing conservatism in the age of Obama.

He exemplifies the modern conservative ideal that it is more important to pound the table and call your opponent names than it is to advance conservative policy positions or attempt to limit the reach of government. It is this impulse that led Rush Limbaugh to lump Chris Christie -- a relatively moderate, pro-choice, anti-drug war northeastern Republican -- in with Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump as candidates he could "rally behind," solely because Christie's brash broadsides against Democrats are a YouTube sensation and dovetail, in part, with the hysterics of the other three. Limbaugh -- and many "conservative" voters in South Carolina, apparently -- must confuse speaking forcefully with actual conservatism.

In his South Carolina victory speech, GIngrich referenced Saul Alinsky three different times. He's called Obama a "secular socialist" -- chutzpah for a man who used daughters from his first wife to convince the media that his second wife was lying about his third wife -- and has practiced classic dog-whistle politics by repeatedly invoking the term "food-stamp president." He's implied that various Democrats are in league with Islamic jihadists.

In reality, Gingrich is perhaps the least conservative Republican presidential candidate in my lifetime. If he manages to rise from the dead yet again and topple Romney, it will truly mean the end of the limited government movement as we know it.

18 January 2012

Andrew Sullivan falls back into the tank

Andrew Sullivan's Newsweek cover story has rightly been getting quite a bit of press.

Among others, Conor Friedersdorf had an excellent global rebuttal of Sullivan's piece. But here's mine, which I wrote to a friend the night after he posted Sullivan's column to Facebook.

First: I read Sullivan religiously. I go to the Dish at least twice a day. It's probably the best blog on the internet. So, I like Sullivan. Generally, I think his instincts are good, his analysis is sound and he shares my classical liberal principles. That said, the guy is in the tank for Obama. This goes beyond being a reliable partisan (Eugene Robinson, James Carville) or even having worked for the guy (Robert Gibbs, Austin Goolsbee). He genuinely believes Obama is transformative, as in, he's a great, historically significant president. And he really believes that to his core. It's like he treats Obama as a family member or friend, and he can't stomach anyone, from anywhere on the political spectrum, criticizing him. Now, it's ok for Sullivan to engage in a sort of friendly policy-based self-critique of the president, but when others do it, he throws a fit.

Second: Just because some Republican attacks are ridiculous -- Perry saying the administration is at war with organized religion; Gingrich and the "Kenyan anti-colonialist" nonsense; Romney accusing Obama of going on an apology tour -- doesn't mean they're not always without merit. It's indisputable that government has continued to expand and Obama has done nothing about it. It's indisputable that he created a blue-ribbon fiscal commission, got a serious plan that would have given him bipartisan to meaningfully reduce our long-term debt load, and ignored it. It's indisputable that his non-recess "recess" appointment of Cordray was unprecedented and unconstitutional. It's indisputable that it's outrageous for the NLRB to tell Boeing it can't open a new factory in a non-right-to-work state and then say that it's retaliatory if they even try. On these issues, the president is flat wrong. Just because the tea party has a lot of crazy characters and is largely a partisan echo chamber doesn't mean its critiques of Obama's presidency aren't at times valid. To me, Sullivan tarring tea partiers -- which he does almost every day on the Dish -- gives him a convenient excuse to ignore the kind of president Obama's been.

Third: In his column, Sullivan says that the attacks on Obama from the right AND left are wrong. Read this piece from Glenn Greenwald and consider how thoughtful and devastating the civil libertarian critique of Obama is, from the left. It's unquestionably true that, in almost every respect, continued the Bush policies on executive power, civil liberties and the unconstitutional expansion of the imperial executive. He has continued the war on drugs, launched an unconstitutional war and is now claiming he can kidnap an American citizen and hold him forever -- or kill him. This is outrageous. Bush did things that candidate Obama excoriated him for, and rightly so. But then President Obama turned around and adopted the same policies as his own; liberals like Greenwald have called him on it, as have guys like Ron Paul, Gary Johnson and Conor Friedersdorf. Sullivan thinks that's "wrong"? It's "wrong" to hold a candidate to not only the words of the Constitution but his campaign promises? Especially in light of his awful record on civil liberties and executive power issues, it's beyond ridiculous to say that Obama is transformative, or he's kept his promises, or even cares what the Constitution actually says, because there's not a shred of evidence to support it. In terms of governance, it's the height of hypocrisy to rip a sitting president for a set of policies, and then completely reverse course and adopt that president's policies wholesale when you take office. I give liberals like Greenwald who actually criticize Obama for these things a tremendous deal of credit, because most liberals' instinct is to either ignore Obama's apostasies or attack people like Greenwald who are criticizing him within the tent. In part, I remember how "dear leader"-ish Republicans were in the Bush era, and it takes balls to criticize a sitting president in your own party.

Fourth: Sullivan says he was appalled by Bush's records on war, debt, spending, and torture. Fine. Those are legitimate critiques. And with respect to just about all of them, they are the central reasons why I think the Bush presidency was so destructive. But with the exception of torture, Obama is as bad or worse than Bush. Bush said he could imprison whoever he wanted for as long as he wanted, but he didn't ever try to make the case that he could kill an American citizen by executive order. When he went to war in Iraq, he at least asked for congressional authorization and tried to make the case that Iraq was an existential threat (it wasn't, but at the time he had a plausible case).

Fifth: This is a trend you see at the Dish regularly, and why I find reading Sullivan so maddening sometimes -- he is obsessed with Obama's "long game." He has it in his head that in 2007, candidate Obama had an 8-year master plan that set out all the fixes to the country's problems by the time his 2nd term would expire in 2016. Where is the evidence of that? He was given a chance to back Bowles-Simpson and refused. He was given several opportunities to strike "Grand Bargains" with Boehner, et al. and walked away. He could have reined in the global militarism that Bush started, and instead has perpetuated it. Give me a break. There is no evidence of a "long game." Especially in the era of hyperpartisanship and divided government, any president who assumes he will be a 2-term president is foolish. If Obama assumed this, he's squandering his supposedly transformative political skills.

Sixth: Sullivan's numbers are just wrong in terms of how much Obama has added to the deficit. We ran a $1T+ deficit in 2011. Now yes, Bush's last budget, FY 2009, did the same. Of course, we're beyond defending Bush here. But the expected budget shortfall for FY 2012 was something in the neighborhood of $700B. Alone that's approaching $2T. And Sullivan says overall in terms of real and expected debt, Obama era budgets will only add $1.4T to the deficit? Really? I wonder where he's getting his numbers.

Finally: Just looking at a survey of seemingly random policies, I don't see how anyone can look at his record and conclude that he's been a success or a great president. His war on whistleblowers is unprecedented. The treatment of Bradley Manning was deplorable. His use of signing statements rivals that of Bush. He's seeking to have a record number of people arrested for using marijuana. And contra Sullivan, Obamacare was not "universal health care." It was subsidies for some people to purchase health insurance, a modest expansion of Medicaid, and a mandate. And on the governance front, Obama will have spent the last third of his term running for reelection.

Sullivan has been smitten with Obama since he burst on the scene and decided to run for president. While Sullivan has a point that some criticisms of Obama are really unfair and stupid, the reality is that he should be judged not according to his critics, but based on what he himself promised while running for president, and the policies he's pursued since taking office. By that metric, the only reasonable conclusion is that Obama has been a failure and must be voted out.

16 January 2012

Were Huntsman and Romney the same after all?

On one hand, count me among those surprised as to why Jon Huntsman never caught fire like the rest of his rivals. Huntsman's record of actual governance was arguably more conservative than anyone else in the field. He was a strong fiscal and social conservative with actual foreign policy experience, having served as an ambassador under three different presidents. But he crafted a campaign narrative as a moderate, despite the fact that he governed from the Reagan playbook more effectively than any Republican presidential contender in recent memory. It's tough to chalk Huntsman's stunning flop up to anything other than poor instincts and a terrible advice.

(More on the "poor instincts" front: First, he obviously started his campaign off by attacking the Republican base on global warming and evolution. That's a move I'd expect out of someone like Romney who has no conservative bona fides. Second, when he sat down with Newt Gingrich at their Lincoln/Douglas forum, he didn't lay a glove on him. At the time, Gingrich was the ascendant frontrunner and, in several states, including Florida, leading the field by double-digits. This was Huntsman's opportunity to lay into Gingrich for his many apostasies. Instead, the two men traded complements all evening, and Huntsman's candidacy ended the night as moribund and unremarkable as when it began.)

On the other hand, much as I would have loved to have seen a Huntsman presidency, it is absurd that he endorsed Mitt Romney this morning. Huntsman's entire campaign was centered around tearing down Romney in New Hampshire, and just days later he reverses and endorses him? Of course politicians pander; we've come to expect that. And of course one-time challengers end up endorsing their party's nominee once the primary has finished. But we are barely out of New Hampshire, and the holes in the frontrunner's candidacy are myriad and well-defined. A week ago, Huntsman was bludgeoning Romney for flip-flopping on a laundry list of issues and implying that his incessant pandering was a betrayal of the public's trust. Now, Huntsman is apparently a surrogate. I'm not sure if the word "shallow" does this about-face justice.

Certainly, Huntsman is concerned about his brand, and pulling out after a semi-respectable 3rd-place finish in New Hampshire means his campaign will have ended on a nominal upswing. Fine. He is undoubtedly concerned with protecting the Huntsman brand for the next election cycle. But why Huntsman had to endorse Romney immediately after quitting shows that he doesn't care one bit how demagogic his actions appear. What are his supporters supposed to think?

If his 120-hour turnabout tells us anything about Huntsman, it's that he's more like Romney than he'd like us to believe: He'll apparently say anything, or do anything, to keep his political prospects alive.

12 January 2012

Ron Paul rising

Third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire.

The story of this election season is unquestionably Ron Paul. Paul has routinely been doubling, if not tripling (as he did in New Hampshire) his vote share from 2008.

This means his ideas are taking hold.

As Pat Buchanan suggested today in his column for The American Conservative, Paul has the donor base and intestinal fortitude to contest every Republican primary as rivals like Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry drop out. Unlike say, Newt Gingrich, Paul won't run a scorched-earth campaign to destroy Mitt Romney, even if he's set up to take on Romney one-on-one. Instead, he'll likely continue to stump as the happy warrior, pushing his ideas even as mainstream "conservatives" race to denounce them as "isolationist" or "kooky."

The reality is that, on deficits, entitlements, executive power, excessive overseas adventurism, and yes, the Federal Reserve, Paul has been a prophet of doom.

One of the beautiful things about the Paul campaign is that it lays bare the fallacies of not just modern liberalism, but what nowadays passes for American conservatism. Paul crystallizes the very best of the party of Goldwater and Reagan -- economic liberty, free markets, upward mobility, respect for the unborn -- but also rejects the statism has passed for conservatism in the post-Reagan area. His ideology demands absolute fidelity to the Constitution, rejecting the aggregation of executive power, unconstitutional (and frankly, unconservative) adventurism overseas, civil liberties violations and the draconian, destructive war on drugs. Paul rightly does not limit his critique of the imperial federal government to Obamacare or the NLRB or massive deficits, but rightly excoriates his fellow Republicans for creating an unconstitutional big-government behemoth in the form of the National Security Apparatus, fed by the military-industrial complex.

It is these contradictions that have made it so hard for me to embrace someone like George W. Bush or Mitt Romney. The fact that Ron Paul is not only on the scene, but more popular than ever and becoming a respected elder statesman before our very eyes, is a beautiful thing for liberty.

08 January 2012

Is the Tea Party dead?

It's a legitimate question after self-described conservatives resurrected Rick Santorum's political career in Iowa and virtually ended the presidential aspirations of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.

Most movement conservative leaders -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin, Erick Erickson, you name it -- talk of the Tea Party as a constitutionalist small-government force, a reaction to the Obama presidency, yes, but in many ways, a repudiation of eight years of Republican misrule.

But why would a movement obsessed with shrinking the size and scope of the federal government vote in a plurality for Rick Santorum?

I've written before that my biggest problem with the tea party is that, with several gleaming exceptions (Rand Paul, Mike Lee, etc.), its small-government critique ends at the water's edge. When it comes to civil liberties, executive power, unconstitutional wars and nation-building, there is nothing remotely "small-government" about the likes of Palin, Limbaugh, Marco Rubio or Eric Cantor. In some cases (Rubio) "tea partiers" advocate for an expansionist, imperialist foreign policy more befitting of a Woodrow Wilson Democrat than a Ronald Reagan conservative.

Minimally, even if tea partiers don't expressly advocate for a Wilsonian foreign policy like Rubio does, tea partiers willfully blind themselves to the extremism of the Bush administration on these policies and how extra-constitutional the imperial executive has become.

But what most polling generally demonstrates is that even on domestic or economic matters, the tea party is nothing more than the Republican base writ large.

Case in point: Santorum voted for the largest expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society, voted to authorize the federal government to intervene in the Terri Schiavo fiasco, voted five different times to raise the debt ceiling, has a torrid history of being tied to lobbyists, supported federal intervention in education policy and was a congressional leader during the Bush era when deficits began to spiral out of control. There is nothing remotely conservative or "small government" about Rick Santorum's domestic political record. Yet in a 7-way vote, Iowa Republicans who "strongly support" the tea party voted in an overwhelming plurality for Santorum. The second-biggest beneficiary of their support? Newt Gingrich at 17 percent, whose big-government record has been rehashed ad nauseum.

As Will Wilkinson noted in this smart post, perhaps Iowa conservatives don't know much about Santorum's big-government record. But the support for Santorum over someone like Ron Paul demonstrates that -- at least in Iowa -- the tea party can be bought by using anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, "pro-family" rhetoric, regardless of whether the candidate has a record of actually attempting to limit government at all.

Recent South Carolina polling also shows a weird trend. In this CNN poll released Friday, respondents who said they support the tea party supported Romney -- universally regarded as the field's "moderate" even back in 2008 -- at a rate of nearly one in three. Gingrich -- again whose record of expanding government, sometimes unconstitutionally so, needs no introduction -- was at 23 percent and Santorum at 20. These are perhaps the three most notorious big-government Republicans not just in the field, but in the entire country, and three out of four South Carolina tea partiers support one of them. Perry, by contrast, garnered just 6 percent of the tea party's support. This is absurd.

The only conclusion I can draw from this data is the same conclusion many liberals have reached: That the tea party is nothing more than a subset of the partisan Republican base, simply dressed up with new phraseology. This conclusion isn't intended to be hostile or pejorative, but rather is based on my evaluation of the voting records of the candidates self-described tea partiers say they support.

Especially now that Bachmann is out of the running, and with the possible exception of Santorum, I'll be voting for whoever the GOP happens to nominate. But let's stop kidding ourselves about the tea party.

04 January 2012

Last night was a terrible night for Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney "won" the Iowa caucuses last night by 8 votes. Eight.

Over Rick Santorum, who is mostly broke, completely unable to self-finance a multi-million dollar campaign and who -- despite relentless retail politicking -- was polling in the single digits until last week.

The order of finish is irrelevant. Last night cannot be spun as a Romney "victory" in any reasonable way.

Romney has outspent and out-organized every other candidate by a considerable margin. As a 2008 contender, his name recognition is the most widespread of any of the seven contenders. He has been running for president for the last five years. To the extent a Republican "establishment" exists -- the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, Fox News contributors, former congressional surrogates and so forth -- it is firmly and unquestionably behind Romney. He enjoys every imaginable advantage.

And yet he won by eight votes?

Romney finished in second in the caucuses in 2008, taking 25% of the vote. Mike Huckabee won with about 36 percent.

In 2008, he faced a comparatively formidable field that included John McCain, Rudy Guiliani and Mike Huckabee. Any of these men would be considered frontrunners in the much weaker 2012 field. The 2012 field is, as Ross Douthat noted, the weakest field of contenders of either major party in a generation. And even with Jon Huntsman ignoring Iowa entirely and Michele Bachmann's support evaporating, Romney managed to secure less of the caucus vote this time around.

Romney should have blown this field out, taking at least a third of the caucus-goers. Instead, he performed worse than he did in 2008.

This demonstrates that the real winners of the Iowa caucuses were Santorum and Ron Paul, who both have been ignored by most media outlets and brushed aside by the "establishment" (again, to the extent one exists). The fact that either man was within a mile of Romney speaks to both their retail politicking skills, the degree to which their respective messages appeals to a strong, core group of followers, and how unhappy the majority of the party is with Romney.

In a normal political climate, Paul and Santorum shouldn't have come anywhere near Romney -- this is especially true if one tunes into talk radio or opens the Wall Street Journal.

This shows that Romney is an incredibly susceptible frontrunner, no matter how much cash he may have in the bank. I've said it many times: If he can't convince a conservative primary electorate to vote for him, I have a hard time seeing how he'll run competitively against an incumbent president who, despite declining approval ratings, voters generally seem to like personally.

The conventional wisdom is that Romney is the most "electable" Republican in the race, but the more voters see of him, the less they seem to care for him.

His support should be peeling away rapidly. It won't, but that's only because Republicans are content parroting the "electability" argument -- which falls apart when it's time to count the votes.