November 12, 2008


GOP Looking Glass: The Right future. (Jonah Goldberg, 11/12/08, National Review)

[T]he debate about the Bush years will largely determine the future of the Republican party and the conservative movement.

Bush’s brand of conservatism was always a controversial innovation on the Right. Recall that in 2000 he promised to be a “different kind of Republican,” and he kept his word. His partner in passing the No Child Left Behind Act was liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Bush’s prescription drug benefit — the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society — was hugely controversial on the right. He signed the McCain-Feingold bill to the dismay of many Republicans who’d spent years denouncing campaign-finance “reform” as an assault on freedom of speech. The fight over his immigration plan nearly tore the conservative movement apart.

This is not to suggest that Bush was in fact a liberal president. Politics is not binary like that. There were conservative triumphs — and failures — to the Bush presidency. He appointed two solid conservatives to the Supreme Court. He tried to privatize Social Security, though that failed for sundry reasons.

His much-touted “compassionate conservatism” was rejected by many on the right as a slap to traditional conservatives and an intellectual betrayal of Reaganite principles. It was a rhetorical capitulation to Bill Clinton’s feel-your-pain political posturing and an embrace of the assumptions that have been the undergirding of liberalism since the New Deal. That is, the measure of one’s compassion is directly proportionate to one’s support for large and costly government programs.

True confessions time: when National Review first hired Mr. Goldberg, having never read anything he'd written, I sort of assumed it had been a favor to his mother. But, over time, he's not only been a pleasant surprise for how perceptive he is, but he's often quite funny. At a time when the magazine has slipped quite a bit, he's one of the few guys there who's worth reading anymore for whom National Review is his primary outlet--adding Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn was a good move, but the magazine needs them more than they need the magazine.

This essay though is a disappointment. It misapprehends Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and modern conservatism generally. And it does so in an important and revealing way, for the conservatism that prevails across the entire Anglosphere today is the Third Way brand of Margaret Thatcher and because it is pursued at various times by parties of both Left and Right few on either side are willing to honestly acknowledge this fact, lest they be forced to admit how like their putative foes they are become.

To begin with, we can dispense with the bizarre notion that Ronald Reagan was a small government conservative. Whatever the content of his rhetoric, the reality of his governance was that President Reagan was a conventional New Dealer. One of his signal achievements, though the Right prefers not to think of it that way, nor to think about it at all, was to "rescue" Social Security virtually unchanged in form, with only some tinkering around the edges of retirement age and tax rules. If the First Way was the politics of rugged individualism and the minimalist state and the Second Way the politics of a social welfare net maintained and administered by the state, then President Reagan was a quintessential Second Way man.

However, at around the time of his presidency there was a Third Way being pioneered in Chile and Margaret Thatcher's Britain (as well as in New Zealand and Australia). There are a variety of definitions of the Third Way, but the easiest way to think of it for our purposes is that it retains the mandate and the guaranteed benefit of the Second Way but in between your paying into the system and taking out from it uses market mechanisms and private forms to help pay for those benefits. Once, you had to pay for your own retirement out of your own pocket. Then you had to pay into a system where your money was set aside in government accounts until it was paid back out to you on retirement. Under the Third Way, you are still required to pay into the system but then would have enough control over what you've paid in that you can increase its value beyond what those government accounts would eventually render. General Pinochet, Mrs. Thatcher and others applied this basic theory to other programs--like unemployment accounts in Chile--and reformers picked up the idea and proposed new programs, like HSAs, school vouchers, Welfare Reform, etc. What all of these things have in common is that they keep in place the taxes, insurances, entitlements, guarantees, government oversight, etc. that the Right once dreamed it would be able to dispose of, but they are all now blended with the sorts of free market mechanisms and inherent risk that that the Left thought it had triumphed over. Thus, a Third Way.

One too little appreciated aspect of the Third Way is its reliance on religion. In the first instance, it does require that we feel each other's pain, or, as in George W. Bush's gospel, that you love your neighbor. That is why the advocates on the Right have so often been evangelical. At the same time, it is premised on religious institutions and social organizations and the like stepping up to fill some of the gaps that will be left as the state becomes less enmeshed in day to day life.

Viewed from this perspective, we can see the continuity and commonality that runs from Margaret Thatcher through John Major and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and Tony Blair and John Howard and Benjamin Netanyahu and George W. Bush and Jeb Bush and Mayor Daley and Stephen Harper and Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama to David Cameron and Mitch Daniels and Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin and so on and so forth. It is useful enough to be able to see what politics has succeeded in the English-speaking world over the past several decades, but, to the topic at hand, really illuminating to note that many of the Third Way leaders were eventually defeated or abandoned by their own parties. So you have the odd phenomenon of Democrats refusing to take credit for Bill Clinton's two great accomplishments: Welfare Reform and Free Trade. And you have Tony Blair and George W.. Bush coming to be hated by their own parties because they were too much identified with the other party.

Applying this framework to Mr. Goldberg's piece, we find him giving George W. Bush conservative credit for Social Security accounts--which he failed to pass--but opprobrium for HSAs, which he passed in the prescription drug package. Meanwhile, both of these reforms mark "intellectual betrayal of Reaganite principles" precisely because that are less statist and more free market than the Gipper ever was in practice. And his suggestion that W's politics make it so that "the measure of one’s compassion is directly proportionate to one’s support for large and costly government programs" relies on an assumption that no one who is not suffering from a politically disordered mind any longer believes: that there is a constituency for small and inexpensive government. It would better be said that: under W's politics the measure of one’s conservatism is directly proportionate to one’s support for reforming large and costly government programs along free market lines. And, now that we have a clearer view of the matter and have placed W directly in the mainstream of modern conservatism--as it is practiced from London to Canberra--we must ask a more pertinent question that the one with which Mr. Goldberg opens: are those who continue to insist on a reversion to the First Way conservatives? Or are they extremists, out of touch with not just their own country but the politics of the West?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 12, 2008 10:55 AM
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