Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Brief Political Aside

Ross Douthat, the New York Times's new conservative columnist, has a piece up today doing a What If Dick Cheney had been the nominee in 2008. Douthat seems to think that if Cheney had run he would have lost in such a landslide that it might have jump-started conservatism on the road to intellectual recovery:

[T]he conservative movement might – might! – have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that’s necessary if it hopes to regain power.

One quick question: Why is it that everyone assumes political movements need intellectual renewal to be successful? After John Kerry's defeat, the general consensus was, If the Democrats can't beat a weak incumbent like Bush they're doomed as a political party! Remember how the end was nigh for Democrats in January of 2005? Yet two years later they scored big in the mid-terms and then two years after that expanded their congressional majorities while recapturing the White House.

Did liberalism undergo an intense intellectual renewal between 2004 and 2006? I don't think so. Instead--the other side presided over a series of intensely bad events.

Look, I don't mean to sound like a Marxist determinist here, but let's strip away, for a moment, the more complicated questions of blame and look at the bare facts. After George W. Bush took office:

* Lower Manhattan was devastated in the 9/11 attacks

* America launched two wars, which were conducted with varying levels of success and failure

* New Orleans was destroyed

* Gas prices rose by more than 200 percent

* Home prices fell by something like 40 percent (in some areas)

You don't need intellectual renewal to run against that! (Again, it isn't fair to blame President Bush for all of these events; and he did have some successes. But we're talking about crude political matters here.)

Yet even with that litany of failures, John McCain was still leading Barack Obama until Lehman Brothers collapsed in mid-September, triggering an enormous financial crisis which destroyed a goodly portion of voters' personal wealth. (Funny how McCain's campaign--which was highly imperfect!--went from being perceived as brilliantly obsessed with tactics before the Lehman collapse to "feckless" afterwards.)

In sum, it would be nice for conservatism to find some intellectual energy in the coming months. But that is hardly a precondition for electoral success.

If President Obama proves to be as callow, arrogant, and counter-productively impulsive as President Bush was--and there is much evidence to suggest he will--then there's a good chance that Republicans will regain their political potency irrespective of the state of conservative thought.

On the other hand, even if conservatism's Bright Young Things rescue the movement's hearts and minds from the Bad Old Guys, but the economy quickly recovers, Iraq and Afghanistan stabilize, and the international scene remains stable--then it won't make a bit of difference. Obama and the Democrats will remain politically dominant.


Anonymous said...

"conservative columnist"

You're being ironical here, right?

Jeff S. said...

Ross Douthat is to "conservative columnist" as Arlen Specter is to "Republican Senator"

tom said...

So you're saying that Republicans just need to hope for more bad stuff to happen at the right time and hope that their 2012 nominee isn't ancient, weird, or tongue-tied? (I'm not criticizing, that's what I think.)

It is funny to watch the liberals' conservatives emerge. The cable networks chose Megan McCain to play a fresh conservative who can damn those who came before. Now the Times does the same in print (to be sure, using a much smarter damner, albeit one whose columns the NYT editorial team could safely predict from his book).

And with Brooks and Douthat, the NYT spans the entire range of conservatism, from B to D.

Jonathan said...

demographics demographics demographics. That has to be at the forefront of any such analysis.

John said...


Does it make a difference that conservatives have placed more emphasis from the beginning on intellectual argument and cohesion, and liberals have been content with being an amalgam of factions united by getting goodies from government?

Still, your point is a good one: the GOP had the tougher road and the worse candidate in 2008. But then, after 100 years of liberalism, it will always have the tougher road.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe someone is saying this!

The reason 'everyone' else says we need new intellectuals and ideas to re-energize the GOP is cuz 'everyone' is an intellectual offering fresh, sophisticated newly packaged and re-spliced ideas.

I must admit I am getting pretty sick of these 'bright young things' who proudly live like maggots off what they claim is the carcass of the old guard that lost its way - and a lot faster than I got sick of Bush (the last guy to offer his father's wine in a flashy new bottle (compassion, blech!) and scold the old guard).

Very few of them offer anything interesting or useful, for a party or ideological movement, except hairsplitting, condescension, and vacillation.

Conservatism doesn't really need intellectuals who think events in their life are real 'game-changers' that call for new ideas they can will into being.
Not much has happened to make what people like Locke, Burke, Smith, Friedman and others said before any less valid. I love opinions, but come on - not every columnist is a philosopher, or even the next Orwell.

And no party needs them. If anything ideas and consistent ideologies just get in the way of building coalitions.

It is nice to see someone point out the big picture.

Nimrod said...

Out here in San Francisco, on the night after the last election, a liberal friend of asked me what message could the Republicans possible have in fours years that would get us the White House back?

I told him it will be a very simple one:

"Polls open at 7 a.m."