February 10, 2008

NY Times: The Republican Reformation

The New York Times has an excellent op-ed piece by Ross Douthat:

Having spent the better part of three months attacking Mike Huckabee and John McCain as crypto-liberals who would destroy the Reagan coalition, the pundits, talk-radio stars and professional activists who make up the establishment of the conservative movement had to grit their teeth this week as their preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, bowed to the inevitable and abandoned the field. Mr. Huckabee and Mr. McCain are now the last men standing in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Worse than watching the two heretics celebrate in the right-wing temple, perhaps, was that many of the conservative movement’s own constituents had put them there. Despite Rush Limbaugh’s insistence that nominating Mr. Huckabee or Mr. McCain would “destroy the Republican Party,” on Tuesday more than half of self-described conservatives voted for one of the two men over Mr. Romney, the candidate endorsed by Mr. Limbaugh.

After being denounced as a tax-and-spender and a pro-life liberal, Mr. Huckabee won four primaries in four Republican strongholds, including Alabama and Georgia.

The failure of conservative voters to fall in line behind Mr. Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, among others, reflects a deeper problem for the movement’s leadership. With their inflexibility, grudge-holding and eagerness to evict heretics rather than seek converts, too many of conservatism’s leaders sound like the custodians of a dwindling religious denomination or a politically correct English department at a fading liberal-arts college.

Or like yesterday’s Democratic Party. The tribunes of the American right have fallen into the same bad habits that doomed their liberal rivals to years of political failure.

Mike Huckabee signed a no-new-taxes pledge and campaigned on a (borderline-crackpot) tax plan to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and institute a national sales tax. Yet he found himself caricatured as a “Christian socialist” because he had raised gas taxes and cigarette taxes while governor of Arkansas. Merely acknowledging that some corporate chief executives might be overpaid and some working-class voters might be struggling was enough to get him dismissed by George Will as a “radical” who had supposedly repudiated “free trade, low taxes, the essential legitimacy of America’s corporate entities and the market system allocating wealth and opportunity.”

The conservative critics of Mr. McCain and Mr. Huckabee weren’t wrong on every issue. But in their zeal to read both candidates out of the conservative movement, often on the flimsiest of pretexts, the movement’s leaders raised a standard of ideological purity that not even Ronald Reagan could have lived up to.

This sort of purism would have been folly in Mr. Reagan’s era, when conservatism was an insurgency with its greatest victories still ahead of it, and there were real liberal Republicans to slay along the way. It represents political suicide today.

Precisely because the right has won so many battles — on taxes, welfare, crime and the cold war — in the decades since it squared off against Gerald Ford and Jacob Javits, the greatest danger facing the contemporary Republican Party is ideological sclerosis, rather than insufficient orthodoxy.

Conservative voters seem to understand that.

Too bad their leaders don’t.
Read the whole thing...

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