Monday, November 21, 2011

Accepting Reality

David Frum has an incisive (and controversial) essay up about his struggles with Tea Party-style Republican orthodoxies. There's much that's on target here, though some I disagree with. This paragraph has considerable merit:
Some call this the closing of the conservative mind. Alas, the conservative mind has proved itself only too open, these past years, to all manner of intellectual pollen. Call it instead the drying up of conservative creativity. It’s clearly true that the country faces daunting economic troubles. It’s also true that the wrong answers to those problems will push the United States toward a future of too much government, too many taxes, and too much regulation. It’s the job of conservatives in this crisis to show a better way. But it’s one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama’s stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own. It’s one thing to worry (wisely) about the long-term trend in government spending, and another to demand big, immediate cuts when 25 million are out of full-time work and the government can borrow for ten years at 2 percent. It’s a duty to scrutinize the actions and decisions of the incumbent administration, but an abuse to use the filibuster as a routine tool of legislation or to prevent dozens of presidential appointments from even coming to a vote. It’s fine to be unconcerned that the rich are getting richer, but blind to deny that ­middle-class wages have stagnated or worse over the past dozen years. In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.
Robert Stacy McCain thinks that some of the problems Republicans have run into have resulted from a conflation of Republican politics and conservative principles, so that many non-conservative Bush-era policies were identified with conservatism. I think one thing Frum is trying to get at is that many so-called "conservative" policies function in highly non-conservative ways.

I think there's a tension to this part of McCain's response, though:
Frum is a wonk very much concerned with the question of what legislative and policy initiatives can be feasibly enacted (and politically defended) by Republican elected officials. That’s a very different thing than declaring, broadly, what the ultimate objectives of the conservative movement should be.

For example, were it in my power to accomplish one thing in Washington, D.C., the federal Department of Education would be abolished and its employees summarily dismissed from public service. Except for funding necessary research and providing educational benefits for military veterans, we would get the federal government entirely out of the education business.

This is not how wonks talk or think, however, because nobody in Wonk World has that kind of profound loathing for federal bureaucracy. When you suggest a genuinely bold proposal like zeroing out the Department of Education, a Republican wonk immediately imagines the hue and outcry from the Democrats, the teachers unions, and the New York Times. They can’t imagine Republicans withstanding such angry criticism and, they’ll point out, Reagan never followed through on his promise to abolish the Department of Education.

But, OK, say you want to get rid of the Department of Education, and say you that desire doesn't change the fact that it very likely will not be abolished? If it is going to exist, how can you make it run in the most effective and conservative way possible? That's not an incidental question (nor do I mean to suggest that McCain thinks it is). And it is precisely that kind of question that Republicans and conservatives need to think the hardest about.

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