Thursday, January 17, 2008

Republicans in the Wilderness

The following David Brooks piece has this buried in it:
Meanwhile, the Republican prospects in the fall just got even dimmer. I say this not only because a weak general election candidate won a primary, but because Mitt Romney’s win pretty much guarantees a bitter fight for the nomination. If you doubt that, here is what Rush Limbaugh said about McCain and Huckabee on his program today: “I’m here to tell you, if either of these two guys get the nomination, it’s going to destroy the Republican Party, it’s going to change it forever, be the end of it.” This week, Rush and his radio mimics have been on the rampage on the party’s modernizers, from Newt Gingrich on over.

How bad would it be to "change it forever?" After all, we're all gung-ho about change this year. And it's clear that the social/economic/libertarian/foreign policy conservative coalition is about shot.

But, embarrassed though I am to say it, there's something valid to Limbaugh's statement. The heart of conservatism (and, in this regard, I am extremely conservative) is a fundamental resistance to government taking on new tasks. Note that this has nothing to do with the size of government; rather, it has to do with the role of government.

There are lots of things that government can and should do. But the way you enumerate those things should only be through small-scale experiments, intense skepticism (aka resistance), and, frankly, plain-old delay.

Civil rights legislation got stymied for more than ten years. But when it finally passed, almost everybody was on board. Why? Because it finally became clear that it was genuinely needed. Everybody understood what the problem was. Everybody had a pretty good idea how to solve the problem.

Were conservatives on the wrong side of civil rights legislation? You betcha. Did they get dinged for it? Yup. But I contend that they served their purpose simply by dragging their feet and in effect saying, "Show me why it's necessary and why the fix will be better than the problem."

The most important function of conservatism is its pig-headed, foot-dragging, skeptical obstinacy. It's boring as hell but absolutely vital. Conservatives are the dash-pots of history.

So now the coalition is breaking up and it's essential that the message of whatever new coalition forms is clear and compelling enough to attract voters. The obvious problem is that nobody's going to rally to a slogan like, "Obstruction is our highest calling."

To make things even worse, there are two issues that, having been obstructed for years, are actually coming to a head: energy and health care. (NB: I don't think that the immigration issue has baked quite long enough.) Just as civil rights legislation was vitally necessary and required federal action, these two issues aren't going to get solved in a completely laissez-faire way. Whatever this new coalition is, it can't merely obstruct. It has to have a plausible policy. And it then has to compromise with the Democrats (who, for good or ill, do have a plausible policy) to produce the smallest amount of legislation that will get the job done.

So change is necessary. Unfortunately, the social conservatives--with the media's gleeful cooperation--are obsessed with abortion and gays and foreigners, oh my! Until everybody holds their fire on this stuff (which is pretty much impervious to legislated solutions), there's no chance of producing a pragmatic coalition that can act as a credible Loyal Opposition to the avalanche of pet peeves that the Democrats having been storing up through their long winter of powerlessness. If they actually get all of their agenda passed, god help us.

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