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October 19, 2007

The Conservatives Have No Clothes

This probably gets into all sorts of philosophy of language concepts that I don't really understand, but when deciding what "real" conservative policies are, I don't know how you distinguish between the policies conservatives are supposed to have, and the policies conservative politicians actually seek to enact. I think the normal workaround is to call the former set of perfect-world concepts "libertarianism," but Tyler Cowen seems to merge the two in this post.

In any case, Greg Anrig is right. The basket of policies pushed by recent conservative politicians have done very poorly. And they're sort of the basket voters need to be evaluating when trying to judge conservatism and the candidates who pledge fealty to it. Any Marxist will tell you that "real" Marxism was never tried. That said, just about every time something called Marxism was tried, it traveled down much the same course, and failed in much the same way. Which is what you should be passing judgment on. Similarly, conservatism isn't ending up in this mess by accident. The constellation of interest groups and donors who fund the movement, when mixed with the preferences of the electorate (no, you can't take away my Medicare or cut my Social Security), tend to produce a fairly predictable and similar set of policies -- tax cuts without spending restraint, corporate welfare, weak energy policy, no health care program to speak of, etc, etc. In essence, that set of policies is what conservatism becomes in office. And so it's the set that should be evaluated.

Speaking of which, Greg Anrig's book, The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right Wing Ideas Are Failing, is quite good. Check it out. It did leave me wondering, though. What's the recent, conservative, domestic idea that right-leaning folks can point to proudly? The closest I can come is No Child Left Behind, which has some worth (though does need reform) -- but massively expanding federal oversight over public education isn't a very conservative thought, and the bill was crafted by Ted Kennedy. I know the Right is proud of welfare reform, but what's the successor?

October 19, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

"What's the recent, conservative, domestic idea that right-leaning folks can point to proudly?"

Obstructing Democratic proposals to expand "the social welfare state" by insuring kids leaps to mind. No, I guess that's not a positive idea of their own.

Um, keeping Terri Schiavo alive? Wait, that didn't work. No, um, it's coming to me.

An unconstitutional bill to end all those partial-birth abortions that happen so rarely and are usually used to save the mother's life? Wait, no. That's not it . . . Um.

I got it: expansion of welfare for churches and religious organizations in the form of "faith-based" charities. There you go. Sure it's an erosion of church and state, but I'm sure they're pretty proud of it.

Posted by: Trevor | Oct 19, 2007 10:15:24 AM

The closest I can come is No Child Left Behind, but massively expanding federal oversight over public education isn't a very conservative thought, and the bill was crafted by Ted Kennedy.

Why would anyone be proud that that disaster?

Any Marxist will tell you that "real" Marxism was never tried. That said, just about every time something called Marxism was tried, it traveled down much the same course, and failed in much the same way.

My problem with labeling various authoritarian dictatorships as "Marxist" is that it allows our government to do business with horribly oppressive regimes so long as they employ the correct non-Marxist rhetoric - or if they're called "China," but that's another matter entirely.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 19, 2007 10:19:26 AM

They're proud of Gitmo. Seriously. They're proud of rendition, and the concept of an "enemy combatant" that has no rights. That's the way the government is supposed to treat Bad Guys, in their minds. And they know that they've pushed it so far that this country will never quite go back to where we were before them. We'll just have less torture, reasonable secret tribunals, humanely administered unconstitutional government.

Posted by: tatere | Oct 19, 2007 10:45:23 AM

How recent is recent? I'd say bank deregulation would be high on my list.

The problem with your metric for "what's conservative" is that applied on the other side, it gets us to a postition that Clinton's welfare reform was a progressive policy.

Posted by: SamChevre | Oct 19, 2007 10:56:09 AM

Conservatives are proud of the tax cuts enacted in Bush's first term, so proud that McCain, who opposed them, must now constantly declare his fervent commitment to keeping them. They're proud of energy deregulation and the gutting of EPA, OSHA, and other regulatory agencies.

You or I would say that all of the above "achievements" have actually been destructive to our country. That would make a good conservative smile. What's your criteria for determining what counts as an achievement? Helping people in need, making government work, or ensuring the future health of the economy or the environment - these are the priorities of liberals or squishy moderates. To an economic conservative, any measure that enhances economic freedom is an achievement. To a religious conservative, any measure that strengthens moral behavior or helps to bring people to Christ is an achievement.

General elections are the corrective to this blindered viewpoint. Early signs suggest that independent voters are not so impressed by the Republican domestic agenda. But conservatives talking to one another would probably express pleasure over many initiatives, great and small, of the Bush Era.

Posted by: TomH | Oct 19, 2007 11:32:17 AM

just about every time something called Marxism was tried, it traveled down much the same course, and failed in much the same way

I can't agree with this at all. The Soviets, for example, persistently stuck with the planned economy whereas the Vietnamese hardly bothered. HCMC is one of the most capitalist places in the world, or at least it feels that way. The North Korean regime found a pretty unique and special way to fail. Even within Communist Eastern Europe there was a fair amount of diversity. I'm in no way attempting to exonerate any of these approaches to actually existing Marxism, but this isn't true.

Posted by: djw | Oct 19, 2007 11:55:45 AM

Yeah... I would point out that No Child Left Behind is the conservative accomplishment that liberals would point to as a success, which gives as good an indication as any about what's so terrible about it (being the conservative program only a liberal could love... that's got to be a bad thing, much like Lieberman being the "liberal" only conservatives could love). I think this whole post speaks to what it is to be a liberal and not a conservative, because conservatives thinking on this seems so foreign to how Ezra thinks about what constitutes an accomplishment to be proud of. They're proud of the War on Terror. They're proud of the War in Iraq. They're proud of the troops and all they do to support them. They're proud of the tax cuts. They're proud of Bush as a decent person, even if they're not entirely happy with his Presidency. They're proud of what you think they're proud of that you don't like them being proud of. That's the accomplishments. That's the problem.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 19, 2007 12:21:48 PM

To me, this starts and ends in the first paragraph of the post. It seems likes there's almost a willful disconnect among conservatives when it comes to what they say they believe and the actually follow through of those beliefs when it comes times to enact policy. The standard argument now is that "we believe in x, but x wasn't implemented the way we wanted. Which, generally is not true; it's enacted EXACTLY the way they had intended, especially since they had congressional control. But the policy fails and the public doesn't like it but then it's because it wasn't put into play the right way. I call B.S.

Posted by: Mike P | Oct 19, 2007 12:31:04 PM

Ezra starts off by defining conservative ideas as whatever self identifying conservative politicians enact, but when he gets to an idea he quite likes he describes a policy enacted by said politicians as a 'not very conservative thought'.

That really gave the game away

If you had've been able to stomach allowing conservative ideas a smidgen of credit this post wouldve looked a lot more like a sincere attempt to formulate a workable definition rather than pure politics. It's almost as shameless as it is predictable that after having whined for so long about conservatives turning liberal into a dirty word they would seek to do the same by the very same method. Namely, casting an unpopular presidency as its inevitable product.

Posted by: pimp hand strikes! | Oct 19, 2007 12:36:12 PM

pimp hand if you can explain how a Federal mandate that required every school district in the country to revise its curriculum to meet a one size fits all version of elementary education could possibly be 'conservative' then fine. But to the degree that we can identify 'conservatism' with 'federalism' or the bedrock assumption that 'Big Government is not the Solution, Big Government is the Problem' then the specific example Ezra is using, that is NCLB, is right on point.

A consistent feature of the conservative agenda for a couple of decades now has been outright abolition of the Department of Education. NCLB was a deliberate spit in the face to those holding that position.

Come on, rigor is not just something pimps like to find in their pants, it is also something thoughtful people like to find in their arguments. Your, shall we call it 'point' was pathetically limp here.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Oct 19, 2007 2:00:13 PM

So not even "pimp hand strikes" can name a conservative accomplishment to be proud of. Changing the topic like that really gives the game away.

Posted by: Ed Martin | Oct 19, 2007 2:02:01 PM

K, you can talk all the shit you want, but I like the MSA/catastrophic coverage model of health insurance, so that's once. And they did do a decent job of setting up a low-tax regime as status quo with a middle-class constituency, so if and when they cede the reigns of power, the Dems will inherit a pretty hungry beast.

Posted by: Senescent | Oct 19, 2007 3:02:23 PM

Ezra's fundamental inquiry is flawed. There are no conservative policy accomplishments because there was never conservative policy in the first place. The whole idea was to beat liberals and take governing power away from them.
Which worked incredibly well for a good 6 years.
And so is quite an accomplishment.
Just like Bush vetoing stem cell research. Liberal failure = conservative "victory"

Posted by: jonathan | Oct 19, 2007 3:12:50 PM

About Marxism: Social Democrats evolved from Marxists, and with tweaking, their model is still operational, defying the "laws of gravity" formulated by conservative economists.

It is important to remember that they did not fail, because anytime something life universal healthcare is proposed, we are told that this is Socialism, hence Communism, hence the first step toward Gulag, but in fact it would be a step toward West Europe which is doing OK.

Perhaps the common thread for succesful Marxists and succesful conservatives is that they are sufficiently open to the ideas outside their ideological box that they are anatema for their orthodox collegues. Try to ply program of Scandinavian conservatives to GOP...

My favorite was a Danish conservative health minister who figured that mental patients and institutionalized old people with sexual obsesions could actually get better if they get laid, say, once a month, and such a therapy was easily within the budget to care for these people (imagine saving on Prozac for a month), and it could be cost effective to boot. I thought that another bonus would be a rather dignified line of work for social workers that are closer to retirement... I mean, this is an idea, and not a Marxist idea, not a Conservative idea, just an idea.

Cultural Revolution in China failed. The alternative, that it does not matter if a cat is white or black as long it catches mice works much better.

Posted by: piotr | Oct 19, 2007 4:04:13 PM

Not burning up any American children for eight years is good enough for me. I know most people here think that the Waco children were nasty little Christians who should be burned up, but that's where we disagree.

Posted by: y81 | Oct 19, 2007 4:17:24 PM

y81 still promoting the "Clinton killed the Waco kids" conspiracy theories. You need to go run off and hang out with the "9/11 was an inside job" folks.

Posted by: Tyro | Oct 19, 2007 5:26:55 PM

For every nasty little Christian child burned up at Waco, we've burned up several thousand nasty little Muslim children in Iraq. I'm sure y81 takes great comfort in that.

Posted by: Uncle Kvetch | Oct 19, 2007 5:40:30 PM

No, Uncle Kvetch, I don't take the kind of pleasure you do in burning up children from other religions.

Posted by: y81 | Oct 19, 2007 6:00:13 PM

I think that the signature (and only) accomplishment of this administration is their several massive tax cuts. Ruinous policy most likely, but that is the extent of their ideas and goals. Even more than war.

Posted by: ValisJason | Oct 20, 2007 12:56:02 AM

I disagree.

I believe the legacy will be turning the direction of the Supreme Court by his conservative appointees.

Posted by: El Viajero | Oct 20, 2007 11:07:31 AM

Tax cuts/supply-side economics has been the only conservative policy since Reagan. Even after we passed the nine trillion mark, Norquist fanboys still trot out the starve the beast meme. Interestingly, in the past 20 years only the Democratic president was fiscally responsible. What happened to all that increase revenue supposedly generated by endless tax cuts?

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Posted by: peterwei | Oct 21, 2007 11:17:26 PM

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