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A Meltdown We Can't Even Enjoy

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 31, 2006

It's frustrating. The three overlapping forces that have sent this country in so many wrong directions -- the conservative movement, the neoconservative movement and the Republican Party -- are warring among themselves, doing their best impression of crabs in a barrel, and sensible people can't even enjoy the spectacle. That's because it's hard to take pleasure in the havoc they've caused and the disarray they will someday leave behind.

Factions within the conservative movement have been engaged in escalating skirmishes over what, exactly, the label "conservative" should mean. This week the fight is over illegal immigration. The nativists and xenophobes want mass deportation and a Berlin Wall looming over the Rio Grande. The cultural determinists lose their studied, academic poise the moment they hear brown-skinned people speaking Spanish or see them waving a Mexican flag. Watch your blood pressure, people, because Cinco de Mayo is just a few weeks away.

The social conservatives seem to be hopelessly conflicted about immigration. They have a kind of immune-system reaction against this unchecked inflow of aliens who look suspiciously like carriers of alien values. But, as some conservative commentators have noted, the immigrants flooding across the border are more likely to have traditional, family-and-church values than many native-born Americans. Does . . . not . . . compute.

Meanwhile, the small-government, tight-money conservatives have finally reached the point of utter disgust about another issue -- the fact that George W. Bush and a conservative Congress have presided over a massive expansion of government and an explosion of debt. For this group, having to point to Bill Clinton as a model of fiscal probity redefines the word "galling."

The neoconservative civil war is simpler to map, because it's all about Iraq. After a long period of denial, even the most fervent and evangelical of the neocons are now forced to admit that this whole Iraq thing hasn't quite worked out the way they expected. Those who advocate staying the course can read the polls. They see that bringing out their dictionaries, pointing to the definition of "civil war" and splitting hairs isn't doing much to stanch the flow of public opinion.

When one of the neocon movement's stalwarts, Francis Fukuyama, declared himself a turncoat recently in a new book -- he questions not only the war but the whole premise of neoconservatism as a real-world philosophy -- his erstwhile compatriots reacted with the shrill bitterness of a rejected lover. It's the kind of intellectual food fight that's almost always fun to watch, except that it's about Iraq, and there's nothing funny about Iraq.

The conflict within the Republican Party is about two primal urges, fear and ambition. Suddenly there is the chance -- not the probability but the possibility -- that the Republicans will lose control of the House or the Senate this fall. At the same time, presidential hopefuls with an eye on 2008 are jockeying for position. That combination of circumstances is turning problems into crises, and crisis management is not the ideal way to run a country.

That's what is happening with immigration. Majority Leader Bill Frist has the Senate in a lather, as if all 12 million illegal immigrants in the country suddenly arrived last Thursday. I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact that he'd like to run for president.

It would all be entertaining if the stakes weren't so high. Iraqis and Americans are dying; the treasury is bleeding; real people, not statistics, are at the center of the immigration debate. Iran is intent on joining the nuclear club. Hallowed American traditions of privacy, fairness and due process are being flouted, and thus diminished. As the powers-that-be self-destruct, the powers-that-would-be -- Democratic leaders and all Americans who've seen enough of this movie -- need to put together an alternative program that will begin to undo some of the damage the conservative-neocon-GOP nexus has wrought.

To this point, I think the Democratic Party has done just what it needed to do, which was basically to sit back and watch the other side wear itself down. When one party is in charge of the White House and both sides of Capitol Hill, there's not much the other party can do anyway. Refusing to draw up articles of impeachment or sign on to Russ Feingold's censure resolution may reflect cold political calculation, but it also acknowledges plain reality: Not gonna happen.

Democrats have behaved with remarkable discipline, which shows how much they believe they need to win this fall and in 2008. What they haven't yet done is communicate a compelling vision of where they will take the country when they are given the reins. Dry position papers, drafted by committee, aren't enough. Make us see a better future.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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