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McCain's Problem Isn't His Tactics. It's GOP Ideas.

By Greg Anrig
Sunday, August 3, 2008

At long last, the conservative juggernaut is cracking up. From the Reagan era until late 2005 or so, conservatives crushed progressives like me in debates as reliably as the Harlem Globetrotters owned the Washington Generals. The right would eloquently praise the virtues of free markets and the magic of the invisible hand. We would respond by stammering about the importance of regulation and a mixed economy, knowing even as the words came out that our audience was becoming bored.

Conservatives would get knowing laughs by mocking bureaucrats. We would drone on about how everyone can benefit from the experience and expertise of able civil servants. They promised to transform stodgy old Social Security into an exciting investment opportunity that would make everyone wealthy in retirement. We warned about the scheme's "transition costs" while swearing that the existing program would still be around for today's younger workers. They offered tax cuts. We talked amorphously about taxes as the price of a civilized society. After Sept. 11, 2001, they vowed to strike hard at terrorists anywhere and everywhere without worrying about the thumb-twiddlers at the United Nations. We stood up for the thumb-twiddlers.

But now, seemingly all of a sudden, conservatives are the ones who are tongue-tied, as demonstrated by Sen. John McCain's limping, message-free presidential campaign. McCain's ongoing difficulties in exciting voters aren't just a tactical problem; his woes stem largely from his long-standing adherence to a set of ideas that simply haven't worked in practice. The belief system and finely crafted policy pitches that enabled the right to dominate the war of ideas for the past 30 years have produced a relentless succession of governing failures, from Iraq to Katrina to the economy to the environment.

Largely as a consequence, the public's attitude toward government -- Ronald Reagan's bête noire -- has shifted. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that, by a 53-to-42 percent margin, Americans want government to "do more to solve problems"; a dozen years ago, respondents opposed government action by 2 to 1. Meanwhile, Republican constituency groups' long-standing determination to put aside their often significant differences and band together to support GOP candidates is fracturing: The libertarian darling Ron Paul and the evangelical Christian leader James C. Dobson are among the Republican bigwigs who haven't so far endorsed McCain. And the mountains of books and articles by conservative writers attacking liberals and liberalism have begun to be matched by new stacks of tomes exploring what went wrong with conservatism and what is to become of it.

As I listen to leading voices and thinkers on the right pondering the condition of their ideology, it is increasingly clear to me that they face a fundamental dilemma -- one that cannot be resolved anytime soon and that might well leave the conservative movement out to pasture for as long as we progressives have been powerlessly chewing grass. That choice is whether to stick with rhetoric and policies wedded to free markets, limited government and bellicose unilateralism, or to endorse a more robust role for the public sector at home while relying more on diplomacy and international institutions abroad. Either way, conservative Republicans seem destined to have a much harder time winning elections for the foreseeable future. Just ask McCain how much fun he's having.

The single theme that most animated the modern conservative movement was the conviction that government was the problem and market forces the solution. It was a simple, elegant, politically attractive idea, and the right applied it to virtually every major domestic challenge -- retirement security, health care, education, jobs, the environment and so on. Whatever the issue, conservatives proposed substituting market forces for government -- pushing the bureaucrats aside and letting private-sector competition work to everyone's benefit.

So they advocated creating health savings accounts, handing out school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, shifting government functions to private contractors, and curtailing regulations on public health, safety, the environment and more. And, of course, they pushed to cut taxes to further weaken the public sector by "starving the beast." President Bush has followed this playbook more closely than any previous president, including Reagan, notwithstanding today's desperate efforts by the right to distance itself from the deeply unpopular chief executive.

But in practice, those ideas have all failed to deliver on the promises the conservatives made, and in many instances, the dogma has actually created new problems. Particularly after Hurricane Katrina, when Americans saw how hapless the Federal Emergency Management Agency was, the public has begun to realize that the right's hostility toward government has produced only ineffective government.

One can see the results in recent headlines: a Justice Department where non-conservatives need not apply; tainted spinach, jalapeño peppers and pet food; dangerous imported toys; poorly enforced environmental laws and a warming planet; the regulatory failures that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco. Meanwhile, large tax cuts (as under Reagan) have weakened the country's fiscal health without significantly improving the lot of the vast majority of citizens. And the right's enthusiasm for Bush's brand of "benevolent hegemony" in foreign policy, which insists on the U.S. right to wage preventive war and dismisses the United Nations as a band of meddlesome bureaucrats, has weakened our security -- most notably through the unnecessary calamity in Iraq -- by diluting our military capabilities and diverting their focus from genuine threats from al-Qaeda.

So now what? In new books, two conservative stalwarts, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, don't even bother wrestling with such failures. Instead, they argue for an even stronger dose of the medicine that has, so far, produced mainly toxic reactions. They owe their fame to denigrating the government, so one can hardly blame them for sticking with the program. For conservatives to abandon the arguments that have served them so well politically for so long would be akin to a Fortune 500 company dropping its core business when it recognizes that the market for its product is rapidly disintegrating.

Running away from something that has made you successful, even after the public is clearly no longer buying, is extremely difficult to do. Business-school curriculums are filled with case studies of long-prosperous companies that went bankrupt precisely because they were unwilling or unable to shift to an enterprise better suited to changing times. Future political science classes might some day teach a similar story about conservatism.

Shifting course won't be easy, either. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, a pair of conservative authors decades younger than Gingrich and Norquist, argue in their new, much-hyped book "Grand New Party" that the time has come to "move beyond the Reagan legacy and the mindset of the current Republican power structure." They suggest plenty of proposals that many progressives would support, including a fairly ambitious and expensive national health-care plan, subsidies for entry-level jobs and more investment in infrastructure.

But while Douthat and Salam deserve credit for alerting fellow conservatives to the perils of staying the course, their embrace of a relatively activist government -- if adopted by the broader movement -- would shift political battles to a playing field on which progressives have a much stronger footing. Once conservatives concede that something like national health insurance is desirable, it becomes hard to discern what will remain of their Reaganite identity. On July 14, Rush Limbaugh himself fulminated on-air about reformers such as Douthat and Salam. "We have some Republicans who seem hell-bent in throwing away the one proven winning formula twice that won 49 states," he said. "If you want to big-tent the Republican Party, go right ahead. You start big-tenting conservatism, and you're going to have it end up meaning nothing."

It's bad enough that opening up the conservative agenda to energetic government would lose Limbaugh. Worse, it would alienate the wealthy business executives and scions who have financed the formidable network of right-wing institutions that includes think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, activist groups such as Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and a plethora of conservative media outlets. That money flowed because its sources benefited directly and enormously from such policies as tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks. Those sugar daddies are unlikely to find much to be enthusiastic about in a Grand New Party, and their money will largely determine whether and how conservatism will transform itself.

David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, tries to resolve the central dilemma confronting conservatives in his own recent book, "Comeback," by having it both ways. On the one hand, he writes: "There are things only government can do, and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of the government, we must prove that we care enough about government to manage it well." But he offers little in the way of concrete ideas for improving government, drawing heavily on familiar, ineffective ideas such as school vouchers and U.N.-bashing. Frum's solution of pouring the old wine into new bottles can't do much good since the wine itself has gone bad.

Traditionally, conservatives have defined themselves as resistant to change, standing "athwart history, yelling Stop," as the late William F. Buckley Jr. famously put it. But right now, conservatives -- including McCain -- are damned if they do change and damned if they don't.

ganrig@gmail.com

Greg Anrig, vice president of programs at the Century Foundation, is the author of "The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing."

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