By Michael J.W. Stickings(Originally posted at The Carpetbagger Report.)For all of you serious GOP-watchers out there, and for all of you who find interesting the internecine struggles of the conservative movement, or for all of you with nothing better to do than to delve into the world of conservative navel-gazing, I recommend George Will's column in yesterday’s WaPo.
Here's the gist of it: The three leading GOP presidential contenders — Giuliani, McCain, and Romney — are generally disliked (or at least not trusted) by conservatives, the base of the party. From what he saw at CPAC, Will says conservatives are "depressed" (boo-hoo, cry me a you-know-what). But such negativity is misguided. Consider this "thought experiment":
Suppose someone seeking the presidential nomination had, as a governor, signed the largest tax increase in his state's history and the nation's most permissive abortion law. And by signing a law institutionalizing no-fault divorce, he had unwittingly but substantially advanced an idea central to the campaign for same-sex marriages — the minimalist understanding of marriage as merely a contract between consenting adults to be entered into or dissolved as it suits their happiness.
Question: Is it not likely that such a presidential aspirant would be derided by some of today's fastidious conservatives? A sobering thought, that, because the attributes just described were those of Ronald Reagan.
Well then. With this thought experiment, the Burkean Will — realistic, pragmatic, self-important — backs his fellow conservatives into a corner: If you don’t like (or trust) the three leading presidential contenders, all of whom "should be satisfactory to most conservatives," then you probably wouldn't have liked Reagan. But since not liking Reagan is conservative heterodoxy (even though he was but a conservative in speech — and a radical in action), and since nothing is perfect, you need to reevaluate your dislike (or mistrust) of the three leading presidential contenders. So there. Deal with what you've got and get on with trying to win the election. Anyone on the right's better than Obama or Clinton.
For Matthew Yglesias, Will's "preternatural optimis[m]" is reminiscent of the pre-2000 case for Bush. He "seemed plainly not up to the job of running the United States of America," but whatever. Conservatives went with him anyway.
I see some of that here (although I think the three leading contenders are vastly superior to Bush), but I'm generally sympathic to Will's pragmatism. This is politics, after all, not a Socratic dialogue, and what elections generally produce is not the rule of the best but the rule of the least bad. Besides, as genuine conservatives know — as anyone who is realistic about human nature, the limits thereof, and the ebb and flow of human history should know — the pursuit of perfection is bound to fail. Hence the axiom: "The perfect is the enemy of the good," approvingly quoted by Will (and seconded by Andrew Sullivan, who longs for American conservatism to return to a more Burkean identity, as well as by James Joyner, who nonetheless argues that such pragmatism "doesn’t mean [conservatives] can't pine for the perfect candidate...").
I would turn this around on those of us on the other side. There is no perfection to be found in Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, Clark, and the rest of our presidential contenders. (No, even Gore isn’t perfect — alas.) And yet, as we embark on a campaign that is bound to get nasty, or even nastier than it already is, that is bound to expose divisions within the Democratic Party and among liberals and progressives, we ought to keep in mind that any one of our contenders is better than what the other side has to offer. This sounds like blind and thoughtless partisanship, I know, but what is party politics without partisanship? In the end, you have to take sides. In the end, victory at the polls is more important than ideology — at least when the differences among the leading candidates are ideologically acceptable.
But if Will seems to understand human nature in positing the good in opposition to the perfect, he doesn't seem to understand the nature of the Republican Party and the post-Burkean conservative movement that put it into power and sustains it. The conservatives who attended CPAC are intoxicated with success. Will may remember the pragmatic conservatism of days gone by, but these younger conservatives came of age during the Reaganite ascendancy of the '80s and the Gingrich-led populist revolution of the '90s. They are hardly the sort to seek out compromise.
Furthermore, the Republican base — the evangelical right, or whatever you want to call it — developed its political power during the Culture Wars of the '90s. These conservatives, not the George Wills, have put the GOP in power, and they are theological extremists, not pragmatists, political radicals, not Burkean conservatives. (They have Bibles in their hands, not Reflections on the Revolution in France on their shelves.) They are hardly the sort to seek out compromise either. Indeed, many eschew compromise altogether. (Will should watch Jesus Camp to get a sense of the theological engine that's currently propelling his beloved party.)
However much sense it makes, Will's fastidious pragmatism, his willingness to compromise, is just plain old-fashioned. Quaint even. In the end, if a more orthodox conservative like Brownback doesn't emerge as a leading contender, Republicans may end up having to choose imperfection, the least bad of an apparently uninspiring bunch. And that could very well be Giuliani or McCain, or even Romney. But if that's the case, conservatives, refusing to strive for anything short of perfection, won't go quietly.
Labels: 2008 election, conservatives, religious right, Republicans