While conservatives are among the most insistent cheerleaders for the "new war," they may well turn out to be its biggest losers, at least here on the home front. Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) could hardly contain her glee the other night on Crossfire when she remarked that she felt sorry for the Republicans "because Tom Delay and Dick Armey are forcing their members to take some really tough votes." With George W. Bush's poll ratings up there in the stratosphere, you would think Republicans would be smugly self-assured, but Lowey let us have a preview of what the Democrats have in store – and it isn't pretty:
"Three days – three days! – it took to bailout the airline industry, and it is about seven weeks plus later and we still have not passed an airline security bill. I know I fly. We are still not X-raying the bags in the hold. We are still not locking the doors, and we still don't have the National Guardsman or air marshal on every plane.
"Well, these Republicans in tough districts are going to go home and have to defend that and they are also going to have to defend a very bad economy that is slowing."
The airline security bill is the perfect example of how this war has crippled Republicans ideologically, and will make them pay politically. The Democratic response to the 9/11 atrocity, aside from rallying around the President and the war, was to demand an immediate increase in the number of federal employees. Their solution to the threat of terrorism at the nation's airports: federalize airport security. House Republicans resisted, at first, and then backed down, essentially agreeing to everything the Democrats demanded. Why? Because in wartime the conservative Republican agenda of privatization, free enterprise, and individual responsibility must inevitably give way to federalization, centralization, and collectivism. "War is the health of the State,"as Randolph Bourne put it, and this is a lesson conservatives always have great difficulty learning.
The Republicans naturally had their own spin: well, we won the New York City mayor's race, didn't we, and the new Democratic Governor of Virginia is going to confront a GOP-controlled state legislature. Besides, all politics are local, and the Democratic sweep (two governorships and 32 out of 34 mayoral elections) doesn't augur any national trend. While everything, including politics, is indeed local, the war is having an undeniable impact on the shape of American political discourse, and the effect of it is unfortunate for Republicans. The only benefit for the GOP is that it is considered bad form to seem openly partisan in any sense: this translates into formal support for the President on international and national security issues, at least so far. But this short-term gain is not only temporary, it also paves the way for long-term Democratic gains.
To begin with, the ball is in Bush's court: having declared a "war on terrorism," he must now win it. No matter how many times he emphasizes that this is going to be a protracted conflict, the President must produce a few significant victories before Americans go to the polls to elect a new Congress. As of now, that doesn't look very likely: the war is stalled, winter is upon us, and the US is now touting a "Spring offensive" as the moment when the Taliban will be decisively defeated. Rumsfeld is so confident that he is talking about "fast-tracking" the Afghan campaign, as if it were a bill before Congress. Beltway bombardiers sure have their own peculiar perspective on events, don't they? When these peculiarities run up against the hard realities of war, however, Rumsfeld's sunny optimism may generate a popular reaction that could give new meaning to the phrase "blowback."
"Blowback" is CIA-speak for the unintended consequences of US actions overseas, and is simply a restatement of the law of cause and effect in diplomatic-geopolitical terms. Actions have consequences, and so our cold war support to the "heroic" Afghan "freedom-fighters" led directly to the development of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The domestic political consequences of the Afghan war – equally unintended – could well have a similarly disastrous result for a Republican President and his party. Major blowback in the making is the GOP's big political problem, and the Election Day 2001 is not the only indication of trouble up ahead.
While Republicans were reduced to "spinning" their defeat by claiming that the Democrats won the day by stealing their ideas, a more incisive analysis was offered by Marshall Wittemann, whose Project for Conservative Reform is the quasi-official thinktank of John McCain's presidential campaign-in-waiting. Self-styled "Bull Moose (neo)conservatives," Wittemann and his fellow McCainiacs, including Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, are watching and waiting for their moment. Like the Democrats, who mutter that George W. "stole" the election (albeit under their breath, these days), the McCainiacs also nurse their own grudges: they are still furious over those phone calls from the Christian Coalition during the primaries and other alleged dirty tricks that supposedly snatched the nomination from McCain's grasp. This war may be McCain's opportunity to make a comeback.
Bloviating in his "Bull Moose" column, Wittemann illuminates why his "Project for Conservative Reform" really ought to be renamed the "Project for Conservative Eradication." "The Moose croons that 'that old time religion' may have Republicans singing the blues." Aside from the nastiness of Wittemann's explicitly anti-Christian tone, which rivals the Taliban in its vehemence, his point is that the "old" conservatism based on economic and cultural issues is on the way out. He claims tax issues didn't resonate in Virginia, and is positively gleeful that Brent Schundler, the "movement" conservative candidate for governor of New Jersey, was swamped. (The influence of those bad old Christians, again). Ah, but there was one bright ray of hope for the GOP, according to this purveyor of "bull," and that is New York City mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg – a man who registered Republican only because the Democratic primary field was too crowded:
"The man with the coattails was the patriotic conservative reform mayor of New York – Rudy. Bully!" If he's describing Rudy, then bully is quite right. But ideologues have trouble understanding humor, especially the unintentional variety, and Wittemann barrels right along:
"If Republicans are smart – and they generally aren't – they would digest the lessons of '01 and reassess their issue agenda. Can the GOP embrace a patriotic reform agenda which combines middle class economic relief and a populist attack on special interests with a strong national security agenda? Or are the Republicans wedded to the politics of the base?"
Who can doubt that McVain is actively considering a second presidential bid? A lot can and will happen in three years, and the poor man's Teddy Roosevelt has already positioned himself as a critic of the President's war strategy, loudly calling for escalation of the bombing and the introduction of ground troops in large numbers. The ambitious Senator said this as Colin Powell was traveling to Pakistan and promising President Musharraf that the conflict could be contained. While Musharraf expressed the hope that the war – or, at least, the Afghan phase of it – would be "short and sharp," the armchair generals among the Bull-Moosers were furiously demanding not only an escalation of the fighting in Afghanistan but also the extension of the war to Iraq, and even beyond. Their strategy, if implemented, would lead to a regional war in the Middle East pitting the US and Israel against the whole Muslim world: this is their idea of a "national security agenda." Yes, and so it is, but for which nation – the US, or Israel?
The Republican agenda of free markets and individual responsibility can only be implemented in a time of relative peace. Wartime is not propitious for tax cuts, deregulation, and the relaxation of the government's stranglehold on our economic and personal lives. The momentum is all in the other direction. Opportunists like Wittemann, the faux-"conservative" who seeks to separate the GOP from its right-wing base, are already clamoring for the party to drop its "antigovernment" agenda in the name of political expediency, if not wartime necessity. A Washington Post poll [September 27] claims that 64 percent of Americans "trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always" – or, at least, "most of the time." This provoked a chorus of hosannas from the liberal-left, as well as from the neconservative McCainiacs. Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein set the tone:
"At the moment the first fireball seared the crystalline Manhattan sky last week, the entire impulse to distrust government that has become so central to U.S. politics seemed instantly anachronistic."
Gleefully proclaiming the second coming of Big Government, the headline blared: "The Government, Once Scorned, Becomes Savior." Government is the modern liberals' religion: they see it as a transformative institution that can uplift us all and build a heaven right here on earth. 9/11 was, for them, a warning from the cosmos, a lightning bolt that illuminated the eternal verities of statism. Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt rejoiced that it's "time to declare a moratorium on government-bashing.... For the foreseeable future, the federal government is going to invest or spend more, regulate more and exercise more control over our lives." Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland gloated that "There is no real debate over expansion (of government power) in general. The terror assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ... should profoundly shake the less-is-more philosophy that was the driving force for the tax-cut politics of Bush and conservative Republicans."
Never mind that regulations forbidding armed private security on airlines made the hijackings possible, and let's ignore the chilling reality of a severe shortage of the anthrax vaccine and other bio-terror antidotes due to FDA regulations and government diktat. I rather like the way Paul Craig Roberts put it:
"'There are some things only government can do,' brags Al Hunt about his beloved. Yes indeed. Only government can put regulations in place that allow a few barely armed men to hijack airliners and crash them into buildings while, on the other hand, spending 30 years maximizing the population's vulnerability to germ warfare."
Conservatives were persuaded once before to lay aside the struggle against Big Government at home in the name of pursuing an even greater and more fateful battle abroad: that's what happened during the war on Communism, known as the cold war. For the sake of that war, William F. Buckley, Jr., declared,
"We have to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."
Conservatives, Buckley opined, must endorse "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy," including the "large armies and air forces, atomic power, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all." [Commonweal, January 25, 1952]
Simply replace "anti-Communist" with "anti-terrorist" and the above might have been spoken by, say, Marshall Wittemann, or even Al Hunt. Big Government is back – with a vengeance! If you doubt that, check out Doug Bandow's column on the rich plate of subsidies being offered up – by both parties – in the name of "national security" (although, inexplicably, this libertarian Cato Institute scholar wrongly labels tax write-offs for business travel, meals, and other expenses as "corporate welfare"). "A totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores" – surely those words were a bit of an overstatement, but even so they have a prescient ring to them. For that is precisely what is being constructed here, today, with startling rapidity and unanimity. During the cold war, the Attorney General of the United States did not have the power to detain anyone without a warrant, and throw him in prison forever: today, he does.
Once again, conservatives are being asked to put off the battle on the domestic political and cultural front to confront an implacable enemy abroad: international "Islamofascism," as the laptop bombardiers of the wartime intelligentsia like to call it, has taken the place of international Communism. Yes, but it's really the same old story. Forget about radically reducing the size and power of the federal government – "for the duration." Forget about the cultural decadence eating away at the very heart of our old Republic – as Andrew Sullivan delights in saying, "Don't you know there's a war on?"
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