Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Brief Reflection on Congress

Let us hope America (like our December Lolita Bar debate crowd) is in a mood to talk about rebuilding and repairing — rather than vengeance — after the close and hard-fought midterm elections. The world doesn’t really need more combative ideologues.

As political scientists predicted decades ago, that approach seems to have brought us to approximately 50/50 deadlock, whether in places like the U.S. with two major parties or places like Germany with multi-party coalitions that still end up at parity. Regardless of ostensible philosophical differences, this is about what you would expect over time from competing political groups each trying to get just-slightly-more-than-half of available votes, shifting their issues and rhetoric as needed. Mundane, unidealistic observations like this one are going to have to be taken into account if we honestly hope to get past the impasse instead of just wallowing in the endless sparring, something only a tiny, twisted portion of the population finds truly fun.

The bright side of the ongoing deadlock — and specifically of the U.S.’s divided government — is that it may lead to less spending and fewer foolhardy ventures than a unified, one-party government. That would constitute something of a libertarian/fiscal-conservative victory by default. I hope there are some on the left who find it impressive, by the way, that so many conservative and libertarian writers (and voters), prior to the ’06 election, sounded so willing to see “their” candidates lose if it produced a more humble, gridlocked government. Preferring to give up power rather than see it abused is an admirable trait, and one that I wish the left and government generally would emulate.

So, as a person who has in the past identified as a libertarian and sympathized with the right (to the extent the right ostensibly favored libertarian, free-market goals such as budget cuts and tax cuts), do I consider the ’06 elections a disaster? I think the results were not so much a disaster as a final verdict on a disaster that started eleven years ago, when the ’94 Republican “Revolution” was only a year old and the impasse between Clinton and a Gingrich-led, budget-restraining Congress led to a partial government shutdown, then a Republican dip in the polls, and then the complete abandonment by the Republicans of any further attempt to limit spending or limit the accumulation of government power. Subsequent arrogance on military and religious issues, during the Bush presidency, just continued the trend away from conservative self-restraint.

Will conservatives learn anything from their losses in ’06? Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s not clear that they were punished for their specific policy positions so much as for fumbling each of the major policy issues they took on. It’s not clear, as far as I can tell, that Americans have a strong position one way or the other on budget-cutting, democratizing the Middle East, using government to promulgate religious values, federalizing disaster relief, privatizing Social Security, subsidizing prescription drugs, or altering immigration — but for electoral purposes, if you take on issues that big, something decisive had better come out of it, even if it ain’t right.

On each of these issues, I fear each conservative faction can still argue that the fumble wasn’t its fault but the fault of some other faction, with few solid conclusions being drawn or lessons learned as a result. For instance, paleoconservatives were outraged at Bush’s market-oriented immigration reform plans, but given the poor performance by hardcore anti-immigrationists in the elections, it’s not clear Americans who are frustrated by immigration issues want to adopt the border-closing paleo solution. Similarly, libertarians and fiscal conservatives were so outraged over Republican spending that many didn’t vote Republican this time out — or didn’t vote at all, in the case of many stubborn/principled libertarians — but Karl Rove and others make a plausible, albeit disturbing, case that the voters want spending and that big spending usually helps Republicans win in closely-contested districts. Meanwhile, religious conservatives excoriate Republican deviations from theocratic orthodoxy, but Republicans can’t get much more religious without alienating America’s vast secularist population even further. And the prowar Republicans, even after the stinging rebuke of ’06, can argue with some plausibility that it was the U.S.’s bureaucratic (often near-socialistic) post-Saddam management of Iraq, which created time for the insurgency to gain legitimacy and kill more people, that soured Americans on the war — not the initial toppling of Saddam’s regime, nor even the vilified neoconservative philosophy ostensibly behind that effort.

Will anyone on the right (or among libertarians, to the extent they failed to get out the message on Social Security and Bush’s “Ownership Society” plans when they had the chance) actually come away from ’06 saying, “This was partly my fault, and I may need to radically rethink my whole philosophy, not just hire a better PR team?” Perhaps we deserve, at the very least, to go through the next couple years without hearing one arrogant word from any of the Bush-era conservative factions. We should see less triumphalism on the Corner, as it were, and more time standing in the corner.

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