Radio West: In your piece you identify a few of the moments when the conservative movement really began to take hold. We’re going to go through that today. But I want to begin by asking, can you identify when it became clear to you, anyway, that the movement was, if not over, at least in real trouble?
George Packer: I think it might have been the midterm elections of 2oo6 when, after repeated cycles in which the Republican Party kept adding to its majority in Congress and returning a Republican president to the White House, suddenly there was a real shift in the other direction. It wasn’t a landslide. It wasn’t a 1994 kind of massive burn. But it showed that there was something going on out in the country that suggested the Bush White House had begun to wear out its welcome. Also that Congress had lost the confidence of the people. The reasons are obvious. There was so much corruption that year; government spending was out of control; chronic problems were going unsolved. Congress seemed to be in a kind of unholy alliance with lobbyists and corporate benefactors. All these combined into what the president called a “thumping.” But I think that in itself suggested a new turn, but the last two years have made it clear to me that this turn is not just a two-year or four-year shift, but that it really is the end of an epoch. While working on the New Yorker piece, I was reading Kevin Phillips’ book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” from 1969, which was the seminal document in charting the era of conservative dominance. It’s a really brilliant book. In it he says that American politics has this way of going through 32-year or 36-year periods of dominance by one or another ideology. Jacksonian democracy in the early 19th century. Lincolnian Republicanism in the late 19th century. Industrial Republicanism in the early 20th. New Deal liberalism in the mid-20th. And he said the next cycle will be a kind of sunbelt conservatism. And he was absolutely right. But the interesting thing is that conservatism lasted just a few years longer that in those other periods. Reading that, Phillips made it sort of click: “Yes, this isn’t just two years or four years we’re talking about. We’re looking at a 40-year reign that’s come to an end.”
RW: We’ll get to this more as we go along – but this was one of the ideas, one of the flawed illusions, that you say, of Karl Rove. He thought this cycle would last forever. That was one of the components of his political thinking.
GP: I think Karl Rove a tactical genius in the sense that he knew how to win elections by .2%. But strategically, he was actually deluded. He imagined that he was going to create what he called “the permanent Republican majority” and that George W. Bush would be the beginning of that era. He didn’t understand that the Gingrich congress had worn out the idea of tax-cutting and limited government as a winning political ideology. The problems of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s were no longer problems of the early 21st century. A reigning or ascendant political creed would have to have answers for new problems not simply looking back to what Reagan had done. The other mistake he made, I think, was thinking that these political victories he was scoring in 2002-2004 were enough. He didn’t seem to understand. I think the White House in general didn’t understand that you needed good government, not just good politics, in order to stay in power. Reagan understood that. Scott McClellan’s new book suggests that was indeed true: everything was politics rather than policy. We’ve heard that from other insiders; McClellan is the most recent. That goes straight back to Karl Rove in the sense that there was a permanent campaign going on but between elections whole cities were drowning and wars were going very badly and it didn’t seem to affect his political strategy at all.
RW: In the piece you provide this first-hand perspective. And we should say that the story is told really from the inside of the movement itself. There are a number of prominent conservatives that you talked to, making this kind of self-analysis of their movement. They’re really distressed. They’re really worried.
GP: This was the thing that clinched my argument. I went out and talked to a dozen, mostly younger, conservatives and suggested to them that maybe we’re looking at the end of a long period in power. And they absolutely seconded it. In fact they went beyond anything I would have said in their really harsh criticism of the Republican party, conservative think tanks, conservative publications. They’re sort of seeing a general sclerosis, an intellectual fatigue, across that vast archipelago of conservative institutions that have arisen in, say, the past quarter century – and essentially predicting that they will be in the wilderness for some years. They needed to face that, the beginning of a return to power, and facing that they had lost touch with the country and lost the country’s faith. Now, I’ve watched liberals living through years and years of exactly that situation and it’s extremely painful. All sort of pathologies arise in response to finding that one suddenly doesn’t have the faith of the people. You can believe that if you just go back to your pure original principles that everything will be fine, and there are some conservatives who told me that and who believe that. But I think the most insightful of them realize they need a new conservatism – maybe based on the old principles but certainly willing to take the problems of the 21st century seriously and figure out what government can do about them.
RW: You talk about the newer reformer conservatives, but you also talked to the purists, among them Patrick Buchanan. What’s interesting about his contribution to the piece is the level of candor. He was very honest with you. He shared a lot of almost Machiavellian techniques and tactics. That was really interesting!
GP: Well, Pat Buchanan is tremendous fun to sit down and talk with. He’s an excellent raconteur. And he was completely open with me. You can’t help liking him no matter what you think of his views or his tactics. When he was President Nixon’s speechwriter, he was right at the heart of the effort to peel off, as he said, pieces of the old New Deal coalition and add them to a Republican party that would create a majority that would last. There were quite devilish ways of doing this – such as trying to play on the racial tensions in the Democratic party of the late ‘60’s and the early ‘70’s by sponsoring, covertly, a campaign for a black vice president to be put on the ticket in 1972 which would not make some conservative southern Democrats happy. And on and on. Really things that have kind of become part of lexicon of conservative political tactics – like showing that the Democratic candidates were out of touch with ordinary people, that they lacked the values of the majority of Americans, that they weren’t patriotic. All of this Buchanan saw early on and saw as a tremendous opportunity. And the White House exploited it.
RW: Nixon’s role in all this – while Goldwater really is the first to start talking about it – I think it’s Nixon who seemed to understand it organically and has this powerful sense of the resentment building up. Because he himself personally feels this sense of resentment.
GP: Right. I think Nixon, along with Franklin Roosevelt, is the key political figure of the 20th century in America. Because he embodied this whole new politics that I call right-wing populism. Populism had been a generally left wing or liberal politics appealing to the economic resentments of working people and the unemployed union members. Nixon, in the post-war era, saw there was a different kind of populism that could be exploited, and that was the resentment of “elites,” of bureaucrats, of intellectuals, of people in the big cities and in the center of government who thought they knew what was best for the people out there in the hinterland. Nixon, who came from modest means and worked tremendously hard and was often humiliated in early life I think had a profound sense of identification with this right-wing populism. For me it’s the best, simplest short phrase to describe why Republicans became the majority in the last part of the 20th century.
RW: That’s a great story you tell of Nixon and Buchanan. They’re in a hotel ballroom, I guess, somewhere in Columbia, South Carolina. They had a kind of epiphany: “This is the party!”
GP: Yes! They were on a tour of congressional districts during the fall of ’66, to try to get Republicans elected. They had tremendous success. That was a landslide Republican year and the beginning, I think, of the Republican ascendancy. Nixon gave a speech, and the men in the room just roared their approval. Then a couple of others, I think including Strom Thurmond, gave speeches. The passions of the room, as Buchanan told me, would just burn the paint off the walls! There was a rage and an ecstasy. It was all law-and-order and patriotism and “freedom isn’t free” and all the slogans that became the key Nixon electoral slogans. Nixon walked out of the hotel with Pat Buchanan and said, “That’s the future of the Republican party! Right here in the South.” Right in the heart of the Democratic party. He was absolutely right.
RW: I wanted to ask about how it is that intellectual conservatives of an earlier era like Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, and William F. Buckley – how do they morph into the modern conservative thinking? What’s the way they were thinking about it and the way modern conservatives are? It seems that the rhetoric, the art of politics, is the important distinction.
GP: Right. Right. Buckley wrote something about Ronald Reagan that showed how acute he was at understanding how much politics is just in the terms of the debate. He said (and I’m going to paraphrase) that people complained that Reagan didn’t achieve all that much as governor of California. This was written in the late ‘60’s. Buckley says, “What matters is the rhetoric. Before the achievement, there has to be the rhetoric. That is the beginning of all true politics.” I think that was one of the great insights of those earlier founding fathers of modern conservatism. They understood that intellectual groundwork had to be laid in order to implement the policies they all wanted. Namely: lower taxes, fewer regulations, smaller government, and a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy. That pretty much defined the conservative movement along with opposition to the liberal decisions of the Warren court. For a long time it looked grim to them. Barry Goldwater lost in one of the biggest drubbings in American history in 1964. But within a couple of years, people like Buckley saw that although the country wasn’t ready for Goldwater at that moment (perhaps he was too grim a figure), the country was in a sort of revulsion against the Great Society liberalism of Lyndon Johnson. Things like crime, urban riots, and student demonstrations, and welfare which might be more of a problem than a solution. They took advantage of that insight to found all these think tanks and publications. They saw it as a long march toward power. They needed institutional support because they didn’t’ t have the support of the mainstream media and the mainstream universities. So they took their ideas very seriously. One of the founding books of conservatism was “Ideas Have Consequences.” But I think by the ‘90’s, those ideas had either succeeded in changing the terms of the debate or had sort of degenerated into name-calling, sloganeering, and a really ugly discourse that gave us the worst of talk radio, the worst books of Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity – the figures that we now associate with the conservative movement. So it may be partly inevitable that when a movement comes to power and its ideas have come to be widely held, it undergoes a mental deterioration. Pat Buchanan cited Eric Hoffer to me and said that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket! That was his thumbnail sketch of what happened to conservatism.
RW: Another crucial idea here is that modern conservatives are deeply interested in the idea of getting elected, but it’s “what do we do next?” The process of governing makes this a little bit more complicated!
GP: Newt Gingrich and a massive tide of Republicans came to power in Congress in ’94 vowing to reform government. But really what they tried to do from the beginning was to disable government – to put it out of business. That led to the shutdown of December ‘95 which I think was really the beginning of the end of Gingrich’s power. Clinton faced him down and had the country behind him. You see in that this persistent strain of negativism in the modern conservative movement. As Barry Goldwater said, “I don’t want to get elected to pass laws. I want to repeal them! I don’t want to enact new programs, I want to get rid of old programs.” That’s the gospel of limited government. Well, turns out the American people expect the government to solve their problems and not just lecture them in the vanity of collective effort. When Gingrich failed to do that, the Republican Congress began to lose some of its support in the country and also – famously, under the influence of Tom DeLay – became the corrupt partner of lobbyists and corporations. So without a vision of good government and instead merely anti-government the conservative movement had nowhere to go when problems like income inequality, healthcare, wage stagnation, global warming, and energy dependence made Americans realize we needed new policies. Well, the Republican party had nothing to say about these things. They were only against. Americans are an ameliorative people. We expect progress. We expect things to get better so being against solutions that came out of the government turned out not to be enough.
RW: There’s an historical reality that you point out that in the time of Nixon and even Reagan there was a difference between the rhetoric used in an election and the way you governed. When you point out Nixon’s achievements in office, he looks like a moderate liberal. Reagan, while he was clearly a conservative, he was less dogmatic (I guess that’s how you put it) than most people expected.
GP: Right. I think a persistent theme in the conservative era is that conservatives were constantly disappointed by the people that they put in power because there’s a vision – and I think an impossible vision – among the real conservative dogmatists of what government should and shouldn’t do. It’s just too limited a view for the modern, post-industrial, globalizing era in which everything is big. Well, limited government isn’t strong enough in the era of huge institutions. So Nixon was a disappointment to the conservatives. Even Reagan was at the time. People forget. There were a lot of columnists, including Pat Buchanan, who were writing that Reagan was not being true to the movement’s gospel. He was not reducing the size of government. He may have been cutting taxes, but he wasn’t cutting government programs. So there’s a constant sense of disappointment in the achievements of the conservative leaders who seem to have a real knack in getting themselves elected. The two real achievements of the conservative era are the rightward turn of the judiciary… I would say, three achievements: the rightward turn of the judiciary, the conservative contribution to the end of the Cold War, and the change in American politics – the language that dominated the last thirty of forty years, the elections that kept getting won on the basis of conservative rhetoric. Those will be the last hallmarks of the era that I think has just ended. But I want to add that it doesn’t mean conservatism is dead and gone. It just means that for now and for a fair amount of time to come it will not be the ascendant and dominant ideology.
RW: … Mark is with us, calling from Salt Lake.
Mark: First of all, I think the main reason why the conservatives were able to gain power in Congress fifteen years ago and with George Bush seven years ago is because, with Karl Rove, there is more focus on lying and commitment on getting power at any cost than for Democrats. They’re more passionate about it. They’ll do anything to get it. But I contend that big movements where people want to be conservative for thirty years and then they all become liberals for another thirty years -- if George Bush had actually been a true conservative and had actually cut spending, and limited government, and not involved us in foreign wars, he would be the most popular president right now. He could have resolved the Afghan conflict. He probably could have defeated Al Qaeda and never gotten us into Iraq. If he’d actually provided us with leadership to cut spending we probably wouldn’t have the budget deficit problems we have. We wouldn’t be dependent on foreign oil. And we would be voting in another Republican majority if they actually stuck to their principles! But I think you pointed out really well that like the Democrats, who got voted out fifteen years ago partly because they became entrenched with power, the same thing is happening with Republicans. It’s not that people are tired of Republicans or conservatives; they’re tired of corruption. This will happen – I guarantee you! – in ten or fifteen years when the Democrats have had the majority and they’ve sold out to special interests and become entrenched in their power and corrupted, we’ll vote them out too! Not because we’re less liberal but because we’re sick and tired of the corruption!
RW: Is there something to that? This idea of the purists saying, “let’s go back to first principles”?
GP: Well, I think one thing the caller is saying – that if George Bush had been a good president, the Republican party would be in a better position today – I’m certainly not going to disagree with. I think what needs to be added to that and what I kept hearing from the younger conservatives is that it’s not just Bush. That they are adamant about. Anyone in their movement who says it was Bush who failed to be a real conservative is not facing the reality. Which is that we live in this enormously complicated, fast-changing, globalizing world in which things like energy dependence, global warming, jobs going overseas, questions of trade are buffeting Americans all the time. What conservatives seemed to offer from Gingrich’s “opportunity society” to Bush’s “ownership society” was more risk, more insecurity. Privatizing part of people’s social security accounts, etc. That’s just not what the American people want right now. They have enough risk in their lives. They want government to provide some security so their children can have a better life than they do. So it’s not just that Bush was an incompetent president with a Machiavellian strategist named Karl Rove, I think it’s that conservative principles no longer had the answers for the questions of today. They weren’t even asking the questions! Rich Lowry of National Review told me that when they ran an article in the flagship publication of the right – William F. Buckley’s National Review – about global warming, they were inundated with readers saying, “How dare you buy into this hoax!” They didn’t even accept that it existed. So once you’ve lost touch with reality to that extent, not to mention that conservative publications could not see that the Iraq war was going badly for years on end, then your days in office are numbered, regardless of who’s the president and how well he’s doing.
RW: Jeff is calling from Provo, Utah.
Jeff: … Nixon and Reagan seemed to rely heavily on propaganda, using the medium of television to promulgate the Communist scare, for example. It seems that Bush has tried to do the same thing, or at least use propaganda to promulgate the terrorist or new communist kind of platform, to his own detriment. To what extent do you think the changing media of the 21st century, the internet has made it untenable for the conservatives to retain their hold on American politics based on those kinds of propaganda platforms.
GP: I think propaganda is just part and parcel of politics. FDR was the first president to understand the power of mass communication by using the radio. Barack Obama has created an enormously powerful fund-raising machine using the internet. I get an email from his campaign pretty much every day just because once I had to register with them in order to attend one of his events. They’re really good at it. That is their own propaganda. I think one thing the younger liberals and the so-called “net roots” have appreciated about the conservative movement is their mastery of communications and their single-mindedness in putting out talking points and key words that would then influence the then mainstream media and the public would think about issues. It’s not an accident that one of the really smart young left wing journalists, Rick Perlstein, whose new book, “Nixonland,” is part of my article, wrote about the rise of the new right and Barry Goldwater called “Before the Storm.” He wrote that book because he was interested in how the conservative experience could become a blueprint for liberals to do the same thing. I would warn be careful what you wish for. Its absolutely true that simply having a successful political machine – as George Bush has shown – is not sufficient to stay in power. You also need to govern well. But I think people on the left are looking at the success of the Nixon-Reagan era and trying to learn some of its lessons. For years and years liberals were always on the defensive rhetorically.
RW: That’s probably a story for another time, but it is a point: whether Democrats are looking to adopt those strategies that exploit the social landscape of American culture. You think that’s probably going on to some degree?
GP: I do. Although Barack Obama is betting his campaign for the presidency on the idea that Americans want an entirely new politics in which we put behind us the partisanship, the rancor, the rhetoric, the lobbyists, the corruption – all of that – I think you have to be utopian to think that’s going to happen if he gets elected. More likely his political masterminds and others in the Democratic party will try to consolidate their power using the same means that politicians have always used. Communications. Propaganda. The purse. The power of government and patronage. These things are always with us. Reformers who imagine they’re going to come into office and clean house and change the culture of Washington usually end up disappointing their followers and themselves, as Jimmy Carter did and as George Bush did.
RW: … Danny is calling from Salt Lake.
Danny: ... I’ve been watching George Bush since he was governor of Texas. I’ve always told my friends, you know, he’s not a cowboy and he’s not a Christian and he’s not compassionate, and he’s certainly not a conservative. Now that it’s all rolled into the big, ugly snowball it’s become, what do we call it? What is George Bush? Okay, he’s not a conservative, obviously. So what is he?
RW: George Packer, talk about George Bush’s goals when he came into office. They were mostly political. So how do you identify him?
GP: That’s a good question! I think he came into office without any really formed policy ideas. He was not Reagan. He did not emerge out of a movement that had some really clear ideas about how to change government. David Frum, the conservative writer whom I interviewed, was a speechwriter during Bush’s first couple of years. He told me that in their first meeting Bush said, “We have to change the party.” There was no talk about problems that needed solving in the country or new policy ideas. It was all about positioning and politics. I think what happened was that September 11th convinced George Bush that he was a historic president. There was probably a deep strain of what I call Christian idealism or even Messianism in his thinking. When he found himself as a leader of a country at war, he found out who he was. That turned out to be a not particularly conservative politician. Instead … a rather utopian one. At least in his foreign policy and his view of America role in the world. That dominated his years in office and it also led to his downfall. What Bush shows -- he is the sort of figure that often emerges in the twilight of one of these eras. Rather than having a coherent ideology, he had different impulses. Under his watch, the conservative movement cracked up. The neoconservatives went in one direction, the evangelicals went in another, and the traditionalists went in another. By 2005, George Will and William F. Buckley were some of his harshest critics. Bush, in this sense, presided over the final fracturing into pieces of the conservative movement which had been held together by glue and tape for several years. That was partly because he himself didn’t have the intellectual coherence and leadership ability to hold it together any longer.
RW: … I want to ask you about what seems to be a struggle in conservatism now between, as you say in your article, traditional supply-side tax-cutters and younger writers who have new ideas for the movement.
GP: Among the conservatives I talked to were Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam who didn’t come up through the conservative institutions like the slightly older ones, but instead are at the Atlantic Monthly and I think have less baggage to carry. Their emphasis is one how the Republican party can regain its hold on working class America which Nixon and Reagan helped to create as the base of the party. And so they focus on tax policies and wage subsidies that will simply create more economic security for working class Americans while freeing them of some of the negative influences of liberal social policy. They’re cultural conservatives. They believe that the family is the key to society and that Republican policy should focus on the family. But it’s not gay marriage and abortion that are their major issues. It’s the economic insecurity of working class families. So they’re not into simply cutting taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, they’re into using tax policy to shore up the economic situation for working class families. I think there’s going to be a real showdown between them and corporate Republicans and Wall Street Republicans. These are not natural allies. What’s remarkable is that the Republican coalition held together as long as it did when you consider what odd bedfellows included: neoconservative intellectuals, Christian evangelicals, Wall Street, etc. Well, that’s all come apart now and different conservatives are going to focus on different parts of the coalition in trying to rebuild it.
RW: Here’s an email from Joe who writes: “I would suggest the implosion of conservatism is due in part to the disappearance of statesmen and patriots who, regardless of party affiliation, hold the nation above partisanship and scorekeeping politics.” Rob writes: “What do you consider the contribution of rightwing polemicists like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to the fall of conservatism.” Which sort of leads to a question: you take up the Reagan’s contribution. He emphasizes, as you say, the positive idea of polarization. Which says something good, I guess, about the nature of the American electorate. That they will respond to something positive, to something uplifting.
GP: Absolutely! I think Americans always vote about the future. They vote for the candidate who seems to engender the most confidence, the most faith that the future is going to be brighter. So when it was Reagan against Carter and Mondale, there was no question! When it was Bill Clinton against George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole – again, it was clear which candidate was pointing toward the future. John McCain is the sort of figure your first email writer probably wants back in American politics, someone for whom personal honor (at least in his rhetoric) counts for more than partisanship. That did indeed die out of both parties. The Iraq war is a disaster for many reasons, but one reason is that it was such a partisan war. There was no sense that we were all in it together. The President is largely to blame for that. …I think Limbaugh is a symptom, again, of a movement that comes into power and then stops being responsive to what ordinary people need and instead … he’s obviously there for his own ego. You turn on talk radio and it’s all anger and negativity. That’s just not going to remain a convincing vision of the world for Americans for very long. Limbaugh, Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and the like are the sort of degenerate heirs of the great conservative intellectuals of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s that we mentioned. If you trace the decline from William F. Buckley to Sean Hannity, you can see in that the decline of a whole movement.
RW: Cody is calling from Chicago.
Cody: You guys keep talking about, it seems like, the movement is dying. But it seems like there’s a resurgence with Ron Paul and the Ron Paul revolution. In the state conventions right now where they’re being almost taken over by Ron Paul people, it seems like there is a resurgence of that conservatism …
RW: Good point. Where does Ron Paul fit?
GP: Ron Paul is a really interesting figure. I think of him as the candidate of the purists. In my article I say there are two responses to the fall of conservatism: one is the reformist brand, which we’ve been talking about more, but there’s also the purest brand. Ron Paul essentially says, “Cut government to a minimum; stay out of foreign entanglements.” He’s a libertarian, and libertarianism has always been – ever since Goldwater – a really powerful part of modern conservatism. I just don’t think he has answers, beyond cutting government and keeping it small, to these enormous problems that we’ve been talking about. I see him in the same way as, perhaps, a candidate like George McGovern in ’72.’ Or Ted Kennedy in 1980. Essentially telling his party, “You need to go back to your original vision and you will get back the power.” Well, I don’t think it was true then of liberals and I don’t think it’s true now of conservatives.
RW: You do talk some… you invoke the name of McGovern. You actually refer to Sam Tanenhaus who said, “Goldwater was to Reagan as McGovern is to Obama.” You talking about what I guess is an emerging Democrat majority now.
GP: Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Times Book Review, was making a very shrewd analogy that as Goldwater’s crushing defeat had in it the seeds of Reagan’s victory sixteen years later with the arrival of the conservative movement in power, George McGovern’s crushing defeat in 1972 could also have foreshadowed the coalition that seems poised, perhaps, to bring Barack Obama to the presidency. Although now it’s thirty-six years later. That coalition is essentially the young, party activists, liberals, idealists, and liberals who want to use government for social transformation. And minorities. That was McGovern’s much smaller coalition that got trounced by Nixon. Some sociologists have said that all of those constituent elements have grown as a share of the electorate since McGovern and could well become the base for an Obama victory which would be the realization of the McGovern vision. This is the real question for this election. A Democrat cannot get elected if he loses 70/30 in white working class areas like eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, central Pennsylvania, southern Ohio. That’s what happened to Obama with Hillary Clinton and if it happens again in November against John McCain, I think he’s going to be very hard-pressed to actually win the election.
RW: An email from Dan, who writes, “As a former member of the GOP myself, and I even campaigned for Nixon in 1972 before I was old enough to vote, I have to agree that conservative thought now is stale and outdated. All of the trends in this country – quality and cost of education, quality of roads, healthcare availability and costs, care for veterans, etc. – have eroded,” he says. The trends can all be traced back to 1980 when the GOP, he says, “sold our country to the highest bidder.” You get this from a number of people. David Frum and David Brooks, for example, talking about how there has to be a new emphasis on wage stagnation and the economic interests. This seems to me to be the thing that’s going to fuel a new sense of idealism…
GP: Right. People like Frum who was a really hard-core, traditional small-government conservative in the ‘90’s, has come around – if not 180 degrees at least 90 degrees – and now says “government is the answer” to some of these problems. “We Republicans can’t act as if how we govern doesn’t matter. We need to govern well. We need to show that we can manage the economy and the bureaucracy well.” Which George Bush catastrophically failed to do. The problems that the email writer mentioned are all problems that can’t be solved without government. Which doesn’t mean New Deal-like programs are the answer. But neither is simply cutting taxes and allowing the market to work. That has manifestly failed to create healthcare coverage and reduce healthcare costs. There has to be some role for government which conservatives are now beginning to face. And that’s why the purists, in the end, will not be the faction of conservatism that represents its future.
RW: Alan is calling from St. George, Utah.
Alan: I agree with almost everything your guest is saying. The question is: conservatism tends to emphasize independence, competition, while liberalism has more of an emphasis on interdependence and collaboration. If we have another terrorist attack or some really threatening crisis, people’s desire for a dominant leader tends to delay the demise of this conservative dogma.
RW: Good question!
GP: Yes, that’s an interesting point. I think September 11th represented an opportunity for a president to appeal to us as Americans and to bring the nation together. The fact that George Bush didn’t do that – I think there were two reasons. One: because his political strategy was divisive and that was from Karl Rove. But the second was that conservatism didn’t have of the country as interdependent and cooperative, as you say, with the sense that we’re all in it together. It was individualistic. It was atomistic. So instead of bringing the country together, I think he missed that opportunity. If there’s another attack before the election, in the short term it may well benefit Republicans because they do better when there’s a national security crisis. That’s just been true for decades. But I think, in the end, the failure of conservatives to give us a vision of why we Americans should pay higher taxes in order to have a larger army in order to keep the country safe, or to have the federal government handle security at the airport, that failure is a failure to understand what it takes to lead in this era. I don’t think that has changed. I think whatever short-term benefit Republicans would get would be offset by their lack of a vision that this is a country which is all together. David Frum is trying to change that and to call for national unity conservatism. But right now that’s just an op-ed idea. It doesn’t have any reality in the Republican party.