In which Republicans are the kings of wishful thinking

I sure hope, for the sake of the G.O.P., that the New York Times is engaging in liberal mischievousness today, with its report that Republicans are so confident of gains big enough in the 2010 midterm elections that they may even take back the House:

“I have no doubt that we will,” said Representative Tom Price, the Georgia Republican who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee. “TheAmerican people want checks and balances, and the way to do that is to put Republicans back in charge.”

Publicly and privately, Republicans have been upbeat about the midterm outlook, saying voter unrest demonstrated at meetings this summer coupled with strong candidate recruitment have them highly optimistic about capturing 40 or more Democratic seats and resuming command of the House.

I would tell you all the many, compelling reasons this is utter fantasy –whether you agree that the 2008 election marked a once-in-a-generation political realignment leftward or not — except the Times has been good enough to do it itself:

At the moment, Democrats have not experienced a wave of retirements, sparing them from having to protect numerous open seats in competitive House districts — typically the best opportunity for a takeover by the opposition.

While Democratic fund-raising is down, the House committee has still outraised its Republican counterpart. Republican standing remains low in public opinion polls, and the party continues to struggle to resolve the gulf between its conservative wing, which is ascendant, and the remaining moderates.

Further, it is impossible to predict what the public mood will be a year from now or what the response will be if Democrats are able to pass a health care overhaul or the economy improves and unemployment decreases.

Things have got a bit better for the right since the nadir of the 2008 Presidential election. They’ve found, in Obama’s economic stimulus and health care reforms, a rallying point that has boosted their morale, and they’ve received a fair amount of media coverage over both. The bad news for them is that they’ve appeared to confuse the coverage of the Republican base with genuine voter sentiment.

It’s true that the American public has its doubts about health care reform. They’re nervous. But they also remain behind the goals of the reform — expanding coverage and reducing costs — and remain happy to increase taxes to see this done. Democrats are unpopular in Congress, but Republicans are even more unpopular, and voter identification continues to side with the Democrats. This suggests the midterms are unlikely to swing toward a Republican party offering itself up as a mere alternative to an unpopular government. That worked in 2006, when the governing party really was on the nose. Today, voters are frustrated with the government, but they’re still listening. The Republicans have wandered into a hall of mirrors and, staring at their own reflection, are convinced they’re in the midst of a revolution.

It is true that governments most often fail not when they offer bad solutions to their constituents concerns, but when they don’t recognize those concerns as problems at all. This is what happened in Australia in 1996 and 2007, and in the United States in 2008 and 1968. The Democrats should pay heed to American voters’ worries about high deficits and expanding government, lest someone else come along and pay heed for them. But right now the Republicans are offering very little in the way of solutions, and it is difficult to see them turning the current situation to their advantage.

Steven F. Hayward in the Washington Post expands on some of the background to this problem:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

President Obama has done conservatives a great favor, delivering CPR to the movement with his program of government gigantism, but this resuscitation should not be confused with a return to political or intellectual health. The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flat-lining.

Basically, the right has a lot in the way of gas-bags willing to complain, but no one coming up with new ideas to turn those complaints into policies, and subsequently, votes. Right now, voters concerns are still centered on solidly Democratic issues: health, employment, the environment even. Republicans can’t afford to get cocky.

Yet right now in the cycle is the time for parties to get cocky. They do need to get the base excited and donating time and money. Closer to the election will come the time for management of expectations, and this should prove very interesting indeed. The Democrats likely will lose seats in the House, since they’re picked up numbers the past couple elections and many of these are in districts that naturally lean Republican. Not to mention that it’s tough being the party of any President half way through a cycle.

But this will not be 1994. Republicans have no Contract with America, and they’re not about to come up with one. The battle for the Republicans will be to make the gains they do make look substantive enough to seem like a victory; for the Democrats it will be to make their losses look mild and inevitable rather than a rebuke of their policies. The Democrats understand this game. If the Republicans keep talking about taking back the House, they will find the victories they do gain will look insufficient after their big talk.


In which I get my Bush on…

...lay down the competition, take their cash crops, and get my push on.

Over at Slate, Reihan Salam and Sam Tenenhaus have been discussing the latter’s The Death of Conservatism. Says Salam:

As he plotted the rise of George W. Bush, Rove pressed for a kind of market populism, to use Thomas Frank’s derisive turn of phrase, that would unite Sunbelt conservatives with aspirational voters of all classes and ethnicities. It was the housing bubble and the failed push to revamp Social Security, the two pillars of the ownership society, that were at the heart of the Bush-Rove domestic vision, not the fight against abortion or gay rights. And though it is painfully clear that Bush’s brand of ownerism was dangerously half-baked, it really was an ambitious project of social reform designed to cultivate the bourgeois virtues and to chip away at entrenched poverty.

I sort of agree with Salam, though Tenenhaus goes on to offer a well-argued rebuttal. But while we shouldn’t underestimate the significant harm Bush did with his support for social conservatism, I doubt he was the true believer his base thought he was, or the left feared he was. The same goes for his neo-Conservatism, though his embrace of that philosophy had disastrous consequences.

Bush campaigned in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative” who desired an America that had a lesser involvement with the problems of the rest of the world (in fact, he seemed quite disinterested in foreign policy overall); a moderate and a businessman who spoke Spanish; a low risk worth taking in the peaceful prosperous nineties.

(Which is not to say that he is or was a fundamentally a good guy; his mocking of death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker’s plea to him for clemency was, for instance, a hint at his unreflective moral surety, his self-righteousness and his vindictiveness.)

But social conservatism seemed a means only to an end — getting elected — and neo-conservatism was a solution his advisors offered up to the foreign policy problem presented by 9/11. Bush campaigned on a new American isolationism, and when Osama Bin Laden made that an impossibility, the President gladly allowed his team to implement their solution of forcibly democratizing the Islamic world.

And social conservatism? What did social conservatives gain from the Bush presidency. They held back the tide a bit on stem cells and gay marriage, but as early as two months into Bush’s second term, the country had begun its repudiation of the movement with its clear disdain for Republican attempts to politicize the end-of-life arrangements of Terri Schiavo. Court decisions against the teaching of the supposed creationist silver bullet, Intelligent Design, followed, as did legal gay marriages in a steadily expanding set of states. And Bush didn’t support a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as a heterosexual-exclusive domain. He didn’t create a Supreme Court that would reject Roe. He just soaked up the support of religious conservatives to… well, to what?

To do exactly what he came into office to do. Bush was a businessman, albeit one with shamefully successful business ventures to his name, and he wanted to make things better for businessmen like him. He reduced federal regulation until it was barely effective, he cut taxes, he paid-lip service in the form of a silly, pointless fence, to his party’s urgings to combat illegal immigration — why would he, a businessman, want to oppose a source of cheap, compliant labor? He refused to regulate the financial sector, and his signature reform for his second term was his failed attempt to privatize Social Security.

And Bush got what was coming to a businessman who thought government could be destroyed to tame it. He created a federal bureaucracy unable to rescue the city of New Orleans from a natural disaster, he created a budget deficit that ballooned impossibly out of control, he created an economic boom that did not raise the earnings of the average American, and he set the economy up on the precarious perch from which it fell, in a neat piece of bookending, in the closing year of his presidency.

Bush is neither hero, nor monster, though he did monstrous things, and he pursued the tenets of Reganomics heroically. He was not a fundamentalist crusader nor a ideologically warped warmonger. He was the scion of a scion, who was born into wealth and wanted to do right by the moneyed men he grew up alongside. That Salam, a conservative, seems to recognize this presages well for any revival of American conservatism. That the rest of the right — and the right alone — seems convinced that the all-light-no-heat ravings of a hysterical minority of Palinites and Tea Partiers are their future does not.

(Cross-posted at my Tumblr.)