The circular firing squad
Panicked conservatives shoot their own
The circular firing squad
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
To borrow a common senatorial phrase, I have reviewed my Sunday print column and decided to revise and extend my remarks:
When conservatism was riding high during the Reagan era, the Gipper himself decreed that no member of the movement should speak ill of another. Presumably, he would be appalled by the current conservative propensity for circular firing squads.
It’s truly a sign of a party in crisis when the true-believers – panicked by the prospect of Republican defeat, yet determined not to acknowledge reality - commence to shooting their own pessimistic messengers. Purity tests are being administered, and scorn is being heaped on those who flunk. Indeed, any conservative who dares to question the well-documented ineptitude of the McCain campaign, or the lame duck president’s horrific track record, is peremptorily dismissed as “pathetically opportunistic” (in the words of test administrator William Kristol) or simply as a “rat” (Kristol again).
Anyone who defies the the groupthink of the bunker is risking retribution, although it should be noted that this situation is not entirely new. Back in 2005, Bruce Bartlett, a Republican commentator and former Reagan official, wrote a book entitled Betrayal, which contended that President Bush was bankrupting America and betraying the Reagan legacy. On the eve of publication, Bartlett was a senior fellow at a conservative Texas think tank. But by time Betrayal went on sale, Bartlett was a former senior fellow…having been summarily dismissed.
The Bartlett episode was mere prologue. As one autumn ’08 victim, conservative commentator Kathleen Parker, wrote earlier this month, “The picture is this: Anyone who dares express an opinion that runs counter to the party line will be silenced. That doesn’t sound American to me, but Stalin would approve.”
Yeah, Stalin. Or, as another victim, New York Times columnist David Brooks calls it, “pseudo-Stalinism.” By comparison, Barack Obama gets off easy by merely being assailed as a “socialist.” You know that the conservatives must be in dire straits when the worst epithets are reserved for intramural usage.
What’s happening, of course, is that the old Reagan coalition (business conservatives, religious conservatives, neoconservative hawks, small-government libertarians, supply-siders, budget-balancers) is cracking under the strain of a bad campaign and likely defeat nine days hence – and so let the recriminations begin. Apparently the first targets are those who refuse to give 110 percent to the team.
David Frum, for instance. He’s the ex-Bush speechwriter who helped coin the phrase “axis of evil,” and he was lauded by his ideological brethren when he wrote a fawning Bush biography. But recently, he had the temerity to note the obvious, which is that Sarah Palin is a joke – in his words, “Palin cannot speak three coherent consecutive words about finance or economics” – thereby exposing himself to weeks of abuse.
Emailers wrote, “PLEASE KEEP YOUR REMARKS TO YOURSELF,” and warned him that grassroots conservatives might no longer buy his books, because clearly he is “out of touch with our values.” Colleagues dismissed him as a publicity-seeker who just wants more bookings on “good liberal TV”; and as an East Coast elitist (naturally!) who just wants to curry favor with the “cocktail-party” set. Frum recently fired back, arguing sarcastically that “perhaps it is our job…to tell our readers only what they want to hear, without much regard to whether it is true” – but that’s exactly what his critics believe. Blind loyalty first, factual reality second. As conservative commentator Kathyrn Jean Lopez put it, “I want to win this thing…Someone has to hold the line at all times.”
Undeterred, Frum still seems to be hooked on reality; in a column yesterday, he again stated the obvious, by noting that McCain “is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.” Indeed, Frum has barely been punished for his sins, at least when compared to Kathleen Parker.
After columnist Parker wrote this autumn that Palin should quit the ticket for the good of the team because she “makes George W. Bush sound like Cicero,” she received thousands of emails branding her a traitor to the cause, inviting her to kill herself, and even suggesting that her mother should have aborted her and left the fetus in a Dumpster.
Colin Powell did not suffer the equivalent indignities after his Meet the Press appearance, when he assailed the GOP’s rightward tilt and pronounced Palin unfit to serve. He did get a predictable roasting in the conservative blogosphere for supposedly being a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only), and Rush Limbaugh (who lauds Palin as “a babe”) naturally insisted that Powell is pro-Obama only because both men are black, but, for a guy like Powell, such snark is mere sticks and stones. By contrast, Christopher Buckley has had a far rockier experience.
Buckley, son of William F., the late founder of the modern conservative movement, had a nice sinecure at his dad’s magazine, National Review. Then, earlier this month, he announced his support of Obama. He no longer enjoys that nice sinecure. The mail that flooded National Review Online was running roughly 700-1 against him when he offered to resign. He half expected that his gracious gesture would be refused. It wasn’t.
He has since written elsewhere that “the only thing the Right can’t quite decide is whether I should be boiled in oil, or just put up against the wall and shot…I have been essentially fatwahed…I no longer have any clear idea of what the conservative movement stands for.”
And that’s the crux of the problem. After eight years of runaway spending and red ink, of bridges to nowhere and (in Buckley’s words) “an ill-premised, ill-waged war, conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance,” the heirs to Reagan have lost their bearings. Worse yet, their circular firing squads are proof that they prefer to dwell in denial.
Ross Douthat, one of the sanest conservative thinkers, is urging his fellow movement soldiers to escape their mental “cocoon” and face up to the multiple failures of the Bush era. He writes on his blog, “It’s a matter of recognizing political realities, instead of denying them outright,” and argues that unless conservatives stop firing on each other, they could face “decades of defeat.”
This view has been seconded by another right-leaning rationalist, the Texas-based columnist Rod Dreher, who deplores what he calls "ossified right-wing political correctness." He recently wrote: “I will see (an Obama victory) as a judgment that we conservatives brought on ourselves, and an opportunity to reform ourselves through creative thinking and action. What I don’t want any part of is the hysterical spite that’s going to find fruitful niche on the right, just as it did in some precincts of the left during the Bush years. That crap feeds on itself, and does nobody any good.”
Meanwhile, more conservative dissidents continue to surface. One of them – law professor Charles Fried, who served as U.S. solicitor general under Reagan – was actually an occasional McCain advisor until he decided last week to endorse Obama. Another dissident is Ken Adelman, the Iraq war hawk who once famously predicted a “cakewalk.” Last week he announced his endorsement of Obama by taking swipes at McCain, Bush, and Palin: “McCain's temperament, leading him to bizarre behavior during the week the economic crisis broke, and his judgment, leading him to Wasilla, depressed me into thinking that ‘our guy’ would be a(nother) lousy conservative president. Been there, done that.”
And another is Larry Pressler, a former three-term Republican senator from South Dakota. He just voted for Obama via absentee ballot. He said yesterday that McCain's handling of the financial crisis "made me feel nervous," and that he has more confidence in Obama's economic team. More broadly, he said that the GOP has violated its own principles, and that it should be prepared to suffer the consequences on November 4: "In the general election, if you have disagreements, you should not vote the party line."
When people like Fried, Adelman, and Pressler bail out – people who don’t quite fit Kristol’s description of “pathetically opportunistic” - it’s clearly a symptom of the movement’s serious ills. A period of recuperation could take some time, but political cycles do spin swiftly in our 24/7 culture. If conservatives can toss out the outmoded Karl Rove toolbox and find a way to reinvent their creed, they could reconnect with the broader electorate sooner rather than later. But that will indeed require that the self-appointed purists tame the urge to denounce and purge.
Have you ever seen Dr. Zhivago, the epic 1965 film about the Russian revolution? In one scene, Yuri Zhivago arrives home to discover that his in-laws' opulent Moscow mansion has been overrun by Bolshevik squatters. Showing no respect for private property, the Reds steal all the valuables and tear up the staircase for firewood...all in the name of the State.
That scene came to mind on Saturday, as I listened to Sarah Palin play the commie card during a stump speech. Not satisifed with calling Obama a "socialist," she's apparently doubling down by conjuring the specter of Obama ordering Red hordes to invade our McMansions and make off with our financial records (and perhaps even our high-definition TVs). This is the actual Palin quote, further evidence of a campaign in extremis:
"See, under a big government, more tax agenda, what you thought was yours would really start belonging to somebody else, to everybody else. If you thought your income, your property, your inventory, your investments were, were yours, they would really collectively belong to everybody....Now, they do this in other countries where the people are not free."
Fortunately for the Obama campaign, most Americans at this point dismiss such talk as merely the latest Halloween fright tactic, delivered by somebody who doesn't know anything.