Friday, June 1, 2007

Time for a rumble on the right; Noonan on Bush's failure; and a postscript on Fred Thompson

The editors of the most prominent and widely-read conservative opinion journal, National Review, have issued a challenge to the editors of the most prominent and widely-read conservative-leaning national newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, to debate the immigration issue.

As the NR editors pointed out today, the silence from the WSJ editors is a bit odd:

Odd because just the other day our friends at the Journal seemed absolutely certain that they could take all comers on the issue, that opponents of the bill had no real arguments for their position.

When they issued the original challenge, the NR editors were a little more specific in calling the WSJ editors on the carpet for the latter's rash words:

It shouldn’t be a problem for the Journal’s editors to take up this challenge, since opponents of the bill aren’t “rational” on the question, have no arguments, and are “foaming at the mouth,” as they explained in a videotaped session of one of their editorial meetings last week. Click here to watch — you have to see it to believe it.

We urge them to come out of the shadows, and hope defending the bill in this forum is not another one of those jobs that no American will do. (We would challenge President Bush himself to a debate on behalf of the conservatives he has maligned, but we fear he hasn’t read the bill.)


Ah, for what might have been. Meanwhile Peggy Noonan has declared out loud in the pages of the WSJ (she's obviously not on the editorial board) what everyone has long known but not wanted to say -- President Bush actually did finish the business his father started but never completed. Specifically, he has "torn the conservative coalition asunder," with the final piece of evidence (as if such were needed) being the recent immigration bill.

Her entire editorial is should be read, but Noonan's closing words are too appropriate not to quote at length:

One of the things I have come to think the past few years is that the Bushes, father and son, though different in many ways, are great wasters of political inheritance. They throw it away as if they'd earned it and could do with it what they liked.

Bush senior... won in 1988 by saying he would govern as Reagan had.

Yet he did not understand he'd been elected to Reagan's third term. He thought he'd been elected because they liked him.

And so he raised taxes, sundered a hard-won coalition, and found himself shocked to lose his party the presidency, and for eight long and consequential years. He had many virtues, but he wasted his inheritance.

Bush the younger came forward, presented himself as a conservative, garnered all the frustrated hopes of his party, turned them into victory, and not nine months later was handed a historical trauma that left his country rallied around him, lifting him, and his party bonded to him.

He was disciplined and often daring, but in time he sundered the party that rallied to him, and broke his coalition into pieces. He threw away his inheritance. I do not understand such squandering.

Now conservatives and Republicans are going to have to win back their party. They are going to have to break from those who have already broken from them. This will require courage, serious thinking and an ability to do what psychologists used to call letting go.

This will be painful, but it's time. It's more than time.

This may seem like a rush to flee a sinking ship, and to a certain extent it will be. Conservatives who take the long view might consider, though, that it may not be a bad thing that Bush finally pushed them too far. If conservatives have proved anything over the past 6 years, it has been how little it took to keep them loyal. Bush met expectations in exactly three areas: he appointed good justices to the Supreme Court, he held the line on human life issues, and he cut taxes without turning around and raising them again.

Some might add to this the fact that there haven't been terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. It is true that we have experienced no further such attacks.

But leaving aside the difficulty of proving a negative, when one considers Bush's anti-terrorism measures against the backdrop of the disastrous interventionist foreign policy pioneered by his father, continued by Clinton, and brought to a crusading fever pitch in the current administration, it should be hard for conservatives to cheer this negative accomplishment with much relish.

Much of the vehemence of conservative reactions to Bush's immigration bill is that our borders are about the most concrete national defense that one can imagine. If the President's desire for cheap labor and cheap deals with Democrats is so great that it makes him willing to write off our borders, conservatives are thinking, then why have we been standing by him loyally on what has boiled down to the single issue of national security?

Put differently, if the President's desire for security is so great that he was willing to force his fellow Americans to swallow the bitter pills of the Patriot Act's worst provisions (provisions that would drive conservatives into armed revolt were Clinton to have proposed them,) and a war the likes of which no conservative from Coolidge to Reagan would ever in a lifetime have considered starting -- why wouldn't he have the courage to force big business and his buddy Vincente Fox to swallow the bitter pill of tightly secure borders?

The imploding credibility reflected in questions like these, not any sort of nativist foaming at the mouth, is at the heart of the vehemence of the conservative revolt against Bush's immigration bill.

Some Republicans tried, in an exercise of wishful thinking, to pretend that President Bush is and always was a conservative in the sense that the party rank-and-file would understand the term. Their current crushed anger is understandable, but in all fairness, someone else's self-delusion isn't entirely the President's fault.

What is important is the process of rediscovering what it means to be conservative, and rediscovering what it was about conservative thought that was once greeted by the country as fresh, honest, and bracing after decades in the liberal doldrums.

And a part of that rediscovery is realizing that conservatism changes to meet new challenges through a combination of keen observation of human nature as it is and of a careful mining of the riches of human experience and history.


Which brings us to the spreading wildfire of support in the GOP for Fred Thompson -- a man whose objective accomplishments are nearly as thin as those of his likely Democratic opponent, Sen. Clinton. The grassroots excitement about his now-certain entry into the race is due in no small part to this inchoate sense that conservatives need a leader who is simultaneously old and new.

The second-tier candidates are failing to connect with Republicans not because Republicans aren't conservative. It is because they are painting themselves as Reagan clones. Republicans instinctively know that Reagan didn't get elected because he was anyone's clone. It was because he was simultaneously old and new -- old ideas and old sensibilities, new applications and fresh articulations.

The top-tier candidates are failing to connect with Republicans for a variety of reasons. Romney has the authenticity of a telemarketer. McCain is, well, McCain. Guiliani will ultimately falter because it takes more than being neither Romney nor McCain to light up the base, especially when you and the base disagree with each other 75% of the time.

Of the three, only McCain has the slightest chance at defeating Sen. Clinton. Romney performance in a general election would make Republicans long for the good old days of 1964, and Guiliani would probably fare along the lines of, say, Bob Dole. So of the three, McCain is naturally the one least likely to get the nomination.

It is Thompson's moment. A majority of Republicans have been waiting for someone to step forward, and they will rally behind that someone if he shows himself to be worth it. Whether Thompson has the stuff to pull it off, though, remains to be seen.

Forget the lack of money and organization and high-dollar consultants, forget the late start, forget the thin qualifications. He has waged the perfect stealth non-campaign (Noonan again -- it's a priceless one,) and now the nomination is his for the taking. But he will have to take it. Not from his opponents, but from the hands of a betrayed, demoralized, and wary party.

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