When things head south electorally for Republicans (as they did in this most recent election,) it is important to look back critically on the ideas, political tactics, and personalities involved in the debacle.
A perspective that is often forgotten, especially when Republicans are in power, is that of the so-called "Old Right."
There is good reason why some of the self-appointed banner-carriers of the Old Right are ignored. Some are second-rate intellects, others are consumed with ancient grievances against the early neoconservatives (former leftists who jumped on board as conservatives when the Carter presidency was imploding and Reagan came to power,) while yet others border on being racist kooks.
But much of the conservative heritage is wrapped up in the intellectual work of old-time men of the right, most of which was carried out while the right was in its decades in the post-war wilderness. For an excellent primer, get a copy of The Superfluous Men.
But getting back to some modern-day voices of Old Right ideas, one can get glimpses in the pages of the American Conservative, edited by Pat Buchanan. A recent issue reviews the Bush presidency, and not favorably. Yes, we are aware of all of the dirt dished out against Buchanan, but even those on the left have to admit that he had it nailed when it came to Iraq. The costs of those wars (and we're not talking about money) have been incalculable. We say wars, because what first got Buchanan thrown under the bus was his opposition to Bush I's war in Iraq.
Those wars have cost the conservative movement any real chance at reducing the size and influence of the federal government. They have cost us, in short, our entire domestic agenda, which is now lost for a generation -- which means permanently. It has been painful to watch conservatives line up in support of the perpetual state of war we have been engaged in ever since Bush the elder took office. One wanted to shake them by the lapels and say, "don't you see that these wars are going to mean that government will only continue to grow in size and power, that the American people will tire of an unwinnable war when we finally hit one and throw Republicans out of office, and that by bankrupting the country through an LBJ-style "guns and butter" approach, it will be a long time before we are trusted fiscally as a party?
Of course, attentive students of history know that there were conservative writers and thinkers who were making exactly that same argument in the post-war era with regard to the Cold War. Many on the right believed that communism was so fatally flawed as a system of government that the best approach we could take toward it was to ignore it and to allow it to fall under the crushing weight of its myriad weaknesses.
While William F. Buckley, Jr. remains a hero around here, there is still a contradiction at the center of his project of "fusionism" that has perhaps never been resolved, and that made the modern conservative movement incapable of dealing properly with the threat of an expansionist Islam. WFB and others believed that the war against communism trumped everything else, and that if the Cold War meant the creation of a massive federal government to carry it out -- well, so be it. Sound familiar?
We can never go back and unfight a war. We can never know how an alternative path would have played itself out. We can never know what would have happened had Bush the younger just went and killed the Taliban, and maybe bombed Iraq for good measure (but skipping the occupation and nation-building part) in response to the 9/11 attacks. We certainly don't know what would have happened had Bush the elder simply let Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia work out their own differences on the battlefield by themselves during the 1990's. Would there even have been a 9/11?
But we can certainly see what is: a mind-numbing national debt, vastly expanded federal expenditures, and the prospect of complete Democratic control of the White House and Congress for the foreseeable future.
If things were really that bad, doesn't the prospect of a Democratic administration actually portend something good? It is possible, but still doubtful. For those who harbor doubts, read Alexander Cockburn's article in The American Conservative. For those who are surprised to see this old-time leftist and long-time Nation contributor in the pages of a conservative magazine, don't be. Just read the article, and you will understand:
If there’s one thing defenders of civil liberties know, it’s that assaults on constitutional freedoms are bipartisan. Just as constitutional darkness didn’t first fall with the arrival in the Oval Office of George W. Bush, the shroud will not lift with his departure and the entry of President Barack Obama.
President Bush was also a man unbound by law, launching appalling assaults on freedom, building on the sound foundation of kindred assaults in Clinton’s time, perhaps most memorably expressed in the screams of parents and children fried by U.S. government forces in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Clinton, too, flouted all constitutional war powers inhibitions, with his executive decision to rain bombs on the civilian population of the former Yugoslavia.
Bush has forged resolutely along the path blazed by Clinton in asserting uninhibited executive power to wage war, seize, confine, and torture at will, breaching constitutional laws and international treaties and covenants concerning the treatment of combatants. The Patriot Act took up items on the Justice Department’s wish list left over from Clinton’s dreadful Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which trashed habeas corpus protections.
What is sadly predictable about all of this is that outside of the crotchety pages of rags like the American Conservative and the likes of writers like Cockburn and Buchanan, there is a consistent pattern in critiques of abuses of power -- conservatives criticize Democratic Presidents who do it, and liberals criticize Republican Presidents who do it. And as a result, not surprisingly, the tendency of each incoming administration is to grab for itself all of the power that the outgoing administration gathered for itself and to nab a little more in the process -- which then the next party's President will also consolidate.