We Blew It

P.J. O’Rourke on the failures of the conservative movement.

Let us bend over and kiss our ass goodbye. Our 28-year conservative opportunity to fix the moral and practical boundaries of government is gone–gone with the bear market and the Bear Stearns and the bear that’s headed off to do you-know-what in the woods on our philosophy.

An entire generation has been born, grown up, and had families of its own since Ronald Reagan was elected. And where is the world we promised these children of the Conservative Age? Where is this land of freedom and responsibility, knowledge, opportunity, accomplishment, honor, truth, trust, and one boring hour each week spent in itchy clothes at church, synagogue, or mosque? It lies in ruins at our feet, as well it might, since we ourselves kicked the shining city upon a hill into dust and rubble. The progeny of the Reagan Revolution will live instead in the universe that revolves around Hyde Park.

Where was the meum and the tuum in our shakedown of Washington lobbyists? It took a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives 40 years–from 1954 to 1994–to get that corrupt and arrogant. And we managed it in just 12. (Who says Republicans don’t have much on the ball?)

Our attitude toward immigration has been repulsive. Are we not pro-life? Are not immigrants alive? Unfortunately, no, a lot of them aren’t after attempting to cross our borders. Conservative immigration policies are as stupid as conservative attitudes are gross. Fence the border and give a huge boost to the Mexican ladder industry. Put the National Guard on the Rio Grande and know that U.S. troops are standing between you and yard care. George W. Bush, at his most beneficent, said if illegal immigrants wanted citizenship they would have to do three things: Pay taxes, learn English, and work in a meaningful job. Bush doesn’t meet two out of three of those qualifications. And where would you rather eat? At a Vietnamese restaurant? Or in the Ayn Rand CafĂ©? Hey, waiter, are the burgers any good? Atlas shrugged. (We would, however, be able to have a smoke at the latter establishment.)

And now, to glue and screw the lid on our coffin, comes this financial crisis. For almost three decades we’ve been trying to teach average Americans to act like “stakeholders” in their economy. They learned. They’re crying and whining for government bailouts just like the billionaire stakeholders in banks and investment houses. Aid, I can assure you, will be forthcoming from President Obama.

Anyway, it’s no use blaming Wall Street. Blaming Wall Street for being greedy is like scolding defensive linemen for being big and aggressive. The people on Wall Street never claimed to be public servants. They took no oath of office. They’re in it for the money. We pay them to be in it for the money. We don’t want our retirement accounts to get a 2 percent return. (Although that sounds pretty good at the moment.)

What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That’s not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. “Jeeze, 230 pounds!” But you can’t pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. And voters–all the voters, right up to the tippy-top corner office of Goldman Sachs–think so too.

We, the conservatives, who do understand the free market, had the responsibility to–as it were–foreclose upon this mess. The market is a measurement, but that measuring does not work to the advantage of a nation or its citizens unless the assessments of volume, circumference, and weight are conducted with transparency and under the rule of law. We’ve had the rule of law largely in our hands since 1980. Where is the transparency? It’s one more job we botched.

One flaw in his article is that (likely unknowingly) he’s confusing libertarianism and conservatism. Many of the ideas he mocks conservatives for, I would support. (For example, I would gladly vote for a constitutional amendment defending marriage. No one’s talking about illegalizing homosexual activity, despite how some misrepresent our stance, but redefining marriage is one thing that is truly beyond our pay grade.)

We had our chance, but after Reagan failed to nominate anyone who was a Conservative. George H.W. Bush. Come on. (I loved him at the time, but I was 13-14. I was too young to know any better.) Bob Freakin’ Dole? I couldn’t vote for him even holding my nose. I voted for W in 2000 because he was able to act conservative enough to convince us he might just be with us, and in 2004 because Kerry was a joke. But his use of the phrase “compassionate conservatism” should have been a red flag; many, myself included, took it for campaign rhetoric, but it should have served to warn us that he was not one of us. And we’re paying the price now: even though W was never a conservative, he’s taken us down with him. And then McCain; I hardly think I need to spend any time showing how he’s not a conservative.

No, conservatives, in many ways, are victims of Reagan’s success. Showing that America was (and still is, despite the denials of many on the Left) a center-right nation, Reagan showed that there were votes to be won on the Right. And many old-style Rockefeller Republicans have learned to mouth the platitudes of the Right, while staying in the center/left in their hearts. The first Bush ran as the heir to Reagan: he gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act, a tax hike, and a larger government. Bob Dole never really changed from the man who was once called the tax collector for the welfare state. Bush the Younger gave us two wars, national control over education, a prescription drug benefit that will bankrupt MediCare (or is it Medicaid? too lazy to look) even more quickly, among other sins. And McCain only made it due to the failure of conservatives to coalesce around a single candidate, and the fact the early states allow Independents and Democrats to decide who the nominee of the party they’re not part of should be.

Anyway, the failure is ultimately ours: we allowed those who were not one of us to portray themselves as one of us. We even participated in it. Now, some are pushing Newt Gingrich as President for 2012. Are you kidding me? The man who started the downfall of the GOP in the 90s is not the man who will save us in the teens. (Besides, he’s one of the ones I referred to above; he’s a Rockefeller Republican at heart.)

We need to rebrand conservatism, remind people that government gets in the way. Outside its specific realm of competence, it doesn’t solve problems, it creates them. After all, do we really want the people behind the Veterans’ Administration to be in charge of all health care? Do we want the people who run the DMV’s, Air Traffic Controls and Transportation Safety Administrations in charge of planning the economy? Not if we want to increase wealth.

I was talking to a fellow Republican today at Church and he asked me what we can do to start rebuilding. My first answer was “String Bush up ourselves.” While said tongue-in-cheek, it’s still something we need to accomplish rhetorically. Anyone who’s paid attention knows Bush isn’t conservative; we need to make that clear. I’ve been saying such for quite a while. (Here’s a post from January 2004 where I defended conservatives breaking with Bush.) While conservatives, tending to be the loyal sort, admirably stuck by the President in war time, we no longer are bound by that. We need to make clear that the person responsible for the largest increase in government since the Great Society is not, and could not be, a conservative.

At the core, we need to push this simple message: the Left will give themselves control over your life, your money and your family; the Right will give you freedom to be yourself, and raise and care for your family as you see fit. It’ll be a tough sell after our recent failures; but that’s still the truth even if people can’t see it.