Monday, February 4, 2008

Fear Itself

It’s fun watching the right wing go into their little tizzies about John McCain becoming the GOP nominee and how they deal with the stark reality that their nemesis is about to become the leader of the party. William Kristol responds by re-writing history and channeling Bobby McFarren: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The American conservative movement has been remarkably successful. We shouldn’t take that success for granted. It’s not easy being a conservative movement in a modern liberal democracy. It’s not easy to rally a comfortable and commercial people to assume the responsibilities of a great power. It’s not easy to defend excellence in an egalitarian age. It’s not easy to encourage self-reliance in the era of the welfare state. It’s not easy to make the case for the traditional virtues in the face of the seductions of liberation, or to speak of duties in a world of rights and of honor in a nation pursuing pleasure.

One reason conservatives have been able to navigate the rapids of modern America is that they’ve often gone out of their way to make their case with good cheer. William F. Buckley, the father of the conservative movement, skewered liberals, but always with wit and élan. By 1980, bolstered by the growth-oriented doctrine of supply-side economics, and speaking the language of American uplift more than that of conservative despair, Ronald Reagan won the presidency.

Since then we conservatives have had a pretty good run. We had a chance to implement a fair share of our ideas, and they worked. In the 1980s and 90s, conservative policies helped win the cold war, revive the economy and reduce crime and welfare dependency. American conservatism’s ascendancy has benefited this country — and much of the world — over the last quarter-century.

I never thought I’d see Bill Kristol and the conservatives take credit for accomplishments of the Clinton administration (as well as ignore the fact that the current administration has completely trashed them), but when you’re facing oblivion, you will grasp at any straw. Then he gets into the re-writing of current events.

One might add a special reason that conservatives — and the nation — owe John McCain at least a respectful hearing. Only a year ago, we were headed toward defeat in Iraq. Without McCain’s public advocacy and private lobbying, President Bush might not have reversed strategy and announced the surge of troops in January 2007. Without McCain’s vigorous leadership, support for the surge in Congress would not have been sustained in the first few months of 2007. So: No McCain, no surge. No surge, failure in Iraq, a terrible setback for America — and, as it happens, no chance for a G.O.P. victory in 2008.

Oh, so it was John McCain who won the war in Iraq by pushing for the “surge” and that worked. Except for the fact that, um, no, it really didn’t; we’re pretty much where we were a year ago — American soldiers are still dying and the Iraqi government is no closer to running the country. Just because Bill Kristol says the surge worked doesn’t make it so, and if John McCain’s sage advice was so dead on, why is he talking about us remaining in Iraq for the next hundred years?

Fred Barnes, meanwhile, is all ready to blame someone else if John McCain loses.

McCain’s touchiest problem–his scourge–is talk radio. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and others raise legitimate complaints about his flirtations with Democrats and his apostasy on campaign finance, guns, immigration, and embryonic stem cell research.

A Republican strategist had this advice for McCain: “Call the top conservative talk radio hosts. Tell them you don’t question their independence. But insist you’ll be talking about conservative issues. If they want to get in touch with you at any time, here’s your cell phone number. And if they call, you’ll answer.” That is good advice. McCain might feel it’s demeaning, but he shouldn’t. The stakes–keeping Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama out of the White House–are too high to be prideful.

He also spouts the talking point that the surge in Iraq was McCain’s idea, which leads you to conclude that there’s a pattern here. If the Republicans lose, they can blame it on the infighting with Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, and the back-up plan is to blame it on the candidate who wasn’t really a true conservative in his heart and who backed a losing plan in a losing war effort that the majority of the country says we should have never been in in the first place.

I suspect you’re going to see a lot of this kind of talk from the conservatives over the next couple of months as they try to convince themselves of something they don’t really believe in, and the only thing that unites them is the fear that a Democrat could win the election. It’s pretty ironic that a party that made the most out of running on full fear freak mode for the last seven years now has to be afraid of its own candidate.