Ross Douthat makes his debut as the welcome replacement for William Kristol on the op-ed page of the New York Times with a bit of speculation of what it would have been like had Dick Cheney run for president in 2008 instead of John McCain.
At the very least, a Cheney-Obama contest would have clarified conservatism’s present political predicament. In the wake of two straight drubbings at the polls, much of the American right has comforted itself with the idea that conservatives lost the country primarily because the Bush-era Republican Party spent too much money on social programs. And John McCain’s defeat has been taken as the vindication of this premise.
We tried running the maverick reformer, the argument goes, and look what it got us. What Americans want is real conservatism, not some crypto-liberal imitation.
“Real conservatism,” in this narrative, means a particular strain of right-wingery: a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state. And Dick Cheney happens to be its diamond-hard distillation. The former vice-president kept his distance from the Bush administration’s attempts at domestic reform, and he had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his boss’s policy agenda. He was for tax cuts at home and pre-emptive warfare overseas; anything else he seemed to disdain as sentimentalism.
This is precisely the sort of conservatism that’s ascendant in today’s much-reduced Republican Party, from the talk radio dials to the party’s grassroots. And a Cheney-for-President campaign would have been an instructive test of its political viability.
As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively. And when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might – might! – have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that’s necessary if it hopes to regain power.
He goes on to argue that a Cheney campaign would have been good for the country. True; it would have put to rest once and for all where the majority of voters in America stand on not just the policies but the politics of the Bush era; slash, burn, disdain, all with a smug self-assurance that people like Mr. Cheney and his allies know better how to do everything. As for transparency and openness in the process; well, that would be for them to know and us to find out… much later. Mr. Douthat’s prediction that Mr. Cheney would have lost in a landslide also makes it clear that there would be no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind that those in favor of ruling the country from undisclosed locations and using talk-radio as the Oracle would have been discredited and relegated to the oblivion they so richly deserved. I think he’s a tad optimistic that the GOP might – might! – have taken the opportunity to re-evaluate their platform and methods. As was noted in this post, the True Believers are not only not willing to learn from their mistakes, they’re sure that if they just get the chance, they can come back and win in 2010 and 2012 by being even more right-wing and reactionary than before.
As for the aftermath of the release of the torture memos, the chips — and Dick — would have fallen where they may, according to Mr. Douthat.
A large swath of the political class wants to avoid the torture debate. The Obama administration backed into it last week, and obviously wants to back right out again.
But the argument isn’t going away. It will be with us as long as the threat of terrorism endures. And where the Bush administration’s interrogation programs are concerned, we’ve heard too much to just “look forward,” as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute – unless the Democratic Party has taken leave of its senses – but so that we can learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.
Here Dick Cheney, prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play. He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.
Finally; a conservative columnist who at least makes the effort to make sense. I have no doubt that there will be times — more often than not — that I will disagree with Mr. Douthat, but if this column is any guide, at long last we now have a conservative voice that speaks in reasoned tones, avoids the knee-jerk labels, and encourages thoughtful discourse. Granted, compared to the prior occupant of the space who made mockery of his work almost too easy, Mr. Douthat’s task isn’t all that hard. I think, however, he’s going to draw a bit of fire from the True Believers who will be sure that he’s sold out to the liberals.