There is an emerging consensus among intellectuals of the center-right that the conservative movement is falling apart under the stewardship of the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress. I'd heard talk like this for awhile and generally found it to be premature, but in this week of Schiavo and steroids the idea is now pretty much inarguable.
This Andrew Sullivan piece for the London Times is an excellent overview of the internal contradictions facing the movement. Here are the paragraphs on social policy:
Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan said: “The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralised authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”
The Republicans have plans to intervene directly in many people’s lives — spending billions on sexual abstinence education, marriage counselling, anti-drug propaganda, a war on steroids, mentoring programmes for former prisoners, and on and on. Got a problem? Bush’s big government is here to help.
Where Republicans once believed that states should have priority over the federal government, Bush has pushed in the opposite direction. Last week the religious right wanted a federal ruling to prevent a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state from having her life-support cut off. This is a job for the federal government?
They have overruled state laws on medical cannabis and tried to prevent states from making their own policies on gay civil marriage. In the 1980s Republicans wanted to abolish the federal Department of Education, believing local control was best. Bush has all but ended local control, introduced national standards and added a huge increase in federal spending. No wonder Ted Kennedy, the arch liberal Democratic senator, voted for the bill.
How these contradictions can be resolved is hard to see. Is conservatism now paternalist, spending huge amounts of federal money to guide people into more moral lives? Or is it about restraining government so people can make up their own minds how to live?
This long blog post by Sullivan also makes some good points. He includes a pretty damning quote from Fred Barnes which makes it clear that in his view concerns over due process under the constitution are to be trumped by the religious Rights interpretation of morality (in the Schiavo case). Sullivan also includes a quote by Robert George, the ultra-conservative legal scholar who has become an instant hero to members of the Save Terri! faction, be they conservative or liberal. George blathers on about how concerns over federalism don't matter because the Schiavo case concerns someone civil rights, which are covered under federal statues. Sullivan has an excellent response:
And George's appeal to "civil rights" depends, of course, on what you mean by "civil rights." Where gays are concerned, George's belief is that gays have no fundamental civil rights with respect to marriage or even private consensual sex. George even believes that the government has a legitimate interest in passing laws that affect masturbation. But when he can purloin the rhetoric of "civil rights" to advance his own big government moralism, he will. The case also highlights - in another wonderful irony - how religious right morality even trumps civil marriage. It is simply amazing to hear the advocates of the inviolability of the heterosexual civil marital bond deny Terri Schiavo's legal husband the right to decide his wife's fate, when she cannot decide it for herself. Again, the demands of the religious right pre-empt constitutionalism, federalism, and even the integrity of the family. When conservatism means breaking up the civil bond between a man and his wife, you know it has ceased to be conservative.
This Robert George guy truly is scary. Mickey Kaus has a quote up where George implies that even if Terri Schiavo had had a living will drawn up saying explicitly that she would want the feeding tube removed in such a situation, the living will should not have been enforced.
When Sullivan went on about this stuff in the past I used to think he was being a bit overwrought. Who can argue now? I still think his criticism of Bush's conduct of the war has been far too harsh. (Though neither do I simply assume that everything Bush has done in this arena is an example of his peerless brilliance and moral rectitude like, say, Hugh Hewitt, or the guys on Powerline.) However, if anything, Sullivan's criticism of Bush and the Republican Congress's domestic policies has been far too restrained, given the ugly reality we're now seeing.
Personally, I'm now ready to say provisionally that - though I certainly couldn't stomach actually voting for Kerry, or for any of the fringe candidates - I wish that I hadn't voted for Bush (not that it really mattered since I voted in New York) and wish even more that I hadn't participated in the Get out the Vote effort in New Hampshire. Though, in a final irony, I guess it's all a wash because Bush ended up losing New Hampshire. The corruption, Nixonian paranoia, fiscal irresponsibility, big government liberalism, and religious rightism of George Bush/Tom Delay "conservatism" needed to be punished, not rewarded, back when we had a chance to do something about it. Kerry's domestic policies wouldn't have been appreciably that much different. He had absolutely the wrong instincts on the war, but he was boxed in, and would have faced a Republican Congress. Not even Ted Kennedy actually proposed cutting and running from Iraq. In fact, there's a case to be made by someone less dull-witted than I that, by engaging in the bold gambit of invading Iraq, Bush and his cabinet set in motion such powerful forces of change in the Middle East that anyone could have been the next president and simply watched the positive developments in Lebanon and elsewhere. Kerry, of course, would then have been trumpeted as the great liberalizer of the Arab world by the mainstream press. But hey, history is full of ironies right?
Bush's second term hasn't destroyed the modern conservative movement, but losing the presidency and having time to re-evaluate the "stategery" would have been more beneficial than being in power and making the movement ever more obnoxious and ideologically incoherent.
UPDATE: I see that Jonah Goldberg is now saying that what we're witnessing is not a crack-up but a healthy debate; a sign not of internal tensions within the conservative movement but internal health. However, in my opinion, the problem is not that a debate is going on, it's that no debate is going on. Bush/DeLay "conservatism" has become the only game in town, no matter how internally inconsistent, and how non-conservative it becomes. The "crack-up" that I'm referring to (I don't know about anyone else) is not between different factions of conservatism but the crack-up of Bush/DeLay conservatism itself. It's big government liberalism in economic policy, and religious rightism in social policy trying to pass itself off as "conservatism". By trying to please nearly everyone it will ultimately please no one, and has already reached the point of pleasing far fewer than it used to.