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April 29, 2009

What on Earth is JPod Talking About?

I like John Podhoertz. He's a Guiliani type of blue state conservative, by which I mean he often disagrees with social-cons but is usually not insulting or disrespectful about it, and, when he is on the orthodox conservative side of things, he's tenacious and with us all the way. (For disclosure: He's also friendly to me in our very sporadic email exchanges, though I've never met him.)

But I don't know what the hell he's talking about here. Or, to be more precise: I know exactly what he's talking about. I just have no idea how this applies to the Specter situation.

The Purity Brigade Strikes Again, and Strikes Out

JOHN PODHORETZ - 04.28.2009 - 6:00 PM

There has been, on the Right, a terrible confusion these past two decades–a confusion between the precepts of conservatism and the role of the Republican party. In all its iterations, American conservatism is about matters of conviction on all manner of subjects from the role of the United States in the world to the role of government in our lives to the role of moral questions in political life. The Republican party is not about these things. It is a political vehicle, and as such it represents not a worldview but a tendency. That tendency can be summed up very simply–smaller rather than larger government; a stronger rather than a weaker America; and traditional rather than evolutionary values.

The Republican party fared well from, say, 1968 to 2008 because, for the most part, Americans tended to side with the general sense that smaller rather than larger government was best; that it was better to project strength; and that it was better to hue to established ways. It is not clear that the American people still have this general sense, or they are more willing to try on a different outfit right now. What they did not sign up for, what they never signed up for, was specific ideological combat in these categories....

The defection of Arlen Specter from the GOP, following the effort by the Club of Growth to target him for defeat in the Republican primary, is an example of how confused conservative ideologues can get about the nature of the Republican party....

Politics is not about casting the easy vote for the person you admire. It’s really about choosing the least bad alternative. The foes of Specter in Pennsylvania thought their least bad alternative was challenging him in a primary he would lose. Now they will really discover what the least bad alternative might have been. And so will we all.

Podhoretz is making the basic point -- which I not only endorse, but enthusiastically so -- that conservatives need to be savvy about picking their fights and also picking their champions. It is far better to have an ideologically squishy Senator who votes with us 75% of the time, and more often on the big stuff, than an ideologically pure Senate candidate who nobly loses, while keeping all his conservative principles intact -- and entirely unused and therefore useless.

I agree.

But how on earth does that apply to Arlen Specter? We are not talking, Mr. Podhoretz, about a man who votes with us 75% of the time. I am guessing that number is sub-60, and I know, for a fact, that on the biggest issues, he votes against us.

The Spendulous was the final insult. Incidentally, for all of those who claim it's the crazy social-con monsters in the party who drive us towards these insanely self-destructive impulses of ideologically rigidity, note the social con monsters were very dissatisfied with Specter for years and years, and it's only when Specter crossed the fiscal conservatives -- the "good" conservatives, in the eyes of blue-state social moderates -- that he finally got booted by the party. (Well, the booting didn't happen yet, but all polls said it would.)

So the social cons complained, but it was the fiscal cons who finally decided to throw Specter to sharks.

At any rate.

Because I respect John Podhoretz, I'd like to ask him, genuinely and not rhetorically, to explain precisely how far a heretic may hereticize before the Church may honorably excommunicate him. And I hope Podhoretz addresses the full measure of Specter's betrayal -- had Specter not wished to arrogate personal, idiosyncratic power to himself to decide the Spendulus' side, he could have voted to sustain the filibuster, and thereby forced a compromise. Specter would have been a critical party to that negotiation -- he still would have had lots of power to shape it.

And yet he instead chose to vote for a bill which he himself admitted was bad. Why? I suspect he thought it would increase his political stature, and make him The Man -- instead of merely A Very Important Man -- in negotiations over it.

He didn't want to share power with six or seven other Republican Senators in negotiations, even though he'd have been first among equals in that process. Instead, he choose to strike his own deal -- and cut out very savvy and smart Republicans out of the process, just so he could play Siegfried at Ragnarok, with Snowe and Collins as his Valkyries of the Tax and Spend Liberal Valhalla.

He cut Thune out of the process, for example. A very capable and savvy guy, and one who could have gotten us a much better deal. Not to mention Coburn or Sessions.

This is not a small breach, John. This is a rather large one. Specter's defense of his decision was that it was "the best deal we could get," but he didn't exactly afford us the opportunity to test that claim and see if we could get a better deal, now did he?

And note that senators you would normally consider sensible, flexible, and moderate -- McCain and Graham, to name two -- were horrified by Specter's deal. Angered, even.

When a Republican is so bipartisan liberal he manages to provoke Graham and McCain into physical anger, well, that's not small-beer, now is it?

The impulse is to blame the Club for Growth and Pat Toomey. And yet, they are not the drivers of Republican anger at Specter. They are merely tapping into it.

Specter knew damn well that this was the Rubicon. For weeks the phone banks and internet melted down over this vote. He crossed the Rubicon anyway, defiantly.

And we were to... what? Reward him further for this? After the party squashed Toomey and poured money into Specter's coffers in 2004?

I am also perplexed by Podhoretz's suggestion that the party has gone too far to the right. Has it? Let's review. Podhoretz mentions the Terri Schiavo case and Iraq War as being conservative over-steps. But he fails to note how the party, as a whole, has been every bit as ideologically flexible on a host of other critical issues as he seems to urge:

First, let’s deal with the canard that the GOP has moved “far to the right”. When exactly did that happen? When a Republican-controlled Congress, yoked to a Republican White House, grew federal spending by 50% in six years? Would that be the GOP that created a new entitlement program for prescription medication? The same Republicans that expanded spending above inflation on discretionary areas like education (58%), health research and regulation (55%), community and regional development (94%) and on entitlement programs like Medicare (51%)?

That's quite a bit of "moderate" flexibility, Mr. Podhoretz. Too much, if you ask me -- and despite my firebreathing tone, on actual issues, I'm often kind of a squish.

I'm really not sure at what Podhoretz means here. Does he actually urge the party to tack even further in the direction of a socialistic European welfare state? Haven't we done quite a bit of that already over the past eight years? How much more is necessary?

And does he really imagine that going further to the left economically will turn out to be successful, in the middle- to long- term, for Obama? If he really believes this, he doesn't seem to be much of a fiscal conservative, as he's implicitly predicting that more-socialistic policies will lead to success. If that's the case, why fight such policies at all? Why not wholeheartedly embrace them?

I don't think Podhoretz believes that -- but perhaps I'm wrong.

I think maybe this is just a lazy sort of piece (no offense intended -- I write lots of lazy pieces myself; lazy pieces are the stock in trade of those who write every single day) in which he found himself expressing general bromides which don't quite apply to a specific situation.

For those who call upon the party to "be more moderate," as a general impulse, I really wish they'd be more specific about what they mean. Are they speaking of cap-and-tax? EFCA? Raising taxes? Further raising ruinous spending levels? What, exactly?

I know that many moderate blue-state Republicans want us to abandon the life position and traditional marriage. But surely they know the numbers -- the life position is not terribly unpopular (55-45 against, or thereabouts) and further the life position mints more votes than the choice position. (That would change if general access to abortion were actually restricted, but that's not likely to happen... well, ever, it looks like.) And the conservative position on gay marriage is something like a 55-45 winner. And probably also mints more votes than it loses.

So really, fellas -- what the hell are you talking about, specifically? Are you really suggesting the party spend oodles of money to keep Specter in office, despite the fact that his voting record puts him comfortably in the center-left Democratic mainstream?

I agree that the perfect is the enemy of the good. I say it all the time. But while I will personally argue in favor of the obtainable good over the unobtainable perfect every damn time the question is posed to me, what I won't fight for is the bad over either.

And Specter was bad. The perfect is the enemy of the good, but the bad is the enemy of both, and I, for one, am not going to fight for a bad Senator.

What, exactly, have we lost? A vote we couldn't count on -- and which went against us close to half the time -- and the privilege of spending time and political capital to keep that vote safely ensconced in the Senate.

I'm not looking for a general purge. But this one? Oh yes. Oh very yes.



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posted by Ace at 04:02 PM

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