Essay: Cuba, North Korea, Cop Killers: As Conservative Tactics Fail

Originally published at

Conservatives have been spoiled. For at least as long as I’ve been alive – I’m 51 – right-wingers have scarcely had to break a sweat in political debates. Until recently, all it has taken to reduce a liberal to a blubbering, conceding mess was a cheesy ad hominem attack.

You hate the troops!

You hate the cops!

Why do you hate America so much?

Though undeniably tentative and fragile, there are indications that the Right’s reign of terror in public discourse may come to an end someday.

A case in point is President Obama, whose first six years in office were characterized by relentless timidity even when he enjoyed amazing poll numbers and control of both houses of Congress. After the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in November 2014, he was expected to follow the liberal Democratic tradition of accepting that the Republicans should get their way on everything because that was obviously the will of the American people.

Instead, he inaugurated his lame-duck final couplet with aggressive moves on immigration reform and, last week, normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, both through executive action. Republicans howled – but nothing happened. To the contrary, Obama seems more powerful than ever.

Some sort of turning point in the ideological zeitgeist seems to have been reached with former Vice President Dick Cheney’s appearance on “Meet the Press” two weekends ago. Blisteringly belligerent as usual, Cheney didn’t even try to appeal to logic or reason while defending “enhanced interrogation techniques” under the Bush Administration in the wake of the Senate torture report.

“Torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11,” Cheney said.

For many years after September 11 attacks, this was the kind of off-the-cuff mindfart that progressives and Democrats didn’t know how to counter. (No, that’s not torture. That’s tragedy.) Anything that harkened back to 9/11, no matter how irrelevant or stupid, was rhetorical kryptonite to liberals who didn’t want to appear weak in the War on Terror.

Not this time. The Internet ate Cheney for lunch. And he was roundly ridiculed, not only on the cable TV satire shows, but by fellow Republicans.

Cheney caught the worst of it, but standard Republican talking points and rhetorical style took a beating over the last week on a number of issues.

Arizona Senator, Vietnam POW and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain reacted to the alleged hack of Sony Entertainment by the North Korean government in his standard bellicose way, declaring it “an act of war.” An act of war, naturally, calls for a military response.  The declaration by President Bush that 9/11 was an act of war, for example, prompted Congress to authorize the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by a nearly unanimous vote. (Which worked out splendidly!)

Interestingly, McCain’s ferocity fell largely upon deaf ears. More in touch with ordinary Americans was President Obama, who countered that the hackers had actually carried out “an act of cyber-vandalism that was very costly, very expensive.”

In a sneak preview of the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, likely contender and Florida Senator Marco Rubio catered to part of his Greater Miami constituency of Cuban exiles by calling for the continuation of the half-century-old trade blockade of the Caribbean island. “I don’t care if the polls say that 99% of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba,” he said. It’s not quite that extreme yet, but most Americans do support Obama’s decision to recognize the end of the Cold War 23 years after the fact.

Rubio’s rhetoric was met with a yawn (and lucky for him). Obama’s actions are largely seen by the political class as a fait accompli, all over but the shouting at passport control in Havana.

This is a remarkable transformation. Twenty or even ten years ago, any Democrat who had endorsed, much less carried out, such a move would be deemed to have committed political suicide. Republican talk radio would have screamed that it was un-American, procommunist, and treasonous. Sure, they’re saying the same thing now, but no one cares because, well, it’s stupid.

Of course, it would have been stupid back then. The difference is, people can see that now.

Then, in New York City, there was Saturday’s shooting of two police officers as they sat in their patrol car in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, apparently by a deranged man with a long criminal record. New York’s new mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat whose political allies don’t include top NYPD figures, took a blast of heat from police union leaders, one of whom spat that de Blasio has blood on his hands. (Apparently he drew a straight line between the shooter’s post-Ferguson/post-Staten Island anti-cop rants on Instagram and the mayor’s revelation that he tells his biracial son to be careful when he encounters police officers.)

To be sure, de Blasio is having trouble with the NYPD — but this kerfuffle is nothing close to the existential crisis a liberal Democratic mayor in the same pickle would have had to endure just a few short years ago. Most New Yorkers recognize that this is police overreach. A few weeks after New Yorkers of all races reacted with disgust to a grand jury decision not to indict the Staten Island police officer who murdered Eric Garner on video, not even the cold-blooded assassination of two cops on the streets of Brooklyn erases that memory or allows a return to the Giuliani years, when cops could do no wrong in the eyes of officialdom. If the mayor tells his kid to watch out for the cops, who can blame him?

So what has changed?

It might be a bona fide political shift from right to left, but that’s not my take. What we are seeing, I suspect, is popular exhaustion with right-wing talking points and bullying rhetoric. There’s a certain point at which repetition stops working and becomes annoying – and it feels like that’s where we’re at.

In the future, if conservatives want to be taken seriously, they’re going to have to go back to the old William F. Buckley days and attempt to construct calm, logically reasoned arguments in favor of their ideas. Name-calling and appeals to rank emotionalism aren’t cutting it anymore.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Republicans, Not Conservatives, Are In Trouble

A Philosophy Without a Party

* Conservatives betrayed by GOP
* Traditional conservatism still popular
* Rigid laissez faire dogma rejected by voters

Conservatives think the election results prove that conservatism is in trouble. Actually, conservatism is fine. It’s the Republican Party that’s in trouble.

To be sure, the GOP got killed in Congress. But the presidential results aren’t nearly as alarming. The difference between Bush’s “big win” in 2004 (51 percent of the popular vote) and McCain’s “stunning defeat” in 2008 (46 percent) was that 2.5 percent of the electorate changed their minds. Besides, it remains to be seen, says Montclair State University political science and law professor Brigid Harrison, whether the “high level of young voters, African-Americans, highly educated white voters and a disproportionate amount of women forming a new kind of coalition” will come together in future elections to support Democratic candidates more typical than Obama.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s posit that Obama represents a dramatic political realignment and repudiation of the Republican Party. Certainly, Republicans do face massive demographic challenges, mainly as an influx of Latino immigration and naturalization turns places like Arizona, Colorado and California’s Orange County from red to blue. The GOP may well have to get used to losing. But that doesn’t mean conservatives do.

In the United States, conservatism is a philosophy without a party. Take Ronald Reagan, considered the patron saint of late 20th century conservatism. Coupled with extravagant military spending, Reagan’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations increased the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion, transforming the U.S. into the world’s biggest debtor nation. Under Reagan, William Voegeli wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 2007, “government did nothing but expand. In 1981, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 1989 it spent $1.144 trillion. Factoring out inflation, that was an increase of 19% in real spending. Republicans never expected that Reagan would leave office with a ‘federal establishment’ one-fifth larger than when he arrived.”

George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” but conservatism was as absent from his governance as compassion. He has increased the federal deficit from $3.3 to $5.9 trillion. Add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—estimated at $2.4 trillion as of 2007—and he will have put the country a staggering $5 trillion deeper into the hole. He hired 180,000 federal employees for a new cabinet-level department, Homeland Security, all to make you take off your shoes at the airport.

Conservative? Not these guys.

For the sake of my long-suffering conservative friends as well as the country, it’s time to unravel the conflation of conservatism and the Republican Party.

Why do I care? Simple: America needs conservatives—real conservatives. Deficit hawks, America Firsters and get-that-dang-guvmint-outta-my-bizness types are essential watchdogs of fiscal responsibility and personal freedom. Moreover, ideological diversity sparks intellectual innovation.

Traditional conservatism—to state the obvious, is there truly any other kind?—is, despite its flaws, an philosophy attractive to those who value the ideal of rugged individualism. Most recently articulated by Barry Goldwater after he retired from the Senate, conservatism is centered around small government, particularly on the federal level; its size, scope, and powers are kept to a minimum in order to reduce infringement upon personal liberty, keep taxes low, and thus encourage investment and free enterprise. Fiscal responsibility is the order of the day. Budgets must be balanced. Deficits are anathema.

Conservatives believe that free markets create opportunities for hard-working people to succeed. They won’t help you get ahead, but they’ll keep nosy bureaucrats out of your hair while you’re figuring out how to do it on your own. It’s a bit Darwinian, but consider the advantages: you’re free to do whatever you want in your personal life. As Goldwater said when asked about gays in the military: “You don’t need to be straight to fight and die for your country, you just need to shoot straight.”

If Bush had been a conservative, he wouldn’t have cut taxes without reducing spending. He would have been an isolationist. As Pat Buchanan says, America Firsters don’t rush off to invade countries like Afghanistan and Iraq that pose no threat to the United States. Bush certainly wouldn’t have authorized NSA’s domestic spying program, gotten rid of habeas corpus, or infringed states rights by taking control of the National Guard away from state governors.

Conservatism is far more appealing to the average American than the bastardized form that has driven Republican policy for more than half a century. In 2008 voters rejected neoconservatism, an arrogant brand of “exceptionalism” dedicated to preemptive warfare, defending Israel, and empire building at the expense of all else.

Republicans use pretzel logic to market themselves to conservatives. In 1988, Allan Ryskind, editor of Human Events, told The New York Times that Reagan had deliberately increased the deficit in order to starve future Democratic administrations of money. “It has certainly put a lid on the welfare state,” he said. “The Democrats have sort of trapped themselves because they’ve said this is all terrible and horrible and that closing the deficit should be the first priority. The fact that they’ve said the deficit is such a problem,” he added, “prevents them from proposing new spending programs.”

Of course, it would also prevent Republicans—who remained in power until 1993—from cutting taxes, a principal tenet of conservatism.

Bill Clinton disappointed the Democrats’ liberal base, rewarding their support by pushing through welfare reform, NAFTA and the WTO. But if liberals feel used by the Democrats, conservatives have been raped by the Republicans.

This isn’t to say that traditional conservatives don’t need to change, in several areas. One is their intellectual separation of government spending into two categories: non-military and military, the latter of which is untouchable. Spending is spending, whether it’s on welfare queens or Halliburton. Another area is laissez faire, one of the few places where conservatism intersects with Republicanism.

When times are good, most Americans favor a small government that stays out of their lives and leaves them be. When a hurricane strikes, however, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps dogma goes out the window. Similarly, government should run in the black during an economic boom. When people start losing their homes, however, they look to their government for help. Conservatives should think of themselves as firefighters. Most of the time, you never see them. Firefighters don’t break down your door with an ax unless there’s a fire. But you’re damned happy to see them when there is.

As much as Americans hate paying taxes, they hate do-nothing government more. (Besides, they’ve been burned so often on tax-cut promises that they no longer believe them.) One of the lessons of 2008 was that voters aren’t happy to let the marketplace work its magic if the world is falling apart.

A political party that stays out of people’s business while being nimble enough to jump into the fray during emergencies might just stand a chance. So might a conservative movement that refuses to vote for a party that repeatedly betrays them.