Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Conservatives Calling for an Independent Movement?

I came across this article yesterday concerning a call for Richard Viguerie, the so-called patriarch of conservatism (how many of those do they have?) calling for an abandonment of the Republican Party. Hey, fine with me. There is, however, something odd about the way in which the whole business is being framed as a major blow to the Republican Party. It is of course, or rather it will be if this is the one time in which they actually mean what they say, but the conservative movement has long overstated its own importance. Here is a chunk of the article:

The patriarch of US conservatives has urged his followers to halt their financial support of the Republican Party and start an independent movement, signaling a major political shift that could result in heavy losses for the US ruling party in upcoming elections.

Richard Viguerie, who was instrumental in cementing the winning coalitions behind Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, declared that conservatives were "downright fed up" with both the president and Republican-controlled Congress.

"At the very least, conservatives must stop funding the Republican National Committee and other party groups," Viguerie wrote in a lengthy essay in The Washington Post Sunday.

He suggested conservatives "redirect their anger into building a third force," which he defined as a movement independent of any party, and laying the groundwork for the 2008 election campaign.

Traditional conservatives, who abhor big government and excessive spending, equate abortion with murder and emphasize individualism over collectivism, have always formed the so-called "base" of the Republican Party and determined its viability as a political organizations.

The integrity and loyalty of this core is considered key to the party's success in any election.

The defeat of George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, in the 1992 election is largely attributed to being abandoned by conservatives.

Now first of all, I must say it's odd to claim that the contemporary conservative movement has always formed "the base" of the Republican Party, unless by "always" you mean since 1964. Secondly, this notion that "the base" is of absolute necessity for Republican electoral success is a self-serving fiction that helps empower the far right, but appears to have little intersect with reality. I am reminded of a segment in John DiIulio's now famous letter to Ronald Suskind (the one where he used the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis" to describe the Bush Whitehouse. DiIulio writes:

Karl [Rove] is enormously powerful, maybe the single most powerful person in the modern, post-Hoover era ever to occupy a political advisor post near the Oval Office. The Republican base constituencies, including beltway libertarian policy elites and religious right leaders, trust him to keep Bush "43" from behaving like Bush "41" and moving too far to the center or inching at all center-left. Their shared fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral studies, is that "41" lost in '92 because he lost these right-wing fans. There are not ten House districts in America where either the libertarian litany or the right-wing religious policy creed would draw majority popular approval, and, most studies suggest, Bush "43" could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist, but, anyway, the fiction is enshrined as fact.
Not only is it enshrined as fact among Republican leaders, but apparently among supposedly independent journalists as well. This would be of only incidental interest if not for the fact that the constant efforts to pander to the most extreme elements of the Right is the source of much of the damage that has been done and the dissatisfaction that the public feels with the Bush Whitehouse and with the government in general. I am amazed when I see conservatives on cable news shows (in other words, when I watch cable news shows, because nearly every guest is a conservative) whose most frequent response to Bush's terrible approval rating is that he's not pandering to the base enough. That, and the fact that he's not "communicating" properly, which is another way of saying that an administration notorious for its highly aggressive propaganda machine, one whose dominance of the Whitehouse greatly hampers the policy-making process, apparently has no need to reevaluate its policy agenda. It just needs more propaganda.

The first article linked above cites as evidence for the importance of the conservative base the fact that among Republicans, Bush's disapproval has shot-up from 16% to 30%. But this is still a fairly small percent of Republicans and makes up only a small fraction of his overall disapproval. Every single conservative could still be on-board, and this wouldn't change the numbers. In fact, "the base" is about all that Bush has left -- almost everyone else has been alienated by the administration's pandering to the far right-wing and contemptuous attitude towards effective government. One day, perhaps conservatives will wake up from their self-centered dream and realize that the majority of the country simple doesn't agree with them, and the way they win is when they snooker the public into thinking that they are more moderate than they truly are. Or, when they start wars. (Actually, the neo-conservatives have already figured that last one out.) Much of the reason why the Republican Party and the Bush administration specifically doesn't implement the full-on conservative agenda is that it would be suicidal. But convinced of their own self-importance, conservatives are very apt to act petulant and threaten to stay home unless they get their way. This puts the Republicans in a pretty sorry state. But it's not really clear what exactly the conservatives would do were they to abandon the Republicans, and I think this is the only reason the party apparatchiks can sleep at night. What will they do, vote for Democrats? Form a third party? Maybe this defection will be a double bonus: The Republicans will lose and conservatives will gain a measure of humility.