Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Conservative Triumphalism

I’ve spent some time recently (see, e.g., here, here and here) discussing the element of wishful thinking in liberals’ complacent assumption that Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot politically by letting the Tea Partiers drag the party to the right. You don’t have to look very hard to find the same sort of ideological complacency on the right, in the convenient assumption that the Democrats’ troubles show that they're out of step ideologically with a center-right country.

Today’s column from Dick Morris is Exhibit A. I don’t need to be advised that he doesn’t command a lot of intellectual authority in liberal or conservative circles. People across the ideological spectrum are understandably appalled by his ostentatious breach of the fiduciary duties he owes the Clintons by virtue of having been taken into their confidence as their political consultant. Doctrinaire liberals and conservatives are put off seeing someone who sold his professional expertise to both Trent Lott and Bill Clinton now making a spectacle of his conservative purity. And consumers of political commentary have every reason to be skeptical about what Morris says in light of his apparent readiness to tailor his expert opinions to what he figures the people tuning into the Fox News Channel and buying his books want to hear.

When parsing Morris’s words, then, I always leave room for the possibility that he’s saying things primarily for commercial effect without caring much about whether they’re true. But that, if anything, makes what Morris is now saying more reliable evidence of the state of conservative common sense. If a marketer this shrewd chooses to say something to ingratiate himself to conservatives, it’s likely to be the sort of thing that conservatives really want to hear.

This passage from Morris column is noteworthy both for what it says explicitly, and the ideological reassurance it implicitly conveys to conservatives (my emphasis):
“Thanks to the leadership of President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid, the Democratic Party is facing the biggest defeat in midterm elections in the past 110 years, perhaps surpassing the modern record of a 74-seat gain set in 1922. They will also lose control of the Senate.

There is no Democratic message. President Obama is heralding education - an issue never mentioned on the campaign trail. Secretary of State Clinton is trying to restart the peace talks in the Middle East. Attorney General Holder is re-evaluating online national-security taps. And a hundred Democrats are scrambling about on their own trying to get reelected!

“The Democratic campaigns they are waging are formulaic. They make no attempt to defend the administration, but run away from it where possible. They never mention the words stimulus, healthcare reform, card-check, GM takeover or cap-and-trade.  

“Instead, they are running almost exclusively negative ads. They base their campaigns on tax liens, failed marriages, DWIs and the like. Where there is a paucity of dirt, they resort to three prefab negatives: that their opponent favors a 23 percent national sales tax, that he wants to privatize Social Security and that he is shipping jobs overseas.”
I won’t blame you if you dismiss Morris’s show of certainty that the Republicans are going to take control of both houses of Congress as a commercially-inspired affectation. But I’m more interested in his suggestion that Democratic candidates have nothing much to say owing to their ideological incoherence and exhaustion. I don’t doubt that Democrat’s are paying a steep political price for acting on their liberal aspirations. But, before surrendering to the notion that they’re paying it because they forgot that this is a center-right country, it’s worth taking a step back to appreciate how ready the winners of the last election cycle over the last twenty years have been to over-interpret the ideological implications of the results.

Liberals welcomed Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 as popular repudiation of the conservative excesses of the 1980s. Gingrich Republicans regarded their victories in 1994 as the end-of-the-line for New Deal liberalism. After Republican gains in 2002, Bush’s reelection in 2004 had Karl Rove talking about a permanent Republican majority based on the ownership society and social conservatism. So when the liberal wing of the Democratic Party took the election returns in 2008 as a mandate to pick up where it had left off in 1966 completing the work of the New Deal, it was following an altogether familiar pattern.

All we really know about what the median voter thinks is what we can infer from real national elections. And if you looked at the last twenty of them, you’d have to say that the median voter has moved all over the place ideologically.  I can’t stop you if you’re determined to believe that either the Democratic or Republican victories over this period revealed the underlying ideological composition of the electorate and the other side’s victories were just distracting noise. But what evidence supports the assumption that the electorate has a relatively stable ideological center-of-gravity to which it returns after transitory forces upend it? Indeed, when you think about, it’s not clear what sort of evidence could support that proposition in principle.

Ideologues’ visceral conviction that, down deep inside, most Americans must really agree with them, and would vote accordingly if their minds weren’t clouded by the other side’s demagoguery, isn’t evidence.

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