Nominating Mr. Surge

"the rise of McCain through New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida indicates that for many voters 'the war' is still the issue, because, after all, what else has the Senator got going for him? Surely, it's not his global warming hysteria or illegal immigration amnesty or demonization of capitalism."

Mark Steyn, Feb. 4, 2008, "A McClinton Consensus" The New York Sun

In his recent column, Mark Steyn labeled Sen. John McCain "Mister Surge," because of the pride he takes in his lonely commitment to winning the war in Iraq. It's amusing because McCain's resurgence is due in part to his pugnacious retail politicking and straight talk, but as the economy begins to take center stage, as it always does, his persistence in highlighting the surge may become an unsettling echo of the criticism made against the bare basics of Mayor Rudy Guiliani's campaign -- "9/11, a noun, and a verb." If McCain is not careful and does not pass his Econ 101 exams with flying colors, he will have a difficult time against either Hillary Clinton, policy wonk extraordinaire, or Barack Obama, inspirer nonpariel.

Besides the seeming one-dimensional nature of McCain's campaign, there is also the considerable opposition from keepers of the Reaganite conservative flame. Some conservatives have come around to McCain given the poor odds the Republican Party would face in the fall. Other conservatives refuse to make perfect the enemy of the good, especially when opting for perfect will result in the absolutely intolerable. But still, some conservatives will refuse to acquiesce and declare in the tradition of esteemed American statesman, Henry Clay, that they'd "rather be right than president." (Henry Clay proved this point three times.)

Mr. Steyn favored Mayor Guiliani but the label of Mr. Surge brings attention to a subtler philosophical challenge than the more well-known differences over immigration, campaign finance, and global warming.

Throughout the primary season, reporters and commentators have variously discussed the inability of any of the current GOP contenders to win the allegiance of the entire conservative coalition - libertarians, traditionalists, or nationalists. The reality is in an America at peace, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee would have been the main contenders for the nomination because the conservative movement is really comprised of just two philosophies - libertarianism and traditionalism.

It is rare when a single individual can credibly emerge as the voice of both philosophies nationally, simply because the two outlooks are based on conflicting premises. Libertarianism espouses individual autonomy and unfettered free markets - morality is a matter of choice and altruism only undermines the individual. Traditionalism upholds shared values to bind and shape individuals within a community and nation - morality is explicitly defined and obligations to one's fellow man are honored. Patriotism is a fundamental element of modern conservatism, but only when an
existential challenge emerges to the nation do these two components unite into a potent political union.

It is part and parcel of conservative thought that the urgency of survival would lead a conservative to compromise partially on fundamental principles. While proudly standing as the self-identified guardians of Providentially guided constitutionalism, conservatives readily yield to the wisdom that the "Constitution is not a suicide pact."

Accordingly, it is the occurrence of an emergency that convinces these two philosophies to unite on the presidential level. Libertarians recognize the urgency of a new threat necessitates a compromise in favor of bigger government if the requisite national resources are to be marshalled for the coming fight. Traditionalists similarly realize long-held values, such as turning the other cheek or gender roles, will have to be compromised in order to fully support the nation's fight for survival. In the Cold War, libertarians and traditionalists found equally despicable qualities in the enemy - godlessness and totalitarianism. Liberalism and progressivism offered no attraction for either - the enthusiasm for bigger government and upending existing mores were anathema. Libertarians and traditionalists came together under the aegis of anti-communism and changed modern American politics.

From this union came a wellspring of ideas that were as Sen. Obama, of all people to remind us, characterized -- "transformational." Reagan educated the nation on the confiscatory nature of high marginal tax rates and was an ardent champion of life. The subsequent resuscitation of the economy and renewal of American pride, combined with a substantial investment in the military, constituted a powerful challenge to the Soviet Union, which collapsed three short years later. Historic deficits and amnesty for illegal immigrants aside, Reagan remains the ultimate modern conservative icon.

However, with the end of the Cold War, the emergency justifying libertarian and traditionalist compromises, the coalition became less cohesive and its presidential majority dissipated. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, enraged libertarians by raising taxes and lost the election in 1992. The next Republican nominee, Robert J. Dole, was once derided as "tax collector for the welfare state." His listless campaign against the dynamic, but only semi-popular, President Clinton, went nowhere in a prospering America at peace. In 2000, George W. Bush pledged his fealty to both libertarianism and traditionalism. He promised a trillion-dollar tax cut and famously declared Jesus Christ his favorite philosopher, but four million evangelicals still stayed home and he lost the popular vote.

Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Once again, libertarians and traditionalists rallied behind a leader with a foot in both camps and a promise to take the war to the enemy. Libertarian and traditional conservatives rallied behind Bush in 2004 because he had delivered on tax cuts, conservative judicial appointments, and the war on terrorism. However, it was the war on terrorism that sustained their support for Bush when he endorsed a new
multi-billion dollar Medicare drug entitlement and when he compromised on school vouchers to win passage of new federal controls on grade school education. As the war in Iraq became increasingly difficult, Bush's departures from conservative orthodoxy became fatal. Libertarians abandoned him as federal spending continued unabated. Traditionalists raged when he named his unqualified legal counsel as a nominee for the Supreme Court and supported a permissive immigration proposal. Since the Republican mid-term defeat in 2006, Bush's only saving grace has been his steadfast commitment to the effort in Iraq.

Early on, McCain, in the Republican tradition of primogeniture, was the frontrunner before imploding last summer. In the interim, fractures in the Republican coalition became evident as
evangelicals threatened to bolt for an independent candidate, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul astounded everyone with record fund-raising hauls, and Huckabee advanced with an economically populist message. Today, McCain has astonished the party with his resurgence as the frontrunner while Romney's bid to uphold the Reagan coalition has foundered.

The key to McCain's viability has always been his
national security credentials. McCain protests he is a "true conservative," and his voting record has been such but his leadership has not. McCain never helmed a cause in support of libertarian or traditionalist principles; conversely, his leadership came as a contrarian to dearly held conservative beliefs on taxes, immigration, and the First Amendment. Should he win the election, McCain's likelier example of executive leadership will not be Reagan, but another venerated Republican icon -- Theodore Roosevelt. McCain's admiration for the 26th president indicates government activism, not restraint, will be the order of the day.

For conservatives, the challenge will be identifying and cultivating individuals who have demonstrated leadership on both libertarian and traditionalist objectives during an administration led by a purported Republican conservative. (Paging Jeb Bush. If we're not supposed to vote against someone because of his race or her gender, we should not discriminate an against obvious president in waiting simply because his brother ruined his good name.) The urgency of war that has allowed conservatives to excuse lapses by Bush and McCain must not confuse some to think alternatives such as "compassionate" or "heroic" variants are necessary for revitalizing the movement. As Barry Goldwater put it succinctly, "conservatism is economic, social, and political practices based on the successes of the past."

No comments: