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Save the Elephant

Hot New York Post columnist Ryan Sager argues the conservative-libertarian coalition is on life support -- and Karl Rove is pulling the plug.

By 9.15.06

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New York Post columnist Ryan Sager's smart, rambunctiously confrontational new book The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party begins with scenes from a triumphant CPAC 2005 basking in electoral victory and ends with CPAC 2006 mired down in a dour, we're-not-worthy self-flagellation over lost principles. It's a beautifully rendered contrast between the exuberance of electoral victory and the creeping buyer's remorse over what it took to win. Will the compromises and consistent philosophical defeats fiscal conservatives and libertarians have suffered despite coming out on top at the ballot box create a disaffected group big enough to take the wind out of the GOP's sails? Ryan Sager was kind enough to take time to address these and other questions:

Peggy Noonan has called your book "a real call to arms" -- I'd agree, incidentally -- but I'm curious how much hope you believe there is for a philosophical revolution in conservative circles when the GOP seems to be caught in a cycle of calling for a return to more principled roots during odd years and scuttling of principle in favor of doing what they believe it takes to win during election years?

Sager: To do you one better in the pessimism department, I'd point out that the GOP hasn't been all that principled in the odd years lately either. Yet, hope springs eternal, and here's why I'm hopeful. In many ways, the Bush years have been a national trauma. I don't say that to insult the president. It's just a fact. He came to office under the cloud of that horrible, bitter, divisive situation in Florida. Then our nation is attacked on 9/11. Since then, our politics have been sort of stunted and polarized by people's personal feelings about George W. Bush. Democrats can't stand him, and conservative Republicans have felt compelled to stand firmly behind him -- even though he's hardly governed as a "conservative" at all. Now that Bush is leaving the scene, I think we'll finally be able to start talking about the elephant in the room, which is that George W. Bush has been a disaster for conservatism as it's been understood since the mid-1950s and that he's turned the Republican coalition on its head with his big-government conservatism. We don't have to carry on the Bush legacy in 2008. We can look back to Reagan and Goldwater, and even to some aspects of Gingrich.

You write, "The American people have their virtues, but knowing what they want from the government and setting sensible long-term priorities in the absence of principled political leadership are not among them. If the Republican Party has found itself with a constituency that does not value, or perhaps won't even tolerate, small government, it is because that is the coalition party leaders have built." With that in mind, is opposition to limited government simply political, or do we now face a cultural pandemic of nanny state dependence? And which aspect -- political or cultural -- poses the greater challenge? Or are the two hopelessly intertwined?

Sager: In the passage you quote, what I'm discussing is a massive shift in the Republican coalition that's been going on since the late 1990s -- since, essentially, the time the GOP was emasculated by what it perceived as the disaster of the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. Before that time, the Republican coalition was mostly divided between libertarians and social conservatives. But, as I discuss in some detail in my book, in the late 1990s, polls started picking up a third element in the coalition. Pew calls them "pro-government conservatives," and they now make up about a third of Republican voters. These voters didn't come on board by accident, the GOP courted them. So, this is what I mean when I say Republicans are living in a prison of their own construction. I don't think Americans are suddenly less amenable to shrinking government than they were during the Reagan years, when they demanded lower taxes, or during the Gingrich years, when they demanded welfare reform. In fact, I think a new generation of more mobile workers is extremely amenable to having more control over their own retirement and their own health care. What has happened is that the GOP has lost its ability to speak to these voters.

Your book ends on an almost strangely optimistic note, suggesting a new fusionism between traditionalists and libertarians is possible so long as there is a "renewal of vows" recognizing "that a limited federal government serves the interests of libertarians and social conservatives alike." Yet some on the Religious Right balk. For example, In Defense of the Religious Right author Pat Hynes wrote in a critique of your argument that "despite their political impotency, the libertarian Right appears bent on bringing down the one political movement that has tolerated its know-it-all-ism and has in fact dragged it into the halls of political power along with it, rather like a ball and chain: the Christian Right." Thus, I'm curious if you foresee a "renewal of vows" with a Religious Right which, as it stands now, clearly views itself in ascendancy or will a more equitable bargaining position require some abject humiliation at the polls?

Sager: In the first chapter, which is set at the 2005 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I talk a bit about this sense of Religious Right triumphalism. One of the key "triumphalists" there that year was Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who crowed pretty loudly about how "values voters" won the 2004 election in his state for George W. Bush. Well, Mr. Blackwell is running for governor this year as a "values" candidate, and he's down by about 20 points. Sen. Rick Santorum, another "values" candidate, has been having his own serious troubles in Pennsylvania this cycle. This stuff goes in cycles, but Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for being preached at and watching people pose as their moral betters and moral arbiters. If the Republican Party wants to tell libertarians and fiscal conservatives to take a hike, I think it'll get pretty lonely pretty quickly for the GOP. The libertarian wing of the party can't win on its own, but neither can the social-conservative wing. That's why we're in this ideological marriage. It could take a major loss at the polls for the Religious Right to rethink its strategy. But even without that they should remember that small government used to be one of their goals, not just something they tolerated. The greatest threat to our social fabric is an intrusive government, not capitalism.

The Religious Right, you also note, has "increasingly adopted the mind-set of an embattled, persecuted sect," yet at the same time it is a movement that is simultaneously, paradoxically, widely credited as one of the major power broker in American politics today, supposedly representing "The Real America." Granting they are a well-organized, integral component of GOP victory, does the Religious Right nevertheless have perhaps an inflated sense of power as a result of playing-the-victim Democrats all-too-willing to blame electoral losses on theocratic gay bashers -- i.e. the popularity of the Jesusland map after the election -- rather than acknowledge their own faults? Put another way, are fiscal conservatives more relevant than they are generally portrayed?

Sager: You're right, it's quite the paradox. The Religious Right is seen as a power-broker, but they feel almost as betrayed by the Republican Party as the libertarians do. If you think libertarians whine, you should listen to James Dobson some time. So, yes, there's a real identity crisis on the social right. They feel very powerful, or at least feared, yet they can't achieve very much of what they want, at least when it comes to government policy. The response by some has been to try to live apart from mainstream society. The home schooling movement is part of this. That's also why The Passion of the Christ was so important to Evangelicals. They wanted to show they had power in the marketplace. The question, I guess, is how long does the Religious Right let itself be conned by the GOP bringing up the Federal Marriage Amendment and the flag-burning amendment every even-numbered year, and then voting them down? The fiscal conservatives ultimately probably get even less from the Republican Party than the Religious Right, at this point. But neither wing has much reason to be happy.

You -- correctly in my estimation -- contend that "conservatives who have long pined for activist government have found in the War on Terror the key to crafting an overarching theme." The release of The Elephant in the Room comes on the heels of the fifth anniversary of 9/11. We are being told this is, at the very least, a generational war. Are fears that this prolonged state of affairs might irrevocably ingrain activist government into the fiber of American consciousness as the norm rather than an aberration a legitimate concern? Or is that just sissy talk hampering the war effort?

Sager: It's not sissy talk. But I also don't think there's any particular reason the War on Terror should lead to big government across the board at home. As far as civil liberties, we're in a whole new ballgame, and that's something libertarians are just going to have to get used to. We need more congressional and judicial oversight of these matters than the Bush administration has been willing to submit to, but a certain level of domestic surveillance and intrusive security is going to be a fact of life. At the same time, as government's role in ensuring our security grows, we should do what we can to pare down its other functions. There's no reason the War on Terror necessitates our having a bad education bill, a new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement, or a crackdown on free speech called "campaign-finance reform." In fact, quite the opposite. All of these things divert resources away from security and make our society and economy less resilient.

The nuances and anecdotes you mine concerning the original rise of fusionism and the modern conservative movement are fantastically interesting and revealing. Did researching the early monumental struggles between traditionalists and libertarians give you more or less hope for the healing of this current rift? Were you particularly surprised by anything you uncovered?

Sager: It's certainly comforting, in a sense, that this conflict is as old as conservatism itself. The tension between libertarians and social conservatives is why Frank Meyer -- an editor at National Review from its founding until his death in 1972 -- came up with the idea of "fusionism." Essentially, the idea was that libertarians and traditionalists, as social conservatives used to be called, should both want the same thing: a smaller federal government. Libertarian means would achieve traditionalist ends, as the saying goes. Yet, what's less comforting is that the split today doesn't look like the spats of the past. This isn't conservative writers sniping at Ayn Rand or a fistfight between young conservatives over Vietnam. This is a tectonic shift in the ground under the conservative movement. Basically, it's slower and less noisy than past splits, but potentially more deadly. If I was surprised by anything, it was the disparity between just how important Frank Meyer's thinking is to our present crisis and just how thoroughly he's been forgotten.

The fine narrative you weave is philosophically and politically serious, but also adorned with beautiful bits of biting wit and humor. Was it difficult to strike a balance between these narrative elements?

Sager: I think every interview should contain at least one question like this. Thank you.

You criticize Bush's Ownership Society as "big government by another name, providing only the faintest illusion of choice." I agree, but could an argument be made, however, that the illusion of choice is the first step in conditioning people to accept actual choice, especially when faced with the realities of our modern entitlement state/culture?

Sager: Despite my somewhat extended critique of how Bush's Ownership Society has gone down in flames, I actually think it's a powerful political formulation and could be the basis of a small-government revival in the GOP. No Child Left Behind is something of a joke, but an "ownership" approach to education, such as vouchers, would be great cause for the next Republican presidential candidate to take up. Libertarians and social conservatives largely agree with it, and it's a perfect way to reach out to black and Latino voters, who are the ones who currently take the brunt of our monopoly public-school system. Likewise, private Social Security accounts may not be quite the libertarian ideal, but they're better than the current system and get people used to the idea that they can and should have control over their own retirement.

As the budgetary crisis looms ever larger, the national debt grows and massive spending increases eat up whatever Laffer curve benefits there were from Bush's tax cuts, do you worry those who advocate fiscal restraint and lower taxes will end up taking the blame rather than profligate spenders if/when the economy ever truly goes south? Could tax-cut-and-spend Republicans conceivably discredit fiscal conservatism by only practicing one half of it?

Sager: I think that's a definite possibility. The bigger problem in the immediate political future is that the Bush administration and the GOP Congress have essentially destroyed the Republican Party's claim on the mantle of fiscal responsibility for a generation. If the Democrats want to go to voters with the message that they'd do a better job balancing the budget and controlling spending, the voters might just believe them. Now, while the idea of the Democrats as the party of small government is a bit laughable, what exactly can the Republicans say? They're sort of left without a leg to stand on.

Considering all the criticism you level at the GOP political structure and big government collaborationists within the conservative grassroots, do you worry The Elephant in the Room will be tarred as divisive?

Sager: I don't care if I'm called every name in the book and then a few more if it makes conservatives wake up and take stock of where their party is going. I don't think most conservatives want the party George W. Bush has left them with, even if they like him personally and think he's been a strong leader in the War on Terror. There's a big difference between having animosity toward the president and not liking where he's led the party. We've made a wrong turn. But in the next two years we have a chance to find a new way forward.

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