Political Hay

The Reactionary Republicans

The only thing GOP moderates have to fear: Can they get over FDR?

By 4.30.13

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You can call them The Reactionary Republicans.

Or, if you prefer, The Collectivist Conservatives.

Whether in the media or think tanks or elsewhere, they are out there to carry water for the oldest and stalest of thread-bare political arguments, desperately trying to make the idea of eagerly reacting to liberals and liberalism a shiny new idea all over again.

Over at the Washington Post, the wonderfully misrepresented “conservative” columnist Jennifer Rubin believes conservatives should ditch Reagan for Franklin Roosevelt.

At the Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Peter Berkowitz is out with his rule book for Gerald Ford Republicans.

While over at MSNBC ex-Republican Congressman-turned-morning-talk show-host Joe Scarborough (as detailed here by Sean Hannity and the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell in a Hannity Media Mash segment) prattles on with the liberal line on everything from gun control (he’s for it) to talk radio (he’s against it).

All three -- and by no means are they alone -- are following the age-old path that has been trod by Republicans of moderate stripe from Herbert Hoover to the Bushes. And don’t forget Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas E. Dewey, the Richard Nixon of 1960, Ford, Bob Dole, John McCain and the ideologically mushed Mitt Romney.

The latter -- who famously was an icon of “conservative” columnist Rubin (she managing the decidedly rare feat of bringing Left and Right together on the notion that she was a Romney “shill,” as and here at the Right’s Red State) -- managed to carve a career where he was both for and against abortion, against Reagan before he was for Reagan, not to mention being the gubernatorial architect of Romneycare, the ideological father of Obamacare. No wonder Jen Rubin was crazy about the guy.

With all these miserably lost elections based on “moderation” you would think those who keep on keeping on with the idea of moderation that has repeatedly certified so many Republican presidential losers or closer-than-should be victories would have the decency to quietly slink off to re-think. Re-think the idea that “moderation” has anything new to contribute beyond losing presidential campaigns and what Mark Levin calls “Neo-Statist” government.

But…. Nah.

Now comes the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz to amusingly enter Republican moderation in the philosophies-of-the-ages sweepstakes, writing a book titled Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation

In which Mr. Berkowitz, who has been down this road many times in various articles, insists that Big Government is here to stay, that the political moderation of conservatism “is a constitutional imperative and a demanding virtue” and that, oh by the way, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ronald Reagan were really moderates.

 And all of this old moderation is to be laundered and tidied-up to be reborn under the new name of “Constitutional Conservatism.”

So says Berkowitz in a book that confuses timidity with moderation, resignation with political wisdom and in spite of the book’s title cannot hide the fact that what’s being presented isn’t about the constitution, much less is it about conservatism.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with these lines from Berkowitz, prefaced by praise of Edmund Burke for exposing “the error of depending on abstract theory for guidance in practical affairs.” In his summation chapter, bafflingly titled “A Way Forward,” are these lines: 

The first entrenched reality is that the era of big government is here to stay. This is particularly important for libertarians to absorb. Over the last two hundred years, society and the economy in advanced industrial nations have undergone dramatic transformations. And for three-quarters of a century, the New Deal settlement has been reshaping America’s expectations about the nation-state’s reach and role. Consequently, the U.S. federal government will continue to provide a social safety net, regulate the economy, and shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality…..the attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities.” 

So the New Deal is now the Founding principle of America? And attempts to “dismantle or even substantially” roll back the New Deal “reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities”? 

Really?

Even Bill Clinton waxed Reaganesque when he said in that famous 1995 State of the Union message that “the era of Big Government is over.”

Berkowitz’s thinking -- which Rubin shares -- is a pluperfect example of what led a couple generations of American leaders to believe the Soviet Union was here to stay. Those were the folks rolling their eyes in their supposed sophistication when President Reagan insisted the Soviets were headed to the “ash heap of history.” Only to watch astonished as the Berlin Wall came down followed shortly thereafter by the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. Precisely as Reagan predicted.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the New Deal is crashing down around the heads of Americans in a fashion that is the political equivalent of those iconic images of the collapsing World Trade Center on 9/11.

  • · Social Security, say the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund, is on an “unsustainable path.” Which is to say -- this New Deal gem is headed for collapse.
  • · Fannie Mae, the New Deal’s mortgage-finance agency created in 1938 was the root cause of the nation’s financial collapse in September, 2008.
  • · Medicare, bequeathed to America by FDR’s famous young congressional protégé and New Deal enthusiast Lyndon Johnson in LBJ’s Great Society, is projected by its Trustees to be exhausted in a mere eleven years.

All of this before you get to the looming disaster of Obamacare.

Obamacare -- a true New Deal-style creation which Democrat Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, described as a “train wreck” the other day. This shortly before announcing he was abandoning the sinking liberal ship and giving up a re-election bid. He also mentioned the obvious -- he had never bothered to read the bill. Meanwhile, doctors are having their practices upended, patients are suddenly being told that the Obama promise of keeping their own doctor was a lie -- and word leaks that Congress is plotting to exempt itself and its staff because they can’t afford to pay the bills they have now endowed on the rest of us.

Meanwhile the $17 trillion debt this country has sustained in search of the Utopias promised by every government program that was once the gleam in the eye of some powerful New Deal progressive -- or moderate -- continues to mushroom.

The fact of the matter is that the New Deal is imploding all around us. With all manner of experts repeatedly warning the U.S. is being relentlessly driven towards a financial cliff, with entitlement spending on track to eventually consume first the defense budget before polishing off the entire federal budget. The fact that Democrats are tying themselves to the equivalent of an unexploded political IED is their decision. 

But what, pray tell, is moderate, Republican or conservative about accepting the idea that America is headed irrevocably to bankruptcy and chaos?

Indeed, another Washington Post columnist, the economics writer Robert Samuelson (no right-winger he) put it this way recently in a column headed “The Twilight of Entitlement”:

We are passing through something more than a period of disappointing economic growth and increasing political polarization. What's happening is more powerful: the collapse of "entitlement." By this, I do not mean primarily cuts in specific government benefits, most prominently Social Security, but the demise of a broader mindset -- attitudes and beliefs -- that, in one form or another, has gripped Americans since the 1960s. The breakdown of these ideas has rattled us psychologically as well as politically and economically.

Samuelson goes on to note, quoting from his 1995 book The Good Life and Its Discontents:

We had a grand vision. We didn't merely expect things to get better. We expected all social problems to be solved. We expected business cycles, economic insecurity, poverty, and racism to end. We expected almost limitless personal freedom and self-fulfillment. For those who couldn't live life to its fullest (as a result of old age, disability, or bad luck), we expected a generous social safety net to guarantee decent lives. We blurred the distinction between progress and perfection.

Just so. But in fact, this vision -- Utopia, American-style or what Mark Levin has aptly titled Ameritopia -- began not in the 1960s but at least as far back as the New Deal.

This doesn’t even touch the fact that Big Government is constantly awash in everything from spending scandals (the Obama General Services Administration) to cronyism allegations (Solyndra at the Obama Energy Department). And alas, Big Government scandals are not peculiar to the Obama era. From Tea Pot Dome in the Harding era (which involved the Interior and Justice Departments) to HUD in the Reagan era, administrations of both parties have had to deal with scandals that have as the necessary predicate Big Government bureaucracy and power. Does anyone ever ask why exactly the US Congress has to have all those “Oversight” committees in the first place?

The answer to all of this is not moderation. There simply is no such thing as moderating utopian statism. The object of statism is to coerce, and the politics of moderation is about agreeing to be coerced, just not so much.

Yet Berkowitz insists in his book that the New Deal is here to stay, a sentiment echoed by Rubin and others.

All of this in spite of the ridiculous notion that a 21st century, high-tech America should be relying on a 1930s concept of massive centralized bureaucracies running the whole country. Which is not unlike trying to get to Mars in a horse and buggy. The New Deal -- Big Government -- is no longer practical, as Americans, with each crash of the New Deal superstructure over their heads, are learning the hard way.

Yet there is Berkowitz using Burke to justify moderation, even when, after reading his book, it seems repeatedly clear that, to borrow from Gertrude Stein on Oakland, there is no there there in his idea of moderation. With reason: moderation is not a principle, it’s a behavior.

Notably Berkowitz says this of Burke: “In seeking to bring British politics in line with liberty’s conditions and requirements, he exposed the error of depending on abstract theory for guidance in practical affairs.”

The “error of depending on abstract theory for guidance in practical affairs.”

Really?

Well aside that Berkowitz gets Burke wrong -- supporting the American Revolution, as did Burke, was decidedly not about moderation -- compare the image Berkowitz draws of Burke with the many and lengthy analyses in the last few weeks discussing another famous conservative British politician -- the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. One didn’t have to look hard or long to see a remarkable similarity in assessments of Lady Thatcher as “the greatest peace time prime minister in British history.” 

Why was this? Because Thatcher never considered principle to be abstract.

Said her biographer Hugo Young, a longtime journalist for the left-wing Guardian, Thatcher succeeded because:

Philosophy was the word. What first ensued (upon her election as the Conservative leader) was an examination of ideas. What they (Thatcher and like-minded Conservative colleague Keith Josephs) were anxious to establish …had more to do with first principles than specific policies. ….Reaching across the whole domain of politics…(Joseph had)…the most evocative description of where Mrs. Thatcher should lead the party, as well as the direction in which most of it was quite happy to be led. This was away from the “middle ground.”

The middle ground “moved continuously to the left by its own internal dynamic,” Joseph contended. All parties had sought to occupy it, encouraged by the overinfluential media, so that a collectivist consensus had carried all before it. “It created not prospects but crisis. Far from saving the public sector, it had gone a long way towards destroying it. Far from achieving social harmony and strengthening the centre, it has created resentment and conflict.”

In place of the middle ground, the new Thatcher Tory Party should seek to identify the “common ground,” the place where the real lives and aspirations of most people were in practice acted out. The only way to reach this ground…was by the rediscovery of true Conservative ideas.…Here was the battlefield. The Tory Party had to have the courage to enter it unashamed of the principles it believed in.

Lady Thatcher, decidedly unashamed of first principles, marched boldly onto the political battlefield and carried the day because, in the words of the Wall Street Journal:

…she articulated a set of vital ideas about economic freedom, national self-respect and personal virtue, sold them to a skeptical public and then demonstrated their efficacy. 

She applied principles -- not abstractions -- across the board to Britain’s very specific policy problems, including but not limited to, says Young, “inflation, employment, the money supply, the role of unions as monopoly suppliers of labor, (and ) the limits of government power in influencing these economic elements.”

It would be wrong to suggest that Berkowitz or his fellow moderate camp followers like Rubin or Scarborough are somehow clueless about all of this. In fact, Berkowitz, Rubin, Scarborough and many others are merely the American version of precisely what Margaret Thatcher believed to be the “collectivist consensus that carries all before it.” 

The obvious question here is: what did Margaret Thatcher know that Edmund Burke -- whom she honored -- did not? Burke died in 1797 -- plenty of time not only for his immoderate support of the American Revolution but for his famous observations about the French Revolution. Alas, Burke missed Karl Marx, Bismarck, the American Progressive Movement, the Russian Revolution, Adolf Hitler, and the Cold War -- just for starters. Not to mention the rise and fall of post-World War II British socialism and its American cousin the New Deal. Lady Thatcher, through the benefit of accident of time of birth, education and life experience, missed none of it.

She knew exactly what Burke could not know and what Berkowitz, Rubin, and Scarborough should know. Namely, that:

The middle ground “moved continuously to the left by its own internal dynamic.”… All parties had sought to occupy it, encouraged by the overinfluential media, so that a collectivist consensus had carried all before it. “It created not prospects but crisis. Far from saving the public sector, it had gone a long way towards destroying it. Far from achieving social harmony and strengthening the centre, it has created resentment and conflict.”

And why did “the middle ground” move “continuously to the left”?

Here is Robert Samuelson in 2013 saying:

Popular national goals remain elusive. Poverty is stubborn. Many schools seem inadequate. The "safety net," private and public, is besieged. Our expansive notion of entitlement rested on optimistic and, ultimately, unrealistic assumptions.

Unconsciously, that is Samuelson echoing the Thatcher realization from 1975 that moving a nation -- Britain, America or any other -- in search of Utopia is to necessarily move it in a leftward direction: With the inevitable that the results, as Thatcher understood,

…created not prospects but crisis. Far from saving the public sector, it had gone a long way towards destroying it. Far from achieving social harmony and strengthening the centre, it has created resentment and conflict.

Understanding Thatcher -- particularly the line about an “overinfluential media” encouraging “a collectivist consensus that carried all before it” -- one need waste no time wondering why Jennifer Rubin would write a piece trumpeted in the Washington Post with the headline:

Tear Down This Icon: Why the GOP Has to Get Over Ronald Reagan

Instead of writing a genuinely conservative piece headlined:

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is the New Deal: Why the Democrats Have to Get Over Franklin Roosevelt

The reason no such analyses will be forthcoming from Rubin is that Rubin -- like Berkowitz and the Washington Post itself -- regards FDR’s New Deal as the bedrock of a “collectivist consensus” -- and the Reagan Revolution as an impertinent -- not to mention terrifying -- historical interloper on just that consensus.

Here’s Rubin on Reagan’s legacy: 

But that myth has become a burden for the modern GOP. It has bound Reagan’s followers on the right to policies and positions that were time specific.

 But here’s Rubin on Roosevelt’s legacy:

…Republicans should recognize that America will not return to the pre-New Deal era.

Got that?

FDR’s New Deal legacy is eternal. Reagan’s legacy is “time specific.” Add a British accent and one can almost hear the patronizing Tory old boys (the British versions of American “conservatives” like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough or the Daily Beast’s David Frum) telling Margaret that the Socialist revolution of post-World War II Britain is over and she needs to bloody modernize. Which in turn is precisely the same sentiment an exasperated Gerald Ford expressed to the New York Times in 1980 when saying Reagan was an “extremist” who could not possibly win a presidential election. 

Again, bear in mind that the Washington Post Rubin column on moving past Reagan but not Roosevelt is from an allegedly “conservative” columnist. The Berkowitz book (and numerous of his related articles) is from an allegedly conservative think tanker.

All of which goes precisely to Thatcher’s understanding that the Left keeps shifting the middle ground to a “collectivist consensus.” A collectivist consensus of which Rubin and Berkowitz -- the nominal conservatives here -- are very much a part. A collectivist consensus that induces repeated failure.

Of particular note is another obvious point. In America there are always the founding decidedly non-abstract cornerstones of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

And here we get into a curious aspect of Berkowitz.

One cannot escape the impression -- although it is never said -- that the Berkowitz argument as put forth in book form (and repeatedly elsewhere in article form) is designed as a response to Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto.

Berkowitz has not only negatively reviewed Liberty and Tyranny in the Weekly Standard back in 2009. His articles elsewhere frequently read as if designed to be some sort of moderate counterpoint to Liberty and Tyranny’s pointed and succinct dissection of what Levin correctly calls “the modern liberal assault on Constitution-based values that has steadily snowballed since President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s…”

Well aside that Levin’s book happened to emerge just at the dawn of the Obama Era -- and was immediately seized-upon by the Tea Party. The book became not just a massive bestseller but emerged as one of the most important books in modern history, alongside such classics as Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative in 1960.

As such both Levin’s book -- and Levin himself in his role as one of the nation’s most popular talk radio hosts -- have proved to be a considerable threat to the idea of moderation. Not to mention that between his books that discuss the Constitution or liberalism (in addition to Liberty and Tyranny he has written Men in Black and Ameritopia) Levin has almost single-handedly renewed popular interest in the Constitution, its background, history, and various sources of inspiration.

One suspects there is no accident that while Levin has focused at length on the role of John Locke and Charles Montesquieu, noting their impact on the Founders (Locke with the case for natural rights, Montesquieu on separation of powers) -- other than brief cameos the two men are essentially absent from Berkowitz’s book. In fact, Levin himself took to the pages of the American Thinker to say:

Thus, those, like Berkowitz, who promote moderation (not prudence) as a principle, are actually promoting a tactic or process without any core. They play right into the hands of the Statist. As I wrote in Liberty and Tyranny:

"By abandoning principle for efficiency, the neo-Statist, it seems, is no more bound to the Constitution than is the Statist. He marches more slowly than the Statist, but he marches with him nonetheless. The neo-Statist propounds no discernible standard or practical means to hem in the federal power he helps unleash, and which the Statist would exploit. In many ways, he is as objectionable as the Statist, for he seeks to devour conservatism by clothing himself in its nomenclature." 

Catch that line? “By abandoning principle for efficiency, the neo-Statist, it seems, is no more bound to the Constitution than is the Statist.”

What to make of all this?

How does one deal with slavery in moderation? Or the Soviet Union? Or the growth of Big Government? Politically speaking moderation failed in all three instances, again because it was behavior, not principle. The moderates involved in each of those episodes of American history were busy moderating in reaction, not applying First Principles.

In today’s context, the advocates of this moderation business always proceed not from principle but the simple desire to appease opponents or worse, focus groups. For advocates of moderation, a behavior -- priding themselves on having no substance- it’s all about reacting, not about principle.

This is not only unworkable and a certain -- and repeated -- political loser for Republicans. It is acquiescing in moving the country Left.

Constitutional Conservatism -- as presented by Berkowitz -- isn’t conservatism, its surrender.

Moderation, as advocated in a Reagan-less world by Rubin leads, as Margaret Thatcher exactly recognized, in only one direction.

To collectivist consensus.

Moderation is not the solution to the GOP’s problem; moderation is the GOP problem. Collectivism, not the Constitution, is the real political home of moderation and the Reactionary Republicans who celebrate it.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.