In his syndicated columns and in his recent book, Bruce Bartlett has emerged as a leading voice for a neglected constituency: the disenchanted conservative. Disgruntled with the Republicans and having little common ground with liberals, such people occupy a lonely place on the ideological spectrum. Though there is certainly no shortage of things for conservatives to be disenchanted about.
Government is growing at a breakneck speed. Taxes are scheduled to rise. The biggest federal entitlement programs are teetering toward insolvency, yet politicians continue to pile on unfunded liabilities rather than impose fiscal discipline. Even the war on terror has gotten sidetracked into sundry nation-building projects. It’s enough to drive a contrarian conservative to drink.
Or, in Bartlett’s case, to vote Democrat. The veteran of the Reagan and Bush 41 administration has written not one but two columns arguing that “politically sophisticated conservatives” will have no alternative in 2008 but to back the most conservative — or least liberal — Democrat available or “go down with the sinking Republican ship.” His choice: Hillary.
Not to worry if Hillary Clinton isn’t your gal. Bartlett is sure there is a Democrat out there for most thoughtful conservatives. He acknowledges that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson possesses an “excellent record of tax-cutting.” Bartlett also detects “a deeply conservative temperament” in Sen. Barack Obama. Above all, however, he wants to avoid “the political powerlessness” that is “the price of purity.”
Bartlett’s thesis is simple: The Republicans are definitely going to lose the 2008 presidential election. It’s better for conservatives to find a Democrat they can do business with than to ignore political reality out of partisan myopia.
Looking at President Bush’s low approval ratings, the 2006 election results, and the defeated congressional Republicans’ performance in office, this might make some superficial sense. Upon more careful examination, however, the conservative case for Hillary falls apart.
While the next presidential campaign will be exceedingly difficult for Republicans, it is a bit premature to concede the election a year and a half in advance. For one thing, the contest will be between actual candidates rather than a generic Republican and Democrat. The Democratic frontrunners have their own problems — Hillary has high negatives and Barack Obama has never been in a competitive national race.
The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Rudy Giuliani ahead of Hillary by 2.5 percent, with John McCain trailing her by just 1.2 percent. While some conservatives may find Giuliani and McCain unsatisfactory in many ways (as I do), the fact is they are both Republicans who are competitive with the current Democratic frontrunner in head-to-head match-ups. Maybe this polling represents the GOP’s low point; maybe Iraq will continue to drag Republican numbers down even lower. But the current data doesn’t support certainty about the ’08 results bordering on Marxian determinism.
On a more practical level, it is hard to see what conservatives can actually do to influence the Democratic nomination. Absent a massive (and massively improbable) re-registration campaign, conservative participation in the Democrats’ primaries and caucuses will be minimal. And ask Joe Lieberman how helpful endorsements from the conservative elite are in a competitive Democratic primary.
It’s also not clear what conservatives stand to gain from this unlikely realignment. When it wasn’t imposed on him by a Republican Congress, Bill Clinton’s 1990s moderation was a calculated reaction to the right’s political strength. The Clintons abandoned most liberal rhetoric about national security, crime, business, family values, and the middle class in response to three consecutive Democratic defeats prior to 1992. They sought to reclaim the center again after being rebuked by the voters in 1994.
When Republicans looked strong, Hillary voted to authorize force against Iraq. Now that they don’t, she has endorsed a measure to rescind that authorization. While she hasn’t expressly apologized for her war vote (a fact Bartlett imbues with great significance), she has now done so implicitly.
For a better idea of how even a centrist Democrat would govern in today’s climate, look at the first two years of the Clinton administration — higher taxes, gun control, aggressive cultural liberalism, and Hillary’s healthcare plan. The Democrats won’t abandon or moderate this agenda to win votes from weakened conservatives.
The right certainly does need more serious thought about the future and less knee-jerk Republican partisanship. As Bartlett points out, Iraq and overspending have damaged the GOP’s reputation for foreign-policy strength, fiscal sanity, and basic competence, alienating many former supporters.
Yet alienation from the Republican Party is not a political platform. Railing against “ignorant and intolerant yahoos” who care about issues like immigration or stem-cell research and describing the conservative coalition as “religious zealots, gun nuts, anti-tax extremists and pro-life absolutists” isn’t helpful. (Nor is it helpful to pretend that such descriptions are neutral.)
Conservatives have always had a troubled relationship with the GOP. Russell Kirk voted for Norman Thomas for president in 1944 and Eugene McCarthy in 1976. The early movement was as often in opposition to Eisenhower Republicans as Adlai Stevenson Democrats. It remains a difficult problem.
But it can’t be solved by pretending that Hillary is still a Goldwater girl.