Writing last week in the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes sharply rebuked “paleoconservatives” (especially Patrick Buchanan) for allegedly weakening the Bush presidency and hurting the Republican Party’s chances in the upcoming midterm elections. According to Barnes, “the paleocon message is not an electoral winner.” He says it’s “gloomy, negative, defeatist, isolationist, nativist, and protectionist.” And what does Barnes identify as the “paleocon message”? He cites securing the nation’s borders, reining in excessive government spending, protecting the American economy, opposing the Dubai Ports World deal, and criticizing President Bush’s “crusade for democracy” in the Middle East. Funny, these sound like winning issues to me. Let me explain.
Barnes devotes most of his anti-paleocon diatribe to criticizing proposals for building a fence along our border with Mexico and “for stepped-up border security in general.” He calls these proposals “nativist.” Barnes even argues that taking steps to prevent illegal immigration “clashes with the welcome mat laid out by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.” Apparently, Barnes subscribes to the view that anyone desiring to come to the United States — whether for good or ill — should be free to waltz across our borders unimpeded. For him, the presence of 10-20 million illegal immigrants in the country — including, let’s not forget, Islamic terrorists and violent narcotics traffickers — is no cause for alarm.
But it is cause for alarm for the vast majority of Americans. Public opinion polls consistently show that out-of-control immigration is one of the public’s chief complaints. For example, a Quinnipiac University poll from February 2006 showed that 57 percent of registered voters consider illegal immigration a “very serious” problem, while another 31 percent consider it a “somewhat serious” problem. And a Time poll from January 2006 showed that 74 percent of adults believe the federal government is not doing enough “to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into this country,” and 61 percent disapprove of how President Bush is handling the illegal immigration problem. (See here.) Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans — and large majorities in Texas and Florida, both of which are critical to a Republican victory in 2008 — oppose the President’s amnesty and guest-worker plan. (See here.) In short, the “open borders” position is a political liability that the Republican Party would be wise to avoid.
As for Barnes’ argument that clamping down on illegal immigration risks alienating Hispanic voters, he’s delusional if he believes that an “open borders” policy works to the long-term political advantage of the Republican Party. Despite President Bush’s gains among Hispanic voters, Hispanics continue to support the Democratic Party by a wide margin. (For an analysis of the 2004 election results, see here.) Unless the Republican Party reverses course on such issues as bilingual education, affirmative action, entitlement reform, and government spending, it is extremely unlikely that a majority of Hispanic voters will ever support the Republican Party. As the Center for Immigration Studies concluded, “the prospects of a widespread Latino conversion to the Republicans are more fantasy than reality.” Republicans should not base their immigration strategy on such flimsy hopes.
Like other elites, Barnes contemptuously dismisses the illegal immigration problem as a figment of Americans’ “nativist” imaginations. I strongly disagree with Barnes on this issue, but my point here is simply that his political analysis is wrong. Confronting the illegal immigration problem is an electoral winner. In 2008 the American people are likely to elect the candidate whom they believe will best protect us from out-of-control immigration (just as they elected George W. Bush in 2004 because they believed he would best protect us from Islamic terrorism). That’s why Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has been staking out a surprisingly tough position on immigration since the 2004 election. Unlike Barnes, she doesn’t denigrate Americans’ growing concerns over immigration (at least not openly). On this issue, Hillary’s political antennae are better tuned than Barnes’.
What shocked me even more than Barnes’ terrible advice to back away from immigration reform, was his comment — meant as a criticism — that “[e]xcessive government spending [is] a worry of all conservatives but especially paleocons.” Apparently, “compassionate conservatives” like Barnes now openly subscribe to the liberal political philosophy that the path to electoral success lies on the tax-and-spend highway. A more complete rejection of everything the Republican Party stands for is scarcely imaginable. For decades, the core belief of the Republican Party has been that a constantly expanding federal government is incompatible with the principles of limited government, individual freedom, and free enterprise, upon which this great country was built and prospered. This message catapulted Ronald Reagan to resounding victories in 1980 and 1984. Yet Barnes would have us believe that this message “is not an electoral winner.” Public opinion polls clearly show otherwise. (The following data are taken from here.)
According to a Pew Research Center poll from January 2006, Americans support President Bush’s income tax cuts by 50 to 38 percent, and by a similar margin favor making his capital gains tax cuts permanent. Another Pew Research Center poll from October 2005 shows that, although Americans are concerned about the size of the federal budget deficit, they oppose raising taxes by 70 to 26 percent or cutting defense spending by 58 to 36 percent. However, they favor reducing social spending by 47 to 41 percent. And a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from March 2005 shows that 54 percent of registered voters think that the taxes they pay are too high. Most strikingly, by a margin of 71 to 12 percent, respondents in the Fox News poll said they were bothered more by how the government spends their taxes than by how much they pay in taxes. Plainly, a large majority of Americans favor policies that leave more money in their pockets to spend as they choose, not as some government bureaucrat — or corrupt member of Congress — chooses. Reagan understood this; Barnes apparently does not.
In his article, Barnes does not explain why the remaining positions he identifies as “paleoconservative” — i.e., protecting the American economy, opposing the Dubai Ports World deal, and criticizing President Bush’s Middle East policy — are electoral losers. To the extent Barnes is objecting to Patrick Buchanan’s personal positions on these issues (many of which I disagree with), he should say so. I certainly don’t deny that Buchanan would make a poor presidential candidate. But as a general proposition, Barnes is wrong to suggest that a more “nationalistic” approach to economic issues and a more “America first” approach to security issues would be politically unpopular. Quite the contrary.
Consider, for example, the controversy over the Dubai Ports World deal. The prospect of an Arab Muslim country managing several ports in the United States, including New York Harbor, raised both economic and security concerns in many Americans’ minds (including many respected leaders of the Republican Party). These concerns erupted into a firestorm after George W. Bush pledged to use his first presidential veto on any bill intended to block the deal. Is this Barnes’ idea of smart politics? If so, he should go into a new line of work, pronto. A Rasmussen poll from February 2006 showed that 64 percent of adults opposed the deal, while only 17 percent supported it. The result, predictably, was an embarrassing political defeat for the President. Once again, we see that Hillary Clinton, who led the Democratic opposition to the deal, displayed sharper political instincts than Barnes (or Bush). Most troublingly, she was able to align herself with the “average” American’s views on this issue — which is supposed to be a Republican strength.
Lastly, I completely reject Barnes’ suggestion that “good” Republicans must support the President’s Middle East policy, no matter what. Barnes specifically criticizes “paleoconservatives” for “reject[ing] Bush’s optimism about rolling back the dictatorships of the Middle East.” What is Barnes talking about? Other than Iraq, whose long-term viability remains an open question, where are we “rolling back the dictatorships of the Middle East”? The world’s leading terrorist state, Iran, continues to pursue nuclear weapons, which a recent USA Today/CNN Gallup poll showed most Americans think will be used on the United States and/or Israel. At the same time, Iran brazenly supports the jihadist forces in Iraq. Has Bush toppled this regime? No. Ditto for Syria. Not to mention Saudi Arabia, which we continue to treat as an “ally” despite its financing of Islamic extremism across the globe, including in our own country
As I argued last fall the forceful vision that underlay the original Bush Doctrine (which I wholeheartedly supported) has died out. What it has been replaced with satisfies no one, including many people on the Right who would like to see America act even more aggressively in dealing with Islamic terrorism. While the Democrats’ message of weakness and accommodation remains unpopular among the American people, it is clear that the status quo on this issue will be a political liability in 2008. I predict that the eventual Republican nominee will support either a “Fortress America” strategy, backed by a credible threat to engage in massive retaliation against terror-sponsoring states if we suffer more attacks, or a return to the original Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on preemptive military action to defeat and deter terrorists before they strike. Either way, President Bush’s current Middle East policy will be subjected to sharp criticism. Barnes may think this is disloyal, but it is political reality.
In sum, what Barnes identifies as the “paleocon message” represents a number of different issues, policies, and perspectives that many Republicans, not just readers of The American Conservative, find compelling. I certainly do. If this makes me a “paleocon,” so be it. More importantly, however, these are issues on which a majority of the American people strongly disagree with Barnes’ political recommendations. Hmm. Barnes or the American people? I’ll pick the American people every time. And so should any Republican politician who wants to be living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January 2009.