It’s often said there’s an Eleventh Commandment in conservative politics: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican.” This edict is usually attributed to Ronald Reagan, though it was actually coined by then-California Republican Party chairman Gaylord B. Parkinson in 1965. Since then many conservatives have treated it as constitutional law, deriving from it interpretive statutes about how the right should behave.
Today those conservatives must feel like Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles when he steps unsuspectingly out of the bathroom only to find food flying in all directions. The modern right is wrought with divisions. We’ve got Tea Partiers bum-rushing the establishment, hawks trying to marginalize doves, social conservatives clambering for sandbags to plug up the libertarian deluge, and rival-voweled reformocons and reformicons warring in the streets around the American Enterprise Institute. The Republican presidential debate stage next year is likely to feature six candidates and possibly as many as fourteen.
For party whips and political unifiers, these are times of tribulation. But I have a question for those who would criticize a divided conservatism.
Have you checked out the left lately?
The Obama era should have been a high watermark for American liberalism. Democrats in 2009 not only laid claim to the House, the filibuster-proof Senate, and the White House, but did so during an economic recession in which jobs vanished, wages shrank, and Wall Street was held in nearly universal contempt. Deregulation was out and stimulus was in. The table was better set for progressive ideas than at any time since the Great Depression.
Early on, liberals made three calculations that cost them dearly. First, given enough political capital to tackle either sweeping Wall Street reform or sweeping health care reform, but not both, President Obama chose the latter. The public viewed that as a diversion from the real economic issues—jobs and wages—and punished Democrats in the 2010 elections, releasing the left’s hold on Congress.
Second, liberals hitched their fate to the economy by pledging that their policies would end the recession. They often did this in tangible terms, as when the president’s economic advisors said unemployment would never exceed 8 percent if the stimulus was passed. None of this worked as planned: GDP growth was anemic, the economy stagnated, and the unemployment rate jumped to 10 percent in October 2009. It wouldn’t dip below 8 percent for another three years. Democrats suffered accordingly.
Third, following the placards-and-pitchforks election of 2010, Democrats began crusading against their political opponents with the desperation of a party shut out of power. The left’s obsession with stopping the Tea Party became so all-consuming that it distracted from the business of crafting policy. By the 2014 election, Democrats stood for nothing beyond sticking it to the anti-Obamacare wingnuts and shadowboxing something called the War on Women. While liberals smirked at Obama Derangement Syndrome, their own derangement was in a very advanced stage.
And that gets to the grand irony here. Liberals spent years sneering that Republicans were the party of no, out of ideas, deathly, dying, dead. This spurred conservatives and engendered a Great Awakening on the right the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Contract with America. It was liberalism that went bankrupt, with little internal dialectic and nothing to show but hatred, economic stagnation, and the same hoary tax-and-spend policies it’s been trying for decades.
That lack of originality is painfully evident at the state level. In Rhode Island, the governor is looking to enact a “Taylor Swift” tax on vacation homes worth more than $1 million. In California, legislators are mulling over cigarette and sales tax increases. This mad impulse towards profligacy is having predictable consequences. Of the top ten job-creating states in 2014, according to Gallup, seven were under total Republican control (it would be eight if Nebraska didn’t have a nonpartisan legislature). Of the ten states that created the fewest jobs, only one was under total Republican control and four were under total Democratic control.
These side-by-side economic comparisons—brought to you by federalism, another great conservative idea—have created a personnel shortage in the Democratic Party as voters toss out failed liberal governors. Consider that the Democrats’ presidential frontrunner for 2016 is Hillary Clinton, who’s been on camera without interruption since 1992 yet hasn’t held elected office since 2009. Consider too that her only potential challengers are a one-term senator from Massachusetts and a former governor from Maryland whose protégé was thrashed at the ballot box last year.
Or consider my old pal Dannel Malloy, the new head of the Democratic Governors Association. Malloy is governor of Connecticut, an economic leper colony ranked dead last in those Gallup job creation rankings. Why let him fail upwards into the DGA, often considered a stepping stone to national prominence? Perhaps because Malloy is all Democrats have left. Only 18 Democratic governors survived last year’s elections, after Republicans prevailed in blue states like Illinois and Maryland.
Malloy plans to reverse this trend by doubling down on progressivism. “If you abandon being a Democrat, they will always choose the Republican in that situation,” he said. In point of fact! Let’s hope he holds up himself as an example and pressures other Democrats to raise taxes 77 times.
None of this is to write off Hillary Clinton or chase some permanent Republican realignment chimera. It’s simply to observe that in the current snapshot of the political landscape, liberalism is as weak as it’s looked in at least ten years. Presented with a searing economic recession, Republican ideas worked, Democratic ideas didn’t, the public rewarded Republicans with everything except the presidency, and Democrats flew into a rage. That could change tomorrow or 50 years from now, but it remains an exhilarating and unexpected political narrative.
So Rand Paul will snipe at Jeb Bush, reform conservatives will diverge from libertarians, and the Eleventh Commandment will go unheeded. But maybe that’s a good thing. Almost all of the compelling policy debates right now are happening on the right. Conservatives could put a moratorium on friendly fire and train their sights on the left, but why bother?
It’s gotten so boring over there.