"If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure nine will run into a ditch before they get to you."
- Calvin Coolidge
Conservatism is the doctrine of least expectations. Conservatives tend to view the world from the bleakest of perspectives. Man is a fallen creature, a rickety bridge between the beasts and the angels, driven by appetites and urges perhaps best not examined too closely. Mankind takes two steps (and sometimes two hundred) backward for each step forward, and often enough, those forward steps are in the wrong direction. Humans are steeped in error, and any change holds within it the danger of catastrophe.
This is the tragic vision of life, a philosophy of limitations. As such it is not unimpressive, and may well be close to the truth. (I find it a pretty apt description of the human universe as I've experienced it.) But it's not much of a formula for practical application, particularly when it comes to politics.
We've been seeing plenty of evidence for this in recent months, as involves the current fortunes of the GOP, the vehicle for conservative values in our time. Thanks almost completely to its own ineptness, the Republican party stumbled into the political wasteland in 2006, and two years later still cannot believe that it happened, much less come up with a strategy for correcting the situation.
The GOP has in the past year lost no less than three special elections -- in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- that it should have won, largely due to sheer dumbness (during the Mississippi campaign, local Republicans thought it a wise move to bring in Trent Lott, arguably the least-respected individual in the party, to drum up enthusiasm ). Tom Coburn, than whom there is no smarter conservative now active, believes that the GOP is in for another whipping this year, and that the party deserves it. So be it -- such periods are not without value, acting on political parties in the same way that recessions act on business, offering an opportunity to reflect on errors, make corrections, and cut away odd pieces of dead wood before moving on.
But that's not the way it's being viewed on either side. The left, confusing as always the GOP with the conservative movement, is proclaiming the "death of conservatism" (as in the lengthy piece by somebody-or-other in The New Yorker a few weeks back) and the second coming of the perverse form of "liberalism" that dominated much of 20th century American politics.
2008, we're told, is a "transformational" election, a revolutionary moment in which everything that went before will be overturned, and the nation's entire political sphere utterly changed. Barack Obama is the human embodiment of this moment -- the New Moses who will lead the American people into their promised land. (The part about wandering the Sinai for forty years appears to have been overlooked -- note to Republican operatives.) We're called on to prepare ourselves for a combination of the New Deal, the 60s, and the October Revolution all rolled into one.
No small number of conservatives are echoing this view. Even the cynical and wise Victor Davis Hanson is ready to throw up his hands and allow Obama the purple toga, and he is no way alone. It's perfectly understandable that Democrats will view events as occurring due to vast and unopposable historical forces -- they are, after all, ideologues, and such ideas play a prominent part in their ideology. But if conservatives ever begin to look at developments in this way, it will mean the end. The American left will have persuaded their opposition to adapt their worldview, and in so doing, will have won half the battle.
Despair magnifies all difficulties. The stone in the pathway becomes an unclimbable peak. The yapping mutt becomes the Hound of the Baskervilles. And an inexperienced, first-term senator, who barely squeaked his way to victory against one the most despised figures in American public life, becomes a combination of Moses, Gandhi, and Superman.
But if we step back from the left-wing lens, what do we see? A political apocalypse? A leftist tsunami? Some unimaginable historical synthesis bearing down on us?
No -- what we in fact see is a very slick and adept Chicago pol, in prophet's rags a little too large for him, with a political party clinging to his goatskin tails. It's this, and this alone, that has so frightened the GOP and sent conservatives into catatonia.
What this collapse is about is not at all clear. Barack Obama is alive and fighting, no more than that. His battle with Madame Hillary has leached virtually all momentum from his campaign. He has spent months calling in airstrikes on his own position and setting up booby traps and minefields in areas that he now has to cross. His primary campaign could be taken as a textbook example on how not to set yourself up for the national contest. And the numbers show it: even with his nomination "bounce", Obama is according to CNN, only 3 points ahead of McCain -- a statistical tie.
Among the hurdles that Obama created for himself are:
His messiahhood: The media has done Obama no favor by accepting his self-promotion to secular redeemer. Somebody should read the literature and discover what happens to messiahs after their followers grow tired of them. They might wish to start out with an esoteric collection called "the Gospels". Perhaps an intern could prepare a condensation.
These we-have-seen-the-light campaigns don't wear well. It's difficult to maintain enthusiasm over the long run, and even when that's accomplished, things soon take on a glassy-eyed aura, something on the order of a Moonie mass wedding. Obama long ago passed this point during the primary campaign. Now he has gained a second wind from attaining the nomination. But that will last only weeks before he is required abandon the walk-on-the-water act and attempt something unfamiliar to him: running on his merits.
A related problem that has gone unmentioned involves the Obama iconography. The "halo" photos are a case in point.
This motif means one thing alone: that the candidate is being compared to Christ. That will be taken one way by the mass of the country: as blasphemy. It's a comment on the yawning gap between bedrock Americans and the elites that no one has seen this as Obama's strike two. He insulted religious Americans once with his "God n' guns" comment. Now he's redoubled the insult with this.
His disciples: Leading a redemptive movement has its drawbacks. Obamanoids are the same type as those drawn to any pseudo-religious craze -- the confused, the lost, and the demented. People who missed the spaceship behind the comet. Obama will not be able to shake this. The true creepiness of Obamamania will remain a serious issue. And it is not something that the candidate can control. We will very likely see Obamiacs menacing, harassing, and even attacking the opposition before this is over. The opponents of the messiah are, by definition, the essence of evil, yes?
His weird pals: We have met Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and Tony "Cell 4, Block D" Rezko. Obama has not had an acceptable explanation for any of them. His uniform response has been "that's not the Jeremiah/Bill/Tony that I knew", which brands him as more than a bit of a schmuck for a man in his mid-forties. It would not be advisable to resort to it again, particularly after the public gets to know James P. Meeks and the folks at ACORN (a radical fringe cult that the candidate happens to have represented as an attorney.)
His gaffes: Obama's numerous gaffes, and his inability/unwillingness to back off from them, have been widely noted. What hasn't been mentioned is the nature of the errors themselves. When made during an interview or discussion, as opposed to offhand misstatements of the United States of Heinz variety, they have an air of pure flippancy, a near-contemptuous off-the-cuff feel: "You want an answer -- haven't thought about it, but... here you go." And when such statements are challenged, they're defended tenaciously -- no matter how bizarre or unreasonable -- as if they were in fact the products of considerable research and thought. The impression created is one of flakiness, of a man in no way qualified for the position he's seeking.
His touchiness: his gaffes are further underlined by his response to criticism: indignant protests that he, Barack Obama, U.S. senator and messiah without portfolio, should be subject to such treatment. Leave my wife alone. President Bush is picking on me. A few more incidents like this will see him labeled as a whiner -- and they will happen, since this seems to be his sole method of dealing with whatever barbs get past his Praetorian guard of media and disciples.
So here we have a candidate running a campaign that seems to be patterned on the dynamics of cult movements, who is the centerpiece of the weirdest crew of cronies and advisors since the heyday of Boss Tweed, who displays a serious unwillingness to back off or even acknowledge errors, who responds to criticism with a sense of privileged pique. A candidate who somehow managed to squeak into the nomination while losing Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and very likely Florida, all states that a winning national candidate must have. A candidate who cannot command the complete loyalty of his party's congressional delegation. A candidate whose staff allowed vicious antisemitic material to remain on his official website for months.
A man whose major slogans calling for "change" happen to be a slight variation (and how can this possibly have been overlooked?) of that used by the Clintons in 1992.
And now this strange and lightweight figure is going up against a man who survived the Hanoi Hilton.
Good luck with that.
It's universally admitted that the real challenge lies with Congress. The GOP may lose up to ten Senate seats, an astounding figure if true. And yet, when we examine the situation, we again find no rational reason why such a disaster should be inevitable.
In 2006 the Democrats ran as a reform party, taking advantage of Republican ineptness and confusion over a series of ethical lapses. But all promises to clean the place up proved immediately void. The public is well aware of this -- confidence in Congress has bottomed out at 14%, far lower than that of the GOP in 2006. Virtually the entire Democratic leadership, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and John Murtha, are under investigation. (This was not true of the "deeply corrupt" GOP. Whatever can be said of Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, they cannot be accused of dishonesty.)
The living symbol of the current Democratic Congress is William Jefferson, the man who mistook his freezer for a bank. Just a week ago, almost his entire family was indicted, including his sister, brother, and a niece. The police are rumored to be looking for his dog. And to top it off, he's done us all the favor of coming out in support of Obama. Looking beyond Washington, we have Jennifer Granholm, an expatriate Canadian who found Michigan's economy on the verge of stalling out and proceeded to run it into the deepest ditch she could find. We have John Ford of Tennessee, currently serving a five-year sentence for his first corruption conviction while being tried for his second.
And let's not forget Al Franken, who managed to blow an easy lead over Norman Coleman thanks to a combination of tax evasion and an overworked mouth. (Franken could be beaten simply by YouTubing the old Saturday Night Live footage showing him running around wearing a diaper. That skit is the first thing I recalled when Franken started running his mouth off about politics early in the first Bush term. And yet he's been able to ride easy for the better part of a decade without it ever appearing. Why not? Seems to me that the GOP's opposition research needs a little shaking up.)
Democratic corruption and incompetence aren't limited to Washington. They're systemic. There's a wealth of material here begging to be used. The Democrats, two years ago, hesitated not a moment before branding every member of the GOP a mirror-image of Cunningham and Foley. Yet what do we hear about the Democrat's infinitely more deep corruption from the GOP? Absolutely nothing. To my knowledge, no Republican figure has yet made reference to last week's Great Jefferson Roundup. In an election year, this is either sheer cowardice or collegiality gone mad. Let's get those tarbrushes working -- this stuff is not going to make its way to the public on it own.
(Even as the final draft of this essay was being polished, it was revealed that two major Democratic Congressional figures, Christopher Dodd and Kent Conrad, were paid off by the subprime mortgage industry. The RNC has yet to respond.)
As for issues, there's no lack of them either. The Democrats have evidently set out to outdo the GOP Congress's do-nothing reputation, and have a good chance of achieving just that. If not worse: the Democrats' actual efforts have, without notable exception, resulted in pure disaster. First we have the ethanol mandates, in which Congressional action kicked off a commodity run that has resulted in sky-high food prices and actual hunger worldwide. Then we have the contemptuous treatment of Colombia, which has alienated our last remaining ally on the Latin American litoral.
But above all, there's the response to the oil crisis, the speculation-fueled price explosion that has wracked American consumers and jeopardized the recovery from last year's slump. Congressional action was swift and to the point: with oil breaking the $100 a barrel barrier, Democrats once again refused to allow offshore oil exploration or exploitation of Rocky Mountain oil shale, signaling the speculators that were free to inflate oil prices as high as they wished. (These oil shales comprise the largest reserve of oil on the planet, with estimates ranging up to one trillion barrels. No rational reason for outlawing their exploitation has ever been offered.) Robert Novak also points out that, even as gas prices hit $4.00 a gallon, the Democrats were seriously debating raising taxes on gas. No clearer evidence of Democratic acquiescence to the Green lobbies is needed. Both Fred Barnes and Larry Kudlow agree that oil is a can't-miss proposition for Republicans. Eventually, the notion will penetrate the miasma of funk and self-pity surrounding the GOP -- perhaps in time for the 2020 election.
The argument that the Green juggernaut cannot be stopped should have been laid to rest this week with the collapse of efforts to pass the Warner-Leiberman act (AKA the "National Climate Security" act) -- a demented proposal to place the entire American economy under the control of Green bureaucrats in order to curtail global warming. (It snowed the same week -- the first week of June -- in Colorado, the northern Rocky mountain states, and the Pacific Northwest. Who says that God has no sense of humor?) The bill died more from sheer unworthiness to live than anything else, but the coup de grace was given by a group of young Republicans who somehow escaped infection by the prevailing defeatism virus.
All this makes up a pretty decent hand of cards for a party on the outs. But not if you're simply going to toss them aside and weep bitterly about the injustice of being forced to play at all. Republicans in large part have lost their spine, their sense of battle. They are currently more involved in thinking up reasons not to make any effort rather than scheming how to make things more difficult for the Democrats. They have forgotten that the single undeniable way to lose is not to fight. Under these circumstances it might well be best if a few more of them were sent home to the heartland. Unfortunately, we can't depend on the voters to defeat only the crybabies and neurotics.
The major problem appears to be that conservatives, the driving wheel, have given up, embracing defeatism as some kind of higher value. This is yet another element marking American conservatism -- in fact, it could be said to have been conservatism up until the mid-20th century. Conservatives of that period -- the height of the New Deal -- made little effort to argue the issues, to engage in politics, to effect the outcome of events at all. Their philosophy, derived from the writings of Albert Jay Nock, called for the creation of a "saving remnant" -- a small group that would preserve the verities, the basic elements of culture, like monks protecting ancient manuscripts from the barbarians, until society collapsed amid its decadence leaving them to lead the survivors back to civilization.
Unfortunately, the world doesn't work that way. It was a blessing when losing-side conservatism, the conservatism of Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers, was in the mid-50s put to sleep by William F. Buckley and replaced with vibrant, activist conservatism that stood athwart history and yes, made it stop.
No guarantee was involved. Buckley and his small band of intellectuals were alone facing a triumphant liberalism, a state intent on gobbling up every aspect of society, an international leftist totalitarianism encroaching on all fronts. A half a century later we have the New Deal on the rocks, liberal statism utterly discredited, and communism a historical relic. We sometimes forget how far we have come.
We need a revival of the living conservatism of Buckley. (It's a disgrace that this argument has to be made only weeks after the old man's death). The GOP -- and the voters of the center beyond -- require direction and encouragement. They won't find it anywhere else. Action has its origin in words, but the words must be spoken first.
Liberalism has deteriorated into a strange and disturbing candidate using religious iconography and rhetoric to push an agenda that no one can quite define, at the head of a party whose slogans are merely a shield for corruption and murderous incompetence. They can be defeated. But only if conservatives take a stand.
Let's keep in mind that Obama is merely the latest invincible candidate. We saw another one just recently, one who strode the earth like a colossus, who knew all the tricks, who had an unbeatable organization, an answer for everything, a plan that could not be overturned. A candidate who embodied liberalism as a world-historical force.
That was only last year. Her name was Hillary Clinton.
The final word we will give to William James, founder of the philosophy of Pragmatism. In his book Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote of the "leap of faith": contemplate yourself trapped on a high mountain, facing a deep chasm, with no safe route back or around. Do you leap that chasm full of doubts and misgivings, overcome with fears that you'll fail, or confidently, convinced you can get across in perfect safety?The question answers itself. The next time you're tempted to believe that the future is written, and the words are uniformly black, think about that chasm, think about how you'd get across. Think about how a week is as long as a year in politics, and how we have many weeks to go. And think at last about how you may be taking the entire country across with you. Then make that leap.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.