Rubio's New American Century
Marco Rubio's closing statement at the February 13 debate in South Carolina ended with this: "I will unify this party, I will grow it, we will win this election, and we will make the twenty-first century a new American century." If you visit Rubio's official website, you will be greeted with the candidate's boyish face, across which is emblazoned this campaign-defining question: "Are You Ready For A New American Century?" "A slogan as sunny as the state he represents," gushed a recent endorsement at National Review.
"Are you ready for a new American century?" Weren't American conservatives asked this question once before, and after sampling that "New American Century" for eight years, didn't they fairly decisively reject it? Has Rubio's presidential bid become a shiny new package for a dubious idea whose time has come and gone?
During the 2012 election campaign, the Democrats and their media went through a spell of trying to label every conservative remark a "dog whistle" or "code word" for something nefarious. Thus, "Marxist" and "incompetent" were alleged to be coded racism, "unqualified" and "dishonest" were coded sexism, "traditional family" and "Christian" were coded homophobia, and so on.
As some of us pointed out at the time, the real dog whistle language during that campaign was Barack Obama's adoption of a classic communist rallying cry, "Forward," as his campaign slogan. "Forward" – a slogan with a proud history among Marxist-Leninists and Maoists – served a dual (aka "dog whistle") function in 2012. To the young and politically ignorant, it worked as a friendly, upbeat euphemism for the ideology that dared not speak its name beyond the Democratic convention. At the same time, however, its infamous history delivered a conspiratorial wink toward the Democrats' radical allies in the CPUSA and academia.
In the name of consistency, I suggest that conservatives take a moment to confront this year's dog whistle question: does it bother you that Marco Rubio has chosen to run under the banner "A New American Century"?
Campaign slogans are neither policy proposals nor voting records. In a sense, they are just perfumed hot air designed to create a certain aura around a campaign. They can have one substantial effect, however, which is to crystallize the image that a candidate wishes to present to the public. A campaign slogan implicitly asks, and then leadingly answers, a question that may ultimately have more impact on many voters than any policy details: what do you think about when you hear this candidate's name?
A straightforward example of how a slogan asks and answers this question would be Ben Carson's: "Heal. Inspire. Revive." The idea is direct and clear: a skilled doctor with a spiritual side is coming to the rescue. (Unfortunately, it is Carson himself who seems to need reviving most of the time.)
Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again!" is borrowed from Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign and is calibrated to inspire a positive, hopeful, "Reaganesque" feeling about the candidate. It is a fine slogan, though out of character with Trump's actual campaign, which has devolved into an increasingly childish series of staged temper tantrums against anyone who challenges or questions him, saving most of its positive feeling for scheming socialists such as Pelosi and Schumer, with whom Trump insists he has great relationships. The slogan does suit Trump in one sense – namely, in its fakery, as it shows Trump pretending to align himself with a president revered by conservatives, but one whom Trump himself actually opposed before and after he was elected (funding both Carter and Mondale) and whom he then, toward the end of Reagan's presidency, suggested was just a con man, a "smooth performer" who may not have "anything beneath that smile."
Ted Cruz's slogan, "Courageous Conservatives," like Carson's and Trump's, presents a simple image to which the candidate hopes people will respond favorably: he's not ashamed of being a conservative, and he will act on his principles without fear. The use of the plural "Conservatives" evokes feelings of Tea Party unity. The slogan is also a not so subliminal sideswipe at George W. Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism," with "Courageous" standing to "Compassionate" as "proud" stands to "apologetic" or as "unwavering" stands to "compromising." The slogan is effective, although it sets a principled standard that invites both legitimate scrutiny of his conservative bona fides and sleazy Rove/McConnell-like accusations of "purism."
And this leads us back to Marco Rubio's slogan, "A New American Century."
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was a Washington think-tank founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. Though generally associated with Republican politics due to the preponderance of its participants who became key members of the Bush administration, the organization was nominally bipartisan, as evidenced by its co-founder Kagan, a New Republic editor who has advised both Republicans and Democrats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and who describes himself as a progressive and a "liberal interventionist."
That last word, interventionist, is the key, on both the foreign and domestic levels. Although anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists have tended to smear the PNAC as an "Israeli" (dog whistle alert!) lobby group, the twenty-five signatories to its charter include plenty of, shall we say, non-"Israeli" think-tankers, including Dick Cheney, William Bennett, Francis Fukuyama, Gary Bauer, Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld...and Jeb Bush.
The PNAC's central focus was to promote an American foreign policy based on aggressive nation-building, "democracy projects," the support of popular uprisings against undemocratic regimes around the world, and the projection of American military "humanitarianism" in answer to every international problem. Its intellectual tenor was exemplified by Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, a neo-Hegelian fantasy that the globalization of Western democratic capitalism (note: not constitutional republicanism) represented the glorious final stage of history's evolution. Its practical sensibility was exemplified by the foreign policy of the Bush administration and even the early years of the Obama administration – i.e., budget-busting adventurism without a concretely limited goal or a clear definition of victory, leading to dubious results at best, as well as support for the catastrophic Arab Spring, which Kristol and other PNAC types were cheering on until reality came home to roost.
The PNAC defended their agenda as updated Reaganism, but their perspective lacked Reagan's virtuous reticence to put Americans in harm's way – his George Washington-like humility before the gravity of that responsibility – and his principled resistance to involving his country in prolonged military engagements without a definable and immediate American security interest – i.e., his resistance to saddling future administrations with the inescapable fallout of his policies. Domestically, the PNAC sensibility accepts the welfare state as a part of the federal government's proper role as a promoter of "values" – in effect, the government as national Mom and Dad.
By the end of the Bush presidency, conservatives were forming a substantial grassroots coalition, which became the Tea Party, in opposition to both this hubristic, unconstitutional extension of America's foreign policy purposes and the unconstitutional corporatist progressivism that increasingly seemed to be the true face of Bush-Rove "compassionate conservatism" on the domestic front. In short, this "new American" twenty-first century was perceived to have gotten off to somewhat of a false start – not very American at all in its lack of federal government restraint and its essential rejection of the republican concept of the president as citizen-statesman with limited powers, in favor of an ever-expanding executive branch pursuing open-ended global "projects."
Emblematic of the PNAC philosophy were its long and vigorous support of the presidential aspirations of John McCain, who frequently cited Teddy Roosevelt, the first self-identified progressive president, as his role model; their typical veneration of Franklin Roosevelt (Newt Gingrich, another adherent to this view, has often called FDR the greatest president of the twentieth century); their softness on illegal immigration; and their advocacy of aggressively paternalistic, liberty-diminishing measures such as the NSA's secret bulk collection of Americans' electronic communications.
This is not to trivialize the motives or the intellectual acumen of the PNAC, which for several years was the hub of the political action wing of the so-called "neoconservative" movement. Its proposals were pro-American in intent, and the PNAC men, though not always very philosophical themselves, were standing on the shoulders of some very serious thinkers. (Leo Strauss and his most famous student, Allan Bloom, are required reading for any conservative of a philosophic bent.)
The PNAC's aims and proposed methods, however, were essentially supra-constitutional with respect to the range of federal government action. In fact, their leading lights' general approach to politics is grounded in the implicit premise that strict fealty to the Constitution, with its natural rights focus, is insufficient to meeting contemporary challenges – not unlike the basic premise of their leftist counterparts in the progressive movement. They differ from the leftists in being pro-American and adopting (at least rhetorically) a traditional moral tone, but they also differ from constitutionalists in defining their Americanism within the framework of twentieth-century big-government moral righteousness projects– admiring Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR over Calvin Coolidge – rather than within the representative republican framework established by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
Marco Rubio has chosen the PNAC's defining dream, "A New American Century," as his campaign slogan. And just as it was inconceivable that no one on Obama's radical leftist team was aware of the Marxist history of his slogan, "Forward," so it is inconceivable that no one in Rubio's camp is aware of the recent associations of his slogan. Furthermore, during the years since his emergence as a Tea Party favorite, Rubio's rhetoric has taken on an increasingly PNAC emphasis: heavy on hints at global interventionism (including rabid support of Arab Spring regime change in Libya and elsewhere), notoriously weak and "bipartisan" on amnesty for illegals, harshly critical of limited-government rivals (Cruz and Rand Paul) who question the NSA's activities, and continually promising to be, in effect, the Moral Righteousness President.
The degree to which the old "New American Century" faction within the GOP establishment still has clout may be seen in the fact that the presumptive frontrunner at the outset of this primary season (Bush) was an original signatory to the PNAC's founding document, and that the establishment's leading Plan B option is Rubio, who has aligned himself with their principles by adopting their own name as his slogan.
Every candidate courts supporters of all stripes, of course, and even powerful insiders can be useful friends, if one does not have to sell one's soul to win them. But at this moment, American conservatism is being torn asunder by a bitter contest – stoked by the media and the GOP establishment itself – between those claiming faithfulness to constitutional principles and a cynical showman who defines a conservative as a "person who wants to conserve." In this context, Rubio may be positioning himself just right from a pragmatic perspective, piling on with the showman's bombastic "liar, liar" diatribes against Cruz while carefully avoiding the Trump cult's line of fire himself. But from the point of view of constitutionalism, he seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, too: speaking forcefully about liberty, free enterprise, and the family, while pandering to a faction with a paternalistic and transformational conception of the federal government, rather than a constitutionally limited one.
Four years ago, Barack Obama used a dog whistle slogan to shore up the support of his Marxist base. This year, Marco Rubio is the candidate blowing the whistle. The dogs he's trying to call in were trained by some very powerful members of the Washington establishment. In short, you've been down this "New American Century" road before. Are you prepared to follow that path again? Can a republic on the brink of economic, constitutional, and civil disintegration afford to follow that path again?