There Are Conservatives and Then There Are Conservatives

While the Democrats sort things out, the Republicans are getting used to the idea that, no matter what they think of the guy, John McCain will be their nominee for president. At some point, perhaps in August, in Denver at the convention, the Democrats will settle on Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Then things will be clear – unless Obama gets the nomination and Hillary Clinton then runs as an independent. She could call her party the New Democrats – no blacks or young people need apply, nor any of the well-informed, as she would sweep to victory with just the angry, resentful and fearful. Actually that would be quite traditional – that’s what political power has been all about for several generations. She gets that, and she seems to be amazed no one else does. So, if the party that she and her husband feel is theirs – if momentarily oddly ungrateful and not voting as they should – a third party might be a possibility. If the current party doesn’t understand that she is entitled to the nomination – she’s paid her dues and she’s owed this – then she could split. And, oddly enough, she could actually call the new party the Old Democrats – tradition and all that, with the obvious demographic pun.

Stranger things have happened in American politics, although the term Know-Nothing Party has already been used – that movement originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party, spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party. The origin of the “Know Nothing” term was in the semi-secret organization of the party – when a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply “I know nothing.” Cool – it fits. But the name is taken.

All of that is whimsical speculation of course. Should she not prevail, as seems likely at this point, perhaps she’ll just pout for a time and then go with the flow. The real issue is John McCain – things are settled on that side.

The problem is that McCain gets damned good press. That makes him hard to defeat. As Steve Benen notes here, MSNBC’s political director, Chuck Todd tells us all why John McCain can get away with routine demonstrations of what Keven Drum calls “abject ignorance” –  like McCain recent proclamation, repeated four time in three days that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq:

Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, “Oh, he says he’s Mr. Experience. Doesn’t he know the difference between this stuff?” He’s got enough of that in the bank – at least with the media – that he can get away with it. I mean, the irony to this is had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that, it’d have been on a running loop, and it would become a big problem for a couple of days for them.

Drum calls for a recap. What’s this with his odd credibility? Why does he have “the cred” – as they say?

Drum notes that McCain’s foreign policy cred lets him get away with wild howlers on foreign policy – see this as he defends himself – “I corrected it, my comment, immediately. To think that I would have some lack of knowledge about Sunni and Shiite after my eighth visit and my deep involvement in this issue is a bit ludicrous.”

Then there’s his fiscal integrity cred which lets him get away with “outlandishly irresponsible economic plans” – see this – “What you’re left with is a plan to considerably shrink that part of government that functions to enhance economic security at a time when we arguably need a lot more of it.” That’s the assessment from Jared Bernstein, a former deputy chief economist for the Labor Department and a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

Of course his anti-lobbyist cred lets him get away with pandering to lobbyists, documented here in the Washington Post, and his campaign finance reform cred lets him get away with gaming the campaign finance system, as noted here, and Drum notes that his straight-talking cred lets him get away with brutally slandering Mitt Romney in the closing days of the Republican primary, documented here. And here we see his “maverick uprightness cred” allows him to get away with begging for endorsements from extremist religious leaders like John Hagee. See too that “man of conviction” crap that allows him “to get away with transparent flip-flopping so egregious it would make any other politician a laughingstock.” And that not to mention the big one – McCain’s anti-torture cred allows him “to get away with supporting torture as long as only the CIA does it.”

Drum’s question – “Remind me again: where does all this cred come from? And what window do Democrats go to – to get the same treatment the press gives McCain?”

Well, you have to cultivate the press. They’re suckers for a good story from a war hero.

And Drum notes that when it comes to the Iraq war, John McCain’s basic policy is “Just like Bush, but even crazier!” The Los Angeles Times has all that here:

If the Arizona Republican proved prescient in his calls for a military buildup, many of his other predictions and prescriptions turned out wrong.

Before the war, McCain predicted a quick and easy victory, not a vicious insurgency. He issued dire warnings about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction but didn’t read the full 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that showed gaps in the intelligence.

And it rolls on from there, including this:

In 1998, he was among the cosponsors of the Iraq Liberation Act. The law set “regime change” in Baghdad as U.S. policy and mandated support to opposition groups seeking to overthrow the dictator. Among the major beneficiaries was the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based exile group headed by Ahmed Chalabi. The CIA had initially sponsored the group but broke with the controversial leader in 1997, saying he could not be trusted. Under the new law, Chalabi’s group received almost $33 million from the State Department, until U.S. officials found financial improprieties and ended the arrangement.

… Asked by The Times this month if he regretted backing the 1998 law, which produced few discernible results other than bolstering Chalabi, McCain said he did not. Chalabi, though initially touted by neoconservatives as a future leader of Iraq, failed to garner significant support in elections.

And so it goes. There’s a ton more:

Asked if it wouldn’t require 100,000 U.S. soldiers as occupation troops, McCain demurred. “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t think so at all.”

Now he’s the war guy. We’re winning this thing. He’s betting on it:

The key to victory – and probably the White House next fall – McCain said, is whether American casualties start to rise again. If the surge is seen as failing, McCain warned, support for the war will evaporate. “I am confident about this strategy,” he declared. “I will stick with it under any circumstances. But I don’t know if the American people will stick with it.”

So he is the conservative, as conservatism has been defined now. Not all are onboard with him.

For example, there’s this guy:

Douglas W. Kmiec (b. September 24, 1951) is an American legal scholar. He is the Caruso Family Chair and Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University’s School of Law. He served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel (U.S. Assistant Attorney General) for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a position previously held by U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Professor Kmiec is the former Dean and St. Thomas More Professor of the law school at The Catholic University of America (2000-2003). With leaves for government service, Professor Kmiec was a member of the law faculty at the University of Notre Dame from 1980 to 1999. At Notre Dame, he directed the Thomas White Center on Law & Government and founded the Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.

Prof. Kmiec has been a White House Fellow, a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar on the Constitution (in Asia), and the inaugural Visiting Distinguished Scholar at the National Constitution Center (with Yale’s Akhil Amar).

An honors graduate of Northwestern University, Professor Kmiec received his law degree from the University of Southern California, where he served on the Law Review and received the Legion Lex Commencement Prize for Legal Writing. He is a member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court and the state bars of Illinois and California.

His published work includes The Attorney General’s Lawyer, three books on the American Constitution, a two-volume legal treatise, related books, and hundreds of published articles and essays. He is a frequent guest in the media on programs such as the NewsHour, Meet the Press, and NPR, analyzing constitutional, cultural, and political developments. … He writes the Faith and Precedent column for the Catholic News Service.

Following his CUA deanship, Professor Kmiec assumed the chair in constitutional law at Pepperdine University School of Law. Along with Professor Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School, he was named by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to head the Romney for President Committee on the Courts and the Constitution in 2007.

And now he says this:

Today I endorse Barack Obama for president of the United States. I believe him to be a person of integrity, intelligence and genuine good will. I take him at his word that he wants to move the nation beyond its religious and racial divides and to return United States to that company of nations committed to human rights…

No doubt some of my friends will see this as a matter of party or intellectual treachery. I regret that and I respect their disagreement. But they will readily agree that as Republicans, we are first Americans.

As Americans, we must voice our concerns for the well-being of our nation without partisanship when decisions that have been made endanger the body politic. Our president has involved our nation in a military engagement without sufficient justification or clear objective. In so doing, he has incurred both tragic loss of life and extraordinary debt jeopardizing the economy and the well-being of the average American citizen. In pursuit of these fatally flawed purposes, the office of the presidency, which it was once my privilege to defend in public office formally, has been distorted beyond its constitutional assignment.

Today, I do no more than raise the defense of that important office anew, but as private citizen….

Okay – the guy wants things back on track. Things are distorted. Bush distorted the whole concept of the presidency.

In an email to the offices here in Hollywood, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, offers this:

Strange – Kmiec goes from being a Romney man, then leapfrogs over McCain and even Hillary to become an Obama man! There certainly is something going on, with all these conservatives going for Obama. It’s a little puzzling, but maybe it has to do mainly with those particular conservatives who have an interest in the Constitution, as is the case with this guy. I like to think so, anyway.

Fine – but see Andrew Bacevich here. It’s more than an interest in the Constitution. The problem is, in fact, more than Bush. Bacevich makes the conservative argument for Obama. Obama is sort of a true conservative:

The Iraq War represents the ultimate manifestation of the American expectation that the exercise of power abroad offers a corrective to whatever ailments afflict us at home. Rather than setting our own house in order, we insist on the world accommodating itself to our requirements. The problem is not that we are profligate or self-absorbed; it is that others are obstinate and bigoted. Therefore, they must change so that our own habits will remain beyond scrutiny.

Of all the obstacles to a revival of genuine conservatism, this absence of self-awareness constitutes the greatest. As long as we refuse to see ourselves as we really are, the status quo will persist, and conservative values will continue to be marginalized. Here, too, recognition that the Iraq War has been a fool’s errand – that cheap oil, the essential lubricant of the American way of life, is gone for good – may have a salutary effect. Acknowledging failure just might open the door to self-reflection.

Matthew Yglesias is not that impressed:

Of course to Bacevich, opposition to the hubris of empire is part of what makes a conservative. And in a purely abstract sense, he may have a point. But actually existing American conservatism seems so committed to a project of militarism and coercive domination that Bacevich’s case seems a bit precious.

Andrew Sullivan, however, is quite impressed:

Conservatism, at its core, is about the frailty of human goodness, the limits of human knowledge, the virtue of self-doubt when that is required, restraint on government executive power, and the correction and admission of error when necessary. What has happened to conservatism under Bush is that it has become a messianic, ruthless, totally certain imposition of ideology (fused even more lethally with theology).

Obama is not the answer to this conservative predicament. He is a “progressive” liberal – but his liberalism contains more conservative elements of reason and prudence and restraint than the current Republican Party. And although I admire John McCain immensely, and he is far and away one of the more principled and decent conservatives around, I fear that doubt, complexity, restraint and an understanding of the need for government to do less rather than more at times are not the strongest impulses in his make-up… to put it mildly.

Well, McCain thinks like the hot-shot fighter pilot he once was, and that George Bush idly toyed with being before he walked away from it for another beer – and Obama thinks like the pragmatic community organizer he once was. We all saw Tom Cruise as the hot-shot wild-eyed risk-taking fighter pilot in Top Gun – his flight name in the movie was actually, as you recall, Maverick. He loved life on the edge, where you could get killed at any moment. This is not, however, that movie – unless a lot of people want it to be. It sort of depends on what people think is, in the end, presidential.

Sullivan, the unhappy conservative, does admit that supporting Obama “may well empower liberalism for a generation” – something he’s been saying for almost a year. He now can live with that:

… it might also help defeat the corruption and degeneracy of “conservatism” that now dominates the Republican Party. That I once gave this faux conservatism too much benefit of the doubt and enabled it in part myself does not lessen the fact that I now believe it’s the obligation for many thinking conservatives to repudiate it. That was the core of my book, “The Conservative Soul.”

Other conservatives have seen this and will continue to see this – and do the right thing by putting the long-term interests of a more responsible Burkean conservatism before the narrow short-term interest of their party.

We’ll see about that – Hillary could be the one running against McCain. But something is up.

Maybe people might be able to warm up to what Spencer Ackerman explains is The Obama Doctrine.

The item is very long, but you can get the idea from a few nuggets. Obama is always saying this – “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place.”

Fine – but what does it mean?

Clinton stumbled to find a counterargument, eventually saying her vote in October 2002 “was not authority for a pre-emptive war.” Then she questioned Obama’s ability to lead, saying that the Democratic nominee must have “the necessary credentials and gravitas for commander in chief.”

If Clinton’s response on Iraq sounds familiar, that’s because it’s structurally identical to the defensive crouch John Kerry assumed in 2004: Voting against the war wasn’t a mistake; the mistakes were all George W. Bush’s, and bringing the war to a responsible conclusion requires a wise man or woman with military credibility. In that debate, Obama offered an alternative path. Ending the war is only the first step. After we’re out of Iraq, a corrosive mind-set will still be infecting the foreign-policy establishment and the body politic. That rot must be eliminated.

But this heart of traditional Democratic timidity:

“It’s time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right,” Obama said in a January speech. “It’s time to say that we are the party that is going to be strong and right.”

Ackerman then goes on to the big questions. What, exactly, is the mind-set that led to the war? What will it mean to end it? And what will take its place?

The rest is his conversations with Obama’s foreign-policy brain trust.

They’re a pragmatic crew:

Each opposed the Iraq War at a time when doing so was derided by their colleagues, by journalists, and by the foreign-policy establishment. Each did so because they understood that the invasion and occupation ran counter to the goal of destroying al-Qaeda. And each bore the frustration of endless lectures on their lack of so-called seriousness from those who suffered from strategic myopia.

“There is a popular notion that Democrats have to try to appear like Republicans to pass some test on national security. The fact that that’s still the case after Iraq is absurd,” says one of Obama’s closest advisers. “So you break from that orthodoxy and say ‘I don’t care if the Republicans attack me because I’m willing to meet with the leadership in Iran. We haven’t for 25 years, and it’s not gotten us anywhere.'”

Of course Obama paid the price for that:

He was attacked from the left and the right for saying three things that should not have been controversial: that if he had actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan but no cooperation from the Pakistani government, he would take out the jihadists; that he wouldn’t use nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps; and that he would be willing to meet with leaders of rogue states in his first year as president. “No one [of Obama’s critics] had thought through the policy because that was the quote-unquote naïve and weak position, so they said it was a bad position to take,” recalls Ben Rhodes, the adviser who writes Obama’s foreign-policy speeches. “And it was a seminal moment, because Obama himself said, ‘No, I’m right about this!'”

And Obama did not back down:

Rhodes wrote a speech that Obama delivered at DePaul University on Oct. 2, which criticized the boundaries of acceptable discourse set by the same establishment that backed the war. “This election is about ending the Iraq War, but even more it’s about moving beyond it. And we’re not going to be safe in a world of unconventional threats with the same old conventional thinking that got us into Iraq,” Obama said. One of his advisers, recalling the fallout from Obama’s comments about pursuing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, says, “He takes policy positions that are a break from both rigid orthodoxy and the Bush administration. And everyone says it’s a gaffe! That just encapsulates everything that’s wrong about the foreign-policy debate in Washington and in Democratic politics.”

The Obama foreign-policy team describes it as “the politics of fear,” a phrase most advisers used unprompted in our conversations. “For a long time we’ve not seen much creative thinking from Dems on national security, because, out of fear, we want to be a little different from the Republicans but not too different, out of fear of being labeled weak or indecisive,” another top adviser says. Identifying that fear as the accelerant of the Iraq War mind-set is the first step to a new and innovative foreign policy. John Kerry was not able to argue for fundamental change in foreign policy because he was consumed by that very political fear. Obama’s admonition to Democrats is much like Pope John Paul II’s to the Gdansk shipyard strikers – first, be not afraid.

There’s much more, but here’s the key:

This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. “I don’t think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. “Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless – an affront to your sense of dignity.”

During Bush’s second term, a strange disconnect has arisen in liberal foreign-policy circles in response to the president’s so-called “freedom agenda.” Some liberals, like Matthew Yglesias in his book Heads In The Sand, note the insincerity of the administration’s stated goal of exporting democracy. Bush, they observe, only targets for democratization countries that challenge American hegemony. Other liberal foreign-policy types, such as Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist the administration is sincere but too focused on elections without supporting the civil-society institutions that sustain democracy. Still others, like Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, contend that a focus on democracy in the developing world without privileging the protection of civil and political rights is a recipe for a dangerous illiberalism.

What’s typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. “Look at why the baddies win these elections,” Power says. “It’s because [populations are] living in climates of fear.” U.S. policy, she continues, should be “about meeting people where they’re at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That’s the swamp that needs draining. If we’re to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we’re not [providing].”

This is not radical:

“He said we’d take out al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas if Pakistan will not. That’s not, to me, a revolutionary policy,” Rhodes says. “Watching him get attacked on the right is absurd. You’ve got guys who argued for a massive invasion and occupation of a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 criticizing him for advocating the use of highly targeted force to kill Osama bin Laden!”

That would be McCain. Hillary Clinton called him hopelessly naïve in this case too. And no one much cares for the dignity thing:

Right-wing demagogues are already implying Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Conservatives are using Obama’s argument about the inextricability of international prosperity and U.S. national security to portray him as a “post-American globalist.” Jewish right-wingers in the U.S. have begun a smear campaign not just about Obama, but also about Power, as writers for Commentary and National Review have baselessly implied that she is an anti-Semite. Expect more of this for the duration of the primary season, and, if Obama wins, beyond.

And at best the dignity thing won’t be easy:

If he wins in the general election, he will face a crush of foreign-policy problems so enormous that they risk overwhelming even the most competent, experienced national-security team. Iraq is, of course, a nightmare, and al-Qaeda is not just sitting still in its Pakistani safe haven. To propose rebooting U.S. foreign policy now is, to say the least, ambitious. Many military leaders consider Obama an unknown quantity. At a recent talk, Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks said that officers and soldiers serving in Iraq thought that McCain and Clinton would both pursue a foreign-policy commensurate with Bush’s, but Obama left them puzzled.

Of course they’re puzzled:

Why not demand the destruction of al-Qaeda? Why not pursue the enlightened global leadership promised by liberal internationalism? Why not abandon fear? What is it we have to fear, exactly?

Who knows? It’s just that we’re so used to fear, and sending in the military, to apply fear, to get what we want. We’re a god-fearing people, and well, if it’s good enough for God, then it must be right.

What did Sullivan say?

Conservatism, at its core, is about the frailty of human goodness, the limits of human knowledge, the virtue of self-doubt when that is required, restraint on government executive power, and the correction and admission of error when necessary. What has happened to conservatism under Bush is that it has become a messianic, ruthless, totally certain imposition of ideology (fused even more lethally with theology).

Okay. Less God – and work on dignity for all. It’s very conservative, in the way that conservatism used to be – or liberal, in the old FDR way. Actually, it’s very new. And it’s pragmatic, not ideological – and, as a bonus, no one has to be afraid. No wonder McCain and Clinton are so worried. Those two should be afraid.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Empire, American Imperialism, Conservatism, Conservative Thought, Dignity, Foreign Policy, Hillary Clinton, McCain, Neoconservate Thought, Obama, The Sixth Year of the War, The War, Torture. Bookmark the permalink.

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