If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.
He is indeed a moderate Republican, which is why I’ve always liked his approach to governing and to policy. And that, of course, makes Ross Douthat nervous, because Ross is a smart man trying to engage a party that is currently out of its tiny mind. He reminds me of sane and sober Labourites in the early 1980s. But at least they fully copped to the extremism of their own side.
Ross won’t quite. He disputes Ezra on two grounds: first that the political environment has changed too. He says, for example, that the GOP’s retreat from cap-and-trade is a function of the 2008 economic meltdown, a temporary abatement in warming, the failure of global cap and trade, etc. But that would lead to healthy conservative skepticism of policies like cap and trade, and an attempt to think through alternatives. Jim Manzi represents this line of thinking best. But what Ross’s party has actually done is embrace total climate change denialism. That’s a huge shift toward irrationalism, fueled by fundamentalist Christianity, which, of course, Ross won’t recognize as a core part of the GOP problem. Because if he did, he would be Frummed out of the party altogether.
Then Ross argues that the GOP is more moderate than Ezra claims. So Ross defends the GOP on, say, immigration, because it has a healthier internal debate, which more closely represents public divisions. But, in fact, the GOP base, as Ross knows, is dedicated to destroying immigration reform, just as it did when even Bush was in office. Again, compare this with Reagan’s amnesty and an era where open borders conservatives were mainstream in the GOP (yes, I remember that). The actual Ronald Reagan would not stand a chance in today’s GOP. And the only argument for immigration reform that has any real traction in the party is electoral and arithmetical, not ideological. And those spearheading the effort, like Marco Rubio, face a perilous future in their party.
On taxes, the GOP is relentless, even though the boundaries of the debate have shifted dramatically their way since the 1980s. With revenue far too low, and structural spending bound to increase as we support baby-boom retirees, an absolutist refusal to raise any more revenues is a 10 on the scale of 1 – 10. This is especially true when the GOP is demanding much more spending on national “defense”. Yes, there are, mercifully, a few civil libertarian voices on the right, but surely Ross knows that his party reacted to Obama’s war on terror speech last week as if it were treason. Butters:
“At a time we need resolve the most, we’re sounding retreat.”
Peter King, the former terrorist-funder turned terrorist scourge, echoes the Ailes line:
“In many ways al Qaeda is more dangerous now than it was prior to September 11.”
Does Ross believe that? Does any sane person believe that? The truth is that the GOP is the most extreme, nihilist pseudo-conservative party I have seen in my lifetime in any developed country.
The GOP, for example, is in favor of torture as a national policy, placing it outside every mainstream right-of-center party in the West. How far have they traveled? Reagan strongly supported and signed the UN Convention Against Torture (and anything even close to it).
On Medicare, Ross is right that premium support, done right, is an arguably centrist position. But we know what Paul Ryan originally wanted – and Obama is the first Democratic president willing to cut Medicare seriously as part of a big fiscal deal. Every time Obama moves to the fiscal right, the GOP moves the goalposts one more time – and then demonize the president for, say, a stimulus package that was one third tax cuts. On social issues, the GOP is now further to the right than it has ever been, while the country has found a new middle. The GOP supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay couples from having any formal rights at all; and a federal ban on all abortions. Again, you have to find a neo-fascist party in other Western countries to see any Western equivalent. The fundamentalists cannot compromise on this – because their God won’t compromise. And the base has no other ideological foundation than fundamentalism of various neurotic kinds.
There’s a case to be made for pure oppositionism. But I truly think Ross under-estimates the depth of the nihilism that truly motivates his party, the thinly veiled racism and unveiled homophobia that courses through its activist veins, and the theocratic impulses that uniquely fire up the base. And I don’t think the fever is breaking. The IRS scandal will deepen and intensify all the defensive and self-defeating paranoia on the partisan right. Issa will be their champion; Ailes the fanner of the conspiratorial flames; and talk radio the defining ideological conversation.
Barro sees this as plainly as day. Ross is making, presumably, another calculation. For my part, I suspect there’s little hope for the GOP; and I increasingly see it as conservatism’s most implacable ideological, radical, destructive foe. I thought it would get worse before it got better; but I see no signs of the pathologies weakening. In the wake of an epic defeat, they appear to be gathering strength.