TCS Daily

The Plot Against Conservatism

By Reihan Salam - October 12, 2004 12:00 AM

With the publication of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, counterfactual histories -- what Marvel Comics called "What Ifs?" -- are all the rage. Here's a scenario worth mulling over: Imagine a world in which Newt Gingrich played well with others and never succumbed to the invisible demons that seductively cooed weasel words into his ears, like, "Hey, I don't think you're sounding crazy enough -- sound crazier!" In this same world, George W. Bush decided against running for president, choosing instead to live out the rest of his days in service to his beloved Texas Rangers. Picture a starry-eyed President Gingrich beating Al Gore like a drum for the second time, with dreams of repealing the 22nd Amendment and winning unprecedented third, fourth, and fifth terms with the aid of cryogenics, botox, and voodoo magic.

For those of you familiar with Gingrich's slow-motion implosion as Speaker of the House, when he went from being one of the most beloved figures in the annals of American conservatism to one of the most ridiculed, this will have a faintly odd ring. Sort of like, "What if a courageous Jimmy Carter battled back against Reagan's right-wing cabal and led the 'United States' to its rightful place as the southernmost province of freedom-loathing Soviet Canuckistan?" It is unthinkable.

But there's a case. By 2000 -- a mere six years after the 1994 "Republican revolution" handed Congress to the GOP -- the revolutionary zeal of the Republican Congress had fizzled out. The throngs of backbench time-servers, happy to collect their checks and deliver heaping helpings of pork to Ma and Pa Median Voter, had disposed of Newt in the hopes of ending any unnecessary boat-rocking. President Clinton beat the Republicans to a draw in 1998 by actually winning back seats in the House and Senate. After being blasted for years as granny-bashing bigots in service to maximum plutocracy, the GOP's best and brightest figured they'd jettison their Gingrichian image -- pudgy, white, male, and mean-spirited -- and embrace their very own Bill Clinton 2.0, G.W.B. Right-wing ideologues were out and compassionate conservatives were in. Various demographic trends had doomed the bad old ways of small government conservatives like Newt, and Bush would usher in the Millennium as a salsa-fied, jalapeño-style Republican Party -- now with a more human face -- racked up victory after victory, culminating in the ultimate election of George P. Bush as el presidente of Los Estados Unidos. To which one can only say, "Olé!"

Or "Oh wait!" Sure enough, Bush the Younger finds himself tarred by the same right-wing ideologue brush. (Broken record, anyone?) Which is odd, in that right-wing ideologues don't consider Bush to be one of them, for a whole host of reasons TCS readers know by heart -- tariffs, larding the tax code with Clintonian gimmes, a fondness for ye old pork-barrel, etc. As for Bush's appeal to minority voters, well ... does liberal Hollywood actor Ron Silver count? He's Jewish -- but he speaks Chinese! Bush's plans for immigration reform were a bust, and minority voters continue to drift towards the Democrats, including the increasingly affluent bourgeois social conservatives who ought to belong to any half-decent Republican candidate.

So what the hell happened? In hindsight it seems pretty clear. There was a catastrophic misdiagnosis of the GOP's political problem, on the scale of telling a man who's been shot ten times in the gut with a Tec-9 that his real problem is a stubborn case of clinical depression. Staunching the massive blood loss will only make things worse -- we need more Paxil, stat!

While Gingrich's various personal foibles might have been a problem for Republicans, Gingrichism wasn't. Rather than mouth Reaganite platitudes -- which even Reagan knew to have a limited shelf life -- Gingrich had the guts to stake out new ideological territory. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he figured there was something to this Internet thing (invented by Al Gore, natch) and that American global leadership was the wave of the future, not a throwback to the past. Remember that before the Terror War, many influential Republicans in Congress flirted with Fortress America isolationism. Gingrich was never one of them.

Gingrich had an even bigger idea: that the culture of dependency was literally fatal, and that the US would never live up to its promise without liberating every impoverished youth through the healing power of high technology. Yes, there's something loopy to this idea, but that's not the point -- he was open to any policy idea that worked, provided it extended the reach of freedom.

All of which is to say that Gingrich was a compassionate conservative from very early on. He cared about empowering those excluded from America's rising tide, and he was willing to spend the money necessary. Gingrich may have been a right-wing ideologue, but his vision of an "opportunity society" was pretty popular, or it could have been if given half a chance.

The trouble with President Bush isn't that he's a right-wing ideologue, or that he's a compassionate conservative. It's that, in stark contrast to Gingrich, he lacks the vision thing. That sounds loco, in that Bush's foreign policy is arguably the most "vision-y" since Harry S Truman. But when it comes to everything else, a pretty big lacuna when you think about it, he's as visionless as a blind man in shades. Bush's brand of conservatism might be better than creeping socialism, but it doesn't have much of a future: when it comes to bribing the American public, interest group by interest group, the Democrats will always have the edge.

Perhaps the Bush presidency is but a brief interlude on the road back to the Gingrichian future for Republicans. Or perhaps the forces of bureaucratic collectivism will prove too powerful, and the exceptional nation that gave the world both beach volleyball and the idea of a democratic republic will finally, irrevocably slide into mediocrity. Either way, conservatives will have to put up a fight. And so I say to Newt and Newtoids of the future, "May the force be with you."

Reihan Salam is a writer based in Washington, D.C.


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