Conservatism

Farewell to the Gipper

September 11, 2008

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Farewell to the Gipper

Today’s Republican Party is no longer the conservative party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It has morphed significantly in regard to the two main questions of concern to me: foreign policy and constitutional philosophy.
In the area of foreign policy, Reagan vindicated Goldwater’s lonely stand in the early-1960s Senate with such fellow “extremists” as John Tower and Strom Thurmond on behalf of victory over, not accommodation with, Communism. That was the main reason to be a Reaganite, as I understood it. The Communist Conspiracy had to be confronted, and only Reagan—not Bush, not Ford, not Nixon, and certainly not Carter—promised to confront it.
Alexander Bessmertnykh, the last Soviet foreign minister, said at a conference in Havana some years later that it was Reagan’s military buildup, and particularly the prospect of the Strategic Defense Initiative, that convinced Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet economy must be reformed. The results were Glasnost, Perestroika, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Reagan’s domestic critics know better than Bessmertnykh, of course, why the Gorbachev reforms occurred. The run of Democrats and Russia scholars in the USA credit Gorbachev himself for liquidating the Soviet system to which he had devoted his life.  What did Bessmertnykh know, anyway?
The other main reason to be a Reaganite was that Reagan, uniquely among 20th-century presidents, respected the Constitution as ratified. It was he, with the help of Attorney General Edwin Meese, who made originalism de rigueur after its decades in the wilderness. In other words, it was Reagan and Meese who dusted off the outdated notion that the federal government’s fundamental law should be law, not merely a thing of wax to be new-molded by each generation of federal office-holders (particularly judges).
Reagan and Meese did not succeed entirely in refashioning the federal judiciary along originalist lines, but they certainly made a start. Had the next two Republican presidents not been from the anti-Reagan, anti-Goldwater wing of the Republican Party—that is, had Reagan not made the momentous mistake of choosing George H. W. Bush to be his vice president—originalism would today be triumphant in the courts.
What of these two planks of Reagan’s platform today?

The two chief forces in human history, one wise historian said, are boredom and inertia.  In regard to foreign policy, inertia has meant the retention of American bases and alliances in myriad spots formerly significant to the Cold War struggle. It has meant the continuation of our government’s tendency to involve itself in every dispute among insignificant tribes in unheard-of corners of the world. It has meant perpetuation of devotion to pipsqueak allies whose friendship now that the Cold War is over costs us more (in the form of broils with those allies’ enemies) than it can ever be worth.
John McCain is an old man. People of that description are even more prone than others to be driven by inertia. In the area of foreign policy, he certainly is, as when he says it would be a good thing to assimilate Iraq to the inertia-is-the-only-explanation examples of the immortal American commitments to North Korea and Germany. If 55 years after the Korean War and 63 years since World War II we still station entire armies on those distant battlefields, McCain reasons, why not turn Iraq into that kind of success?
It hasn’t occurred to him, seemingly, that America didn’t enter into World War II with the hope of becoming the world’s policeman, and that the Cold War has ended. Since the days of John Foster Dulles, Americans make permanent alliances, and here is another chance.
I have a feeling, and so do many others, that our current wars have something to do with President George W. Bush’s particular brand of Evangelical faith. Would a McCain presidency at least mean the lessening of tensions flowing from that source? The fact of Sarah Palin’s dispensationalism, in tandem with John Hagee’s primary-season endorsement of McCain and neoconservative leading light Bill Kristol’s support for Palin, is not a good sign.
When it comes to the judiciary, well, what is one to say? In marked contrast to Reagan’s habitual emphasis on the topic, McCain let slip part of one sentence in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech about the kind of judges he would appoint, and even that was only a bromide. His earlier comments seem to indicate that he prefers the Bush appointees to the Supreme Court to Justices Scalia and Thomas, and one is unsure why.  Although I certainly have my favorite among the four, I doubt that he could explain this distinction on a theoretical basis.
It may be that a President John McCain would appoint better judges to federal courts than would a President Barack Obama. In fact, his judges likely would give us policy results that readers of Takimag would find preferable to those produced by Obama judges. To me, judicial legislation of whatever bent is equally lamentable, and I truly doubt that McCain appointees would do much to remedy the current moribund state of the Constitution.
In short, for this old Reaganite, there’s no obvious reason to be what in campaign 2008 is called a conservative. It doesn’t look much like Reaganism when it comes to my two paramount issues, and that’s leaving aside the attitudes toward taxing, spending, and government power generally with which the word “conservative” is now associated. John McCain is far more emblematic of than out of step with today’s conservatism—and far more in agreement with it than with the distinct brand once championed by Goldwater and the Gipper.

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