Wither conservatism

The title of the National Review Institute’s “Whither Conservatism?” conference (co-sponsored by Hillsdalle College) yesterday at the Grand Hyatt easily lends itself to the pun. With Republicans at their lowest ebb since 1974, indeed one could be forgiven the impression that conservatism has withered.

The audience was smallish, with a good contingent of journalists — Sean Higgins of Investors Business Daily, Michale Brendan Dougherty of The American Conservative, James Poulos and Conor Friedersdorf of Culture11 and Jamie Kirchick of The New Republic — but if there were any MSM reporters on hand, I didn’t see them. Not even The Washington Times sent a reporter. It seems to be the position of mainstream news editors that events like this are not newsworthy. Sigh.

I missed the early-morning domestic policy panel with Jim Manzi, Yuval Levin, Kim Strassel and Heather MacDonald. The foreign policy panel moderated by Rich Lowry was lively. Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and NR’s Andy McCarthy represented the hawks, with Paul Saunders of the Nixon Center the lone voice urging restraint and non-intervention.

Saunders pointed out the policy drift toward a “national commitment to rebuilding” Iraq: “Is this what we signed up for?” As to those advocating regime change in Iran, Saunders said, “I don’t understand how these are realistic objectives for U.S. policy.” When Lowry sought to steer the discussion toward the question of whether Obama’s election will (as liberals claim) improve the U.S. image abroad, the panel continued to hash over Iraq for a while. Kagan observed, “We don’t poll much better in France than we do in Egypt. . . . The people who are blowing themselves up . . . don’t give a damn whether it’s Obama or Bush.”

Kagan noted that our European “allies” are almost completely disarmed. This was one thing that struck me as entirely absurd about the debate over “world opinion” in the 2002-03 run-up to the Iraq invasion. If the U.S. was intent on invading Iraq — and clearly, by fall 2002, the decision had already been made and the mobilization of military resources was well underway — why were we on our knees begging for help from, inter alia, France? The French can’t deploy so much as a single effective army division. So whether France supports or opposes a U.S. military action, it’s irrelevant either way. Why disgrace ourselves by groveling and begging these European “allies” for the commitment of token forces to a sham “coalition”?

As we dined on our free lunch, Hillsdale professor Burt Folsom gave an energetic lecture about his new book, New Deal or Raw Deal, a history of the Great Depression and the Roosevelt administration that ought to be read as a companion to Amity Schlaes’ The Forgotten Man.

The panel on cultural issues, moderated by Kate O’Beirne, featured Maggie Gallagher, Ed Whelan, and Jeff Bell. Gallagher, who talked extensively about the marriage amendments that passed in Florida, Arizona and California, was the star of this panel. She called attention to the “extraordinary outpouring of threats and intimidation” against supporters of Proposition 8 in California – an atmosphere that Prop 8 opponents stoked with ads like this:

“Ideas have consequences,” Gallagher said, noting that the essential argument of gay radicals is that “Christianity is a form of bigotry,” so that the result of the gay rights agenda will be the elimination of Christian moral arguments from the public square. Gallagher called attention to the August decision in the Benitez case in California, requiring physicians to provide insemination services to lesbians, as an example of the impact of the gay-rights doctrine.

Then it was time for the big show, “The Future of Conservatism” panel, in which Jonah Goldberg had threatened to beat moderator David Brooks into a coma (an empty threat, alas). A phrenologist would have automatically picked out Goldberg and the Atlantic‘s Ross Douthat as the intellectual heavyweights on the panel — both men have impressively large heads. Douthat’s receding hairline exposes his massive, broad forehead, truly a thing to behold. If you didn’t know who he was, and were forced to guess, you’d figure him for a Russian grand master of chess, named Ivan or Boris. In terms of temperament, however, the melancholy Douthat and the sanguine/choleric Goldberg are quite different. Goldberg livens his remarks with sarcastic wit. Douthat makes a joke or two, but doesn’t have Goldberg’s smart-aleck zeal for a clever putdown. And Goldberg, of course, is more dedicated to a regular Republican sort of conservatism, while Douthat’s all nuance and doubt.

In terms of raw cranial capacity, then, these two stand out, although their fellow panelists are obviously no slouches. Douthat begins the discussion by describing his views as “pessimistic,” and then goes into a trend-mongering spiel so as to spread the paralyzing miasma of defeatism throughout the room.

David Bobb of Hillsdale gave a five-point summary of conservative principles, outlining a Madisonian vision of limited government to which he urged the movement to adhere. He warned that conservatism is an “ism” that some say is about to become a “wasm,” and argued against a doctrine of “necessitarianism” that leads to abandonment of principles.

Gene Healey of the Cato Institute is the good-natured token libertarian, and begins by recalling his childhood conviction (in 1995) that Phil Gramm was destined to be the next president. (Don’t worry, Gene. Lots of us thought so.) Healey name-checked Hayek while noting the fashion cycles of New Conservatism, with compassionate conservatism, national greatness, crunchy cons, South Park conservatism and now “reformist” conservatism. “Its name is Legion” — a Biblical reference (Mark 5:9) that perhaps went over the heads of some.

Ramesh Ponnuru’s high tenor voice causes me to look up from my notebook. This happens every time I see Ramesh on a panel. The other baritone voices will be droning on, and I’ve got my head down scrawling notes. Then it’s Ramesh’s turn, suddenly the range jumps an octave, and I look up. Ramesh shares the Douthatian gloom, and talks about the question of whether America is a “center-right nation” — “center-right” being a term with which I’m getting weary as all hell, by the way.

Goldberg is the scrappiest voice on the panel, whose views most closely mirror my exasperation with the tendency of intellectuals to overthink the election. “Personalities matter,” Goldberg says, pointing out this year’s obvious charisma mismatch in the presidential candidates, and the crushing political burden of the Bush-damaged GOP brand. Goldberg slams “compassionate conservatism” as an “enormous surrender to liberalism,” and says the first challenge for the “reformist” conservatives is to show “why this isn’t compassionate conservatism 2.0.” Exactly. We don’t need conservative arguments for half-a-loaf responses to big-government liberalism, we need conservatives to stand resolutely against big government, period.

Just one incidental gripe: Too many of the NRI panelists were willing to cede ground to global warming, the biggest liberal hoax since the “homeless crisis” of the 1980s. Besides the specific evidence of fraudulent statistical manipulation and the problematic assumptions of climate “modeling,” the very fact that liberals passionately believe in global warming is an argument against the theory. When have liberals ever been right about anything?

Finally, I would strongly urge everyone interested in understanding the 2008 election to pick up the Dec. 1 print edition of National Review, especially Rich Lowry’s extensively reported article on Page 22, “In the Snake Pit.” Having immersed myself in various accounts of What Went Wrong with the McCain campaign, I thought I’d learned about as much as could be gleaned from such analyses, but Lowry manages to find new insights.

UPDATE: Alexander Burns of the Politico was there, and caught David Brooks’s quip on the final panel:

Brooks joked cheerfully about conservative criticism of his work. Introducing a panel on the future of conservative thought, he made reference to a controversial comment he reportedly made about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “When I really love someone, I call them a fatal cancer on the Republican Party,” Brooks said. “And sitting to my left are five fatal cancers.”

It was funny. Not as funny as dropping Brooks from a C-130 over Jalalabad, but funny.

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