Bush vs. Conservatives

30 10 2006

The backwoods folk are beginning to doubt Bush

The American humourist Will Rogers once described his political position thus: “I belong to no organised party. I am a Democrat.” It captured the undisciplined, chaotic, often hilarious internecine battles that have plagued the party. The astonishing aspect of the current intense election campaign in the United States is that this time the roles are reversed. On the eve of an election it is the usually disciplined, on-message, obedient Republican party that is at war with itself.The polls don’t help. They suggest an imminent drubbing, and the newspapers and blogosphere have been full of what are termed “pre-mortems” or “precriminations”. When a ship looks like it’s sinking, it gets harder to enforce discipline. But the Republicans are coming to terms with the fact that their very success in expanding their party over the past two decades, compounded by the pressure of what appears an all but lost Iraq war, has led to fractures they can no longer paper over.


I’ve been travelling across America these past two weeks to battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as Illinois, Wisconsin and California. The anger at Congress is palpable. But what’s most striking is where it’s coming from: not so much from Democrats as from restless conservatives and Republicans.

A group of conservative intellectuals recently wrote in a liberal magazine last month that the Republicans deserved to lose. The intellectual titan of American conservatism, William F Buckley, has called the Iraq war a failure, and attributed it to the lack of a coherent conservative governing philosophy in the Bush White House.

On the ground, the rhetoric is even more intense. Republican Senator Mike DeWine, battling to win the key state of Ohio, said that Donald Rumsfeld “would not be my secretary of defence if I was the president of the United States. He has, you know, made huge mistakes. And I think history will judge him very harshly”.

In another critical race in Tennessee, the Republican candidate Bob Corker has disowned the Bush strategy of “stay the course” in Iraq. Voters guffaw when he repeats it.

Incumbent Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has said she would never have voted for the Iraq war if she knew then what she knows now. That’s in Texas, where she isn’t even in danger. Elsewhere, in less rock-solid states, Republicans are begging the president not to come and campaign for them.

Most critically, it is the rural heartland that is beginning to question Bush and the war. First, they trusted him as a man of God. Then they blamed the media for distorting reality in Iraq. Then their patriotism kicked in as the president urged them to “stay the course”. But now this segment of the population, people who have disproportionately sent their sons and daughters to fight in the bloodsoaked streets of Ramadi and Falluja and Baghdad, show signs of revolt. If Bush loses these voters — or if they are too demoralised to vote at all — the omens are truly dark for the Republicans.

The party’s strategy, after all, has long been not to persuade moderate, suburban America, but to register, organise and mobilise millions of rural evangelical voters who had not voted in large numbers since the 1920s.

Issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage brought these voters to the polls and made the difference. Without them in Ohio in 2004, John Kerry would now be president. The Republicans also gerrymandered their constituencies to ensure these voters were spread around enough to provide narrow margins of victories across the country. The victories were always close ones, nonetheless.

Until recently the rural evangelicals have stuck with the president, in part to honour the fallen, and out of admirable patriotism and trust. It is hard to believe that your son or daughter died or is permanently crippled for a bungled cause. But if the facade cracks, if these rural voters begin to believe they have been misled, then the rock-solid patriotic support could become something else. It would not, in my judgment, fade into indifference. It could turn into rage.

That hasn’t happened yet. But you can feel it beginning. When you add to it the libertarian Republicans, alienated by the religious right, the worries for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney mount. Then there are the fiscal conservatives appalled by the massive spending and borrowing, and the social conservatives who suspect the Republican leadership of covering up pederasty in its own ranks in the Mark Foley affair, and the neoconservatives who believe that their war was never given enough troops or resources to succeed. Put it all together and you have a party that is beginning to resemble a circular firing squad nine days before critical mid-terms.

In this atmosphere, the only recourse some candidates have had is mud, mud, glorious mud. In Tennessee the Republican national committee ran a campaign ad insinuating that the black Democrat was funded by porn producers and was calling a white prostitute for a rendezvous. An Ohio congressional candidate tried to portray his Democratic opponent as being in league with the National Man-Boy Love Association. The radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh entered the debate over embryonic stem-cell research by mocking the actor Michael J Fox’s medication- induced physical tremors. Fox is suffering from Parkinson’s and appeared in a political ad in defence of stem-cell research. I’m no prude when it comes to dirty politics, but the airwaves this year make mud-wrestling look like a nice game of badminton.

There is, of course, a great justice in this. In many ways the Bush administration and Republican Congress have abandoned principled conservatism and deserve to be punished by conservatives more than liberals. When they took over in 2000, the long-term fiscal liability of the federal government was $20 trillion. It now stands at $43 trillion. They have increased government spending at a faster rate than any Democratic Congress since the 1930s. They have generated deficits after four years of strong growth.

This kind of spending has made sleaze and de facto bribery inevitable. The number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled in five years. As for pork barrel spending, a simple comparison tells the tale. In 1985, Ronald Reagan vetoed a motorway-construction bill because lawmakers had stuffed into it 150 pet projects for their constituencies. Reagan thought that was unconservative. Last year George W Bush eagerly signed a similar bill with 6,000 such projects. In plain English, they are bribing the voters with the public purse.

On the critical matter of individual liberty, they have suspended habeas corpus for “enemy combatants” for the indefinite future, and authorised the torture of military detainees. Last week Cheney told a conservative talk-show host that the question of whether to use the Khmer Rouge tactic of “waterboarding” military detainees to make them feel they’re drowning was a “no-brainer”. It wasn’t that he had weighed the terrible price of torture and decided reluctantly he had to do it to save American lives: it was not even worth a second’s thought. Whatever else this is, it isn’t conservatism. It is big government cynicism and incompetence.

It is premature to predict a huge change in the Congress on November 7. Republican discipline could still hold on by a squeak. But a big Democratic victory could happen. And if it does, it will be Republican and conservative voters who deliver it.

Link: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,29449-2426622,00.html




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