28 January 2009

The Republican Conclave: Twilight of the Idol?

The Republican National Committee was supposed to elect a chairman today, according to the new issue of The American Conservative that arrived in my mail today. I learn that the vote will actually happen on Friday -- are they waiting for instructions from Davos? In all seriousness, or all that I can muster, the Conservative isn't optimistic about the party's prospects. The incumbent chairman is a Bush loyalist who's earned lots of hostility for his uncritical attitude toward the departed President, but he so far has a plurality of declared delegates in his favor. There are five insurgents, none of whom seem to have impressed the writer of the Conservative's "Fourteen Days" column.

"The race for the chairmanship...has been like a long night of karaoke, as the contenders belt out the camp standards of decades past," the writer sniffs. The writer watched a debate among the aspirants on Jan. 5 -- "Only it's not much of a debate when the action consists of six middle-aged men vying to see who can get the syllables 'Ronald Reagan' out of his mouth the fastest."

The writer, at least, seems to have arrived at the opinion that Reagan doesn't have all the answers for the new millennium. "The only thing more fatuous than the Reaganolalia were the candidates' bright ideas about harnessing the electoral muscle of Twitter and Facebook, thanks to which Ron Paul won the Republican presidential nomination last year," the scribe recalls sarcastically, noting that none of the candidates seem to have real answers for the new era, either.

"Pity the poor GOP," the writer concludes, "its leaders haven't realized that people only love karaoke when they're drunk."

This outburst appears in the same issue as a review of the late William F. Buckley's memoir of his friendship with Reagan.The review by Daniel McCarthy reflects rising revisionism about Reagan, including the realization based on his private writings that he wasn't as dogged a Cold Warrior as conservatives believed or hoped back in the day. McCarthy isn't as troubled about Reagan as some Republicans might be. He finds in Reagan's apparent true attitude (he was reportedly unwilling to order either a first or a retaliatory strike, just like Mikhail Gorbachev) proof that, not so long ago, there was room for diversity in Republican or conservative foreign policy. He cites Reagan and Buckley's disagreement over the Panama Canal; Buckley favored giving it to Panama, while Reagan wanted to keep it. While they disagreed sharply, they remained friends, whereas today, McCarthy suggests, Buckley's position would "get him branded as an unpatriotic conservative" by the GOP establishment. Buckley renounced the neocons before he died, while Reagan's approach, McCarthy claims, is obsolete because anti-Communism no longer exists as the glue to hold divergent factions together.

"In a world like this, there will never be another Reagan or Buckley," McCarthy concludes, "But that is no cause for mourning. Reagan's conservatism had its day, and Buckley believed that he had won his own wars....The challenge for the Right today is not to attempt to relive the glories of the past but to rethink them, as Buckley rethought Reagan." It looks like Republicans haven't yet accepted that challenge. On one hand, I want to say good because that means they'll probably keep losing elections. On the other, decadent Reaganism is bound to be an anchor holding back progress for years yet unless Republicans do the rethinking urged by these writers.Philosophical conservatives have a useful role to play in any national debate, but only if they wake up to the real issues facing all of us instead of re-enacting Cold War morality plays. We all have a stake in the future of conservatism, but they have to figure this out for themselves.


Crhymethinc said...

You've touched on the root of the problem with conservatism. By it's very nature it is anti-progressive. It does not like change, does not understand adaptability. In a country founded on the premise that change is inevitable and adaptability a survival trait (did some one mention an amendable constitution?), conservatism is bound to keep failing because it keeps repeating the same mistakes.

hobbyfan said...

Then the Conservatives have never read Santayana. They don't see any harm in staying the course, although it often leads to disaster. More fools they, then.

Samuel Wilson said...

Actually, the conservatives are the ones most likely to quote Santayana ("Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it") But I can see why you might take it to be an anti-conservative statement, since conservatives seem to want to repeat the past on purpose. There are two ways to interpret the proverb. The progressive way is: history tells us we should do things differently than in the failed past. The conservative way is: history proves that certain ways of doing things will never work.