Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Coming Failure of Liberalism

The opening paragraphs of P.J. O’Rourke’s latest piece in the Weekly Standard point to a problem that the next Democratic President will have (the bulk of the piece, O’Rourke’s discusion of Senator Sununu’s political philosoph is also worth reading):

American political methodology is an ontological construct. No, I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it’s true anyway. Political "science"--like that puppy from the same litter, the dismal science of economics--is not science; it’s a branch of moral philosophy. Yet try talking moral philosophy with a politician. Politicians will talk strategy and tactics and policies and programs until they’re blue in the face, or you strangle them and they turn blue.

The problem on the left is, now that Karl Marx has forsaken them, they have no philosophy. Thank goodness. Think what evil creeps liberals would be if their plans to enfeeble the individual, exhaust the economy, impede the rule of law, and cripple national defense were guided by a coherent ideology instead of smug ignorance.

Now that no one (or very few) admit to being socialists, now that few, if any, believe that social science can manage society, and now that the vast majority of people on the Left (at least those who are likely to get into office) admit that the world, by its nature, can never become the world of universal peace, plenty, and brotherhood, what is it that drives the Left?

My own understanding is that the Left still believes that a good society is one that delivers on the promise of socialism. That’s what makes the Left the Left. At the same time, they don’t believe in the project as much as they used to. Once they are back in power, might they be forced to see the contradiction? Is that why Brown looks like he’s about to lose in Britain, and why Sarkozy, Merkel are on top in France and Germany, and why Burlusconi, however great his flaws, is, once again, in power in Italy?

If Senator Obama becomes president, and if the Democratic party has control of both houses of the legislature in 2009, as seems quite likely, governing might be a rude awakening. The benefit of being in opposition is that one needn’t be specific. The trouble with governing is that one must be so.

If part of the reason why President Bush has had such a rough time of things is that Americans are tried of the modern administrative/ bureaucratic state (even as they don’t want their own benefits cut, or many regulations eliminated), and if Democrats think that the reason why Bush is unpopular is that he’s been governing as a conservative, they could be in for a rude awakening.

Discussions - 21 Comments

If Bush has actually been governing as a liberal in the eyes of true conservatives, then why were conservatives - such as most, if not all, NLT bloggers - so happy to put him in the Oval Office twice and support the vast majority of what he did and the policies he pushed through? Yes, I realize that for those of the fringe far-right GWB has not been conservative ENOUGH, but to say that he hasn't been "governing as a conservative" is laughable.

I think this is just a revision of history and a reshuffling of reality. Now that Bush's low-ratings appear fairly permanent and his place as one of the all-time worst presidents is likely quite secure, conservatives, in a self-preservation mode, simply claim that GWB is not a conservative. I'm now thinking of one particular PowerLine piece (and I do mean "piece") where one of the trio is just going on and on about how truly brilliant Bush is and is doing the correct thing nearly all of the time. And this is not PowerLine maxing out the sarcasm meter. They're serious. I've seen lower-key, but still similar examples, of Bush worship here at NLT more than a few times. Some of it is defensive of Bush but much is simply praise out of the blue. At the same time, I must say that I've seen very, very little Bush criticism here at NLT (more in the comments than in the official posts, I should note, but still very little). If he's so non-conservative - or even liberal - why NLT hasn't gone after him with both barrels (albeit dignified and oh-so-civil barrels)? A true mystery.

Thank you for pointing us to that article. P.J. O'Rourke is always a good read, and here I have to love him as a bearer of good news.

Yes, there are limits to what government can do for us. Yet, "Everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it." At this point, just substitute the word "government" for the word, "weather" and you have the sense of the complaint in the hinterland, where I live. Our government is an immutable force and we suffer with it as we would tornado or drought. It is far too big to do anything about. How much does Senator John Sununu have affect on the size of government? How much did Reagan?

But, Craig, you mean to say you have not understood the dismay conservatives have felt about GWB from in the first election? Oh well. GWB does not seem to have understood that, either.

About the local government-small government thing, I keep thinking; perhaps having the President and Congressional leaders in our living rooms, via TV, every day, people feel a closer connection to them than to their local government leaders whom they may never see at all. Local newspapers have mostly died. What connection do people feel to local government? I wondered about this during Katrina when people thought the federal government ought to be rescuing them, Superman-style. How? that all seemed unrealistic. Most Americans are not tired of the Administrative state. They take for granted that such government can do for them what they want. Those are things that it cannot really do.

But look at it. It is huge and how will it ever be dismantled?

If it's so very obvious that Bush has been a conservative President then I'm not sure why the wretched Craig Scanlon is unable to point to evidence of that.

His principle goals have been (a) a gigantic expansion in the size and power of the Federal government (b) an open borders globalist internationalism and (c) to wage a war to spread liberalism to the Middle East.

PJ is mistaken in focusing on actual policy questions. To be a member of the left today means to be a member of a certain social caste. Bush is member of a different caste because he speaks with a Texas twang. They oppose Bush's (very liberal) policies because they oppose Bush, not Bush because they oppose his policies. The same thing occured with Nixon, who was even more liberal than Bush.

So now we're attributing Bush's problems to those inherent to a "modern administrative/bureaucratic state?"

Passing strange then isn't it, that Clinton, who oversaw the same "modern administrative/bureaucratic state," never saw his poll numbers plunge because of his oversight of such a state.

Why can't we simply admit it?

Why are we searching for any other reason than Bush himself, to account for his poll numbers? Why the tortured and stretched explanations? It's NOT Conservative to go out and conjure an overly convaluted reason to account for something, and all the while ignore the commonsensical accounting, which is staring you in the face.

Doesn't honesty, plain, old-fashioned, somewhat anachronistic honesty compel us to admit, however sadly, however much we might not want to, that this administration is a pack of screwups. Don't we owe something to commonsense? Don't we owe something to ourselves, to truth.

DENNIS PRAGER interviewed STEPHEN HAYES the other day, and you can hear the audio on Prager's website. And the subject was incompetence at The White House. Prager asked why the administration hasn't even bothered trying to defend themselves against falsehoods and toxic accusations. He didn't ask why they weren't successful in defending themselves. No. He merely asked why haven't they even bothered trying. I'm not going to paraphrase Hayes' response, I'll just urge you all to go listen to it yourself.

But before anyone goes out and subscribes to the notion that Bush's numbers are even mildly attributable to the inherent problems of overseeing a "modern, administrative/bureacuratic state," please go listen to Stephen Hayes, who has asked the same questions of senior White House staffers. Just let him give you their responses.

And afterwards, if you need additional evidence, read Feith, read Bolton. There's no need to go far afield to understand why this administration is now so derided.

No, I'm not going to comb through the NLT archives and locate the many instances of praise for Bush and his policies (or, additionally, his speeches, rhetoric, demeanor or unwritten, unofficial, but still very real policies). As well, I'm not going to - and how would it be done - note the various timeframes when Bush and his various accomplices acted in ways that, at least in theory, conservatives might find complaint-worthy, yet there was not so much as a peep of objection. If I were to break it down by the numbers, I'd say, based on what was actually voiced on this blog, there has been 85-90% praise for GWB, and 10-15% (tops) criticism. Pretty good treatment by a conservative blog for a president who is now alleged to have been so far from conservative.

I recall a LOT of praise for most of Bush's cabinet selections, his Supreme Court selections (except for Miers but, hell, who didn't think she was a lame choice?), etc. And of course, as to the defining aspect of GWB's presidency, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the larger War on Terror or Global Violent Extremism or whatever it's being called this week), the very few critiques I've seen were primarily of the "why didn't he just nuke them?" variety. There has been absolutely effusive praise for his "cowboy" style of foreign diplomacy.

Still, no, I'm not going to waste the time to comb through the archives for the evidence which would just be ignored anyway...

But I did find the gem from Powerline (one of NLT's "favorite bloggers" linked to over on the side, admittedly the left side of the blog, though...), a blog that won Time's "blog of the year" award sometime back, I believe, and which surely can ONLY be described as very conservative, and very far right; here's the highlight that I remembered the gist of (notice, too, this is mid-2005, well into GWB's presidency and the Iraq War as well):

"It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

Hyperbolic? Well, maybe."

Maybe?

The question is what has been the nature of President Bush's incompetence. And what was the nature of President Clinton's success? Consider the signal policies of the Clinton years. After the stimulous package and the effort to nationalize health care failed in the first two years, even as a major free trade agreement passed, the main policies were stable money, welfare reform, school uniforms, and a capital gains tax cut.

The question is whether any government that tries to do all the things that our government tries to do can, in fact, funcation well. I rather doubt it. If that's the case, it's one major source of frustration among voters.

On the other hand, if the next Democratic President, in the spirit of welfare reform, admits that there are many things that no government can do, tries to make policies more market-friendly and to focus more on individual responsibility, rather than command and control, he might be able to start moving in a fruitful direction. I suspect that the Democratic party is not yet ready for that, because to move away from command and control is to move decisively away from Liberalism as it was in the 20th century.

We have all really hoped that GWB is or would be all that your Powerline blog bit suggests. There is no consensus and I am sure we have all had our moments when we were just delighted with him (well, maybe not John or Dan) and many other moments when the dismay amounted to depression. If any of us combed through the NLT archives, we could find evidence of sturdy support for the president and scathing criticism. I don't want to look, either.

Of course, since we conservatives have various perspectives on what it means to be a conservative, we will have different perspectives on whether GWB has governed as one, or not.


Administrative failure can coexist with political success, and vice versa. An Obama administration could be flop in terms of effectivensss, yet quite popular. Bush might be every bit as unpopular as he is now, albeit with a somewhat different "coalition," had he successfully enacted and implemented conservative policy. In addition, let's distinguish between effectiveness in terms of *good* government (whether through liberal-socialist, or conservative-libertarian measures) and effectiveness in terms of advancing liberal-socialist power. If the purpose of liberal-socialism is to solve the nation's problems, it is most unlikely to succeed. That's not news. If its purpose is to obtain a stranglehold on power, it may well succeed.

Richard Adams, YES, and the sense of discontent in the electorate, with the hope of "change" of just about any kind ought to be evidence of that. "Government doesn't work right." is what I hear, even from liberals, but the idea that government can't do what it is being asked to do never comes up. If our government is doing a lousy job at taking care of all that it is being asked to take care of, why are we supposed to make it bigger and give it more to do? It is the expectation of our age, that if we just throw more money at it, there will be an improvement in performance. Based on what evidence?

While what you say about the Dems. is true, I see no evidence that Republicans will do more than slow the process. All I can say is, this is not our Founders' liberalism.

David, true enough. The danger is that Obama would get away with FDR's implicit strategy. Pass policies that make things worse, blame the problems on conservative forces, and pass more policies that make things still worse, justifying still more bad policies.

Kate, my point was that once the Democrats have all three branches in their hands, it may very well force the hidden problem to the surface, precisely because it will be harder to blame the problems on the forces of reaction.

10: Yes.

Nature of Bush's incompetence is not having a good PR team. Overall and especially where it counts (9-11) he has been a very, very good President.

No shirking from duty. No saying it was our fault (most of the liberals). No lobbing a missle or two (Clinton/Reagan).

He has taken the fight to them and we are better for it.

"Consider the signal policies of the Clinton years," ------------------- after he and the Dems got thumped in '94, he pursued a policy of advancing "micromeasures," which Dick Morris has ably explained elsewhere. The Clinton years then became ones where we heard of "student uniforms," or "a 100,000 new cops on the street." Big ticket items became politically troublesome for Clinton, and he had too keen an eye on his poll numbers to bother with them. Thus no grand theme, domestically or abroad.

It can be said that the front stage of Clinton's Presidential theater had to contend with a Reagan era backdrop, which served to narrow Clinton's dramatic possibilities.

That's all true.

But why did Clinton's early initiatives fail?

Because he didn't campaign on such grand themes. He promised, like Tony Blair of "new Labour" to be a "new Democrat." He effectively promised that he wouldn't pursue a radical agenda. Yet one of the very first things he tried to do was ram homosexuals down the throat of America's military, then follow that up with a secret health care task force head by a woman most Americans were leery of, and the Democrats themselves had to shut up and keep out of sight during the latter part of the campaign season.

Thus I would suggest that Clinton was done in as much by the surprise factor as by anything else. His first actions were so radical, that he scared the hell out of the electorate. The editors of America's large newspapers were pushing hard for a radical agenda, they had been out of power for so long, had spent so much time demonizing Reagan and the Republicans, that they really thought America had repudiated Conservativism. Which wasn't the case. They misread the electorate, with disastrous results for them in '94. But the GOP stopped preaching the good news of Conservativism. That's a theme that Limbaugh has developed over the years. Had Clinton properly prepared the political battlespace, and had he first proposed a health care bill that would merely have been the front-end of a wedge, which would have allowed a breakout into full-blown socialism, he very well may have succeeded. Not to mention he was as much defeated in his health care initiative by the worthwhile work of the AMA, which did a great deal to expose their true agenda, as well as by America's pharmaceutical companies, which didn't much like being shaken down by Gore.

As for Bush, it's unwise to attribute his poll numbers to a single issue, a single domestic initiative or a single foreign policy gambit, even the war. Which is why when it comes to the Bush administration, the correct answer is the catch-all, answer E, "all of the above." It's everything.

These are scattered observations though, which crave being developed at length. But I've got to go get something to eat.

Richard Adams - My #11 was actually responding to your #7, which posted simultaneously with my #8. Clear? Never mind.

To your #12 - Then do I want to vote for Obama? I am all for forcing the "hidden problem" to the surface. Yet, as you said in the post, Democrats do not see a problem, as the socialist model looks like freedom to them. Every problem with socialism becomes a matter of just not doing it right, yet. This as if practice always makes perfect, never mind that the piano is out of tune and the song will never be right.

David Frisk's two "purposes" are not mutually exclusive and "success" might be variously defined, as it depends on what you see as the proper role of the US in the world, or the proper influence of the rest of the world on the US. I tend to hate the idea of America being just another one of the guys, but I work with people who would like that, or at least think they would.

Dan, I was really glad that after Clinton's initial pay-off to his base, he worried enough about re-election to govern with some caution.

Mr. Adams,

I respectfully dissent from your thesis here: South Dakota Politics

Respectfully, Jon, I think you shed some light on this discussion but I'm not sure if you really dissent from Richard's position or O'Rourke's . . . Yes, the Dems still advance that Progressive philosophy (though I think O'Rourke is right to say that they do it with less gusto today or, when they're clever like Obama, obliquely and indistinctly) but it's fair also to say that, in many ways and with his own flavor, G.W. Bush did the same. The afterword in Jonah G's fine book, Liberal Fascism is a good place to start that discussion. If that's true then the conservatism of W. is NOT the true cause of his unpopularity--though, politically speaking, this may be irrelevant if Obama and Co. are successful in pretending that it is and conservatives continue to give up ground because they mistakenly believe they're outnumbered and overpowered.

Julie, the Dems are wisely conflating Bush with Conservativism. We know he's governed not as a Conservative. But most of the electorate isn't aware of that, and the media isn't going to disabuse them of the notion. The only chance we have is that talk radio takes on the Bush administration, and castigtes them for the many ways in which they've pursued liberal goals, via liberal means.

But even there we have problems. Limbaugh has publicly warned McCain not to go after Bush. Which is somewhat insane. McCain HAS to create daylight between himself and one of the most hated politicians in the modern era. Otherwise, he could get blown out, with all kinds of problems materializing for the GOP down the ballot. And Limbaugh himself, especially his apostle, Mark Levin, have unloaded on the President on many issues. But somehow McCain is supposed to campaign with Bush attached to him like a ball and a chain.

This makes no sense.

The real problem is that guys like Limbaugh and Levin can't make up their own mind about the Bush administration, thus they're in a "no-man's land."

If Limbaugh warned McCain away from embracing liberalism, all in the effort to get distance between himself and Bush, ------------- that I'd understand, and approve of. But Limbaugh's shot across the bow seemed to imply that McCain has to "defend" the administration. Levin expanded on the point, by trying to defend the President for his response during Katrina. Which is more political insanity. You might as well suggest McCain take on the liberal narrative for the Vietnam war as to suggest trying to change the nation's settled opinion on Bush's response to Katrina.

Sure Blanco and Nagin screwed up. But they're not the ones getting fingered by the American people.

There are certain political realities; there are political givens, and that the Bush administration has been a failure is now, whether we might like it or not, it's now a given. And there's no traction to be found trying to convince the American people otherwise, not after all the water that has gone over the dam, {or burst through the levees....}.

Just because Levin desires to take on issues, doesn't mean it's politically worthwhile for McCain to take those same issues on. ESPECIALLY not when they'll find NO support whatsoever from this incompetent White House, {whose incompetence transcends the communication staff, --- we were wrong to think that if only the Bush team could get their communication problems squared away, they could right the ship of state, and solve a good chunk of the problems besetting the GOP}. The communication problems are SYMPTOMATIC of a pre-existing incompetence, which in this case, was almost congenital.

Even if one accepts your premise that "the vast majority of people on the Left (at least those who are likely to get into office) admit that the world, by its nature, can never become the world of universal peace, plenty, and brotherhood", and the implication therein that such absolute perfection was or ever has been the Left's ultimate goal, this doesn't really look so bad compared to what an increasing number of people are seeing as what drives the Right: an attempt to fashion a world of universal discord, increasing inequality, and belligerence & hatred. A world where any attempt to actually improve anything - unless of course it's a "market-based" solution - is derided as some sort of blasphemy against God.

And that's just crazy.

Which right are we talking about?

The world's right or the American right?

I don't see in any way how the American right is making way for chaos and discord. That has been the domain of the American left for decades!

Listen, the liberals in America have done some very good things, but when it comes to overall policies, they prefer doing the 'control' thing more than anything else.

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