Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Thinking About Mitch and the Real Culture Fight

The discussion on this blog and in other forums of late about a possible candidacy by Mitch Daniels for presidency in 2012 has fixated on his calls for a truce to the culture war. A candidate who seems to be one of the most successful governors in the new era of state fiscal policy disasters has angered or provoked many with his proposed truce. Perhaps more extended reflection on the Daniel's truce can be had if one considers what Daniels, I think, rightly regards as the pivotal moment in American limited government.  

Daniels' remarks over the past few months have urged that the central political battle boils down to self-government achieved through robust consent to actual policies, i.e., Is the creepy Peter Orszag to be our master and the efficiency commissions headed by similar types of officials, or is there something much better that is possible? In listing the accomplishments and, I think accurately gauging the universal thinking of Obama on regulatory policy, Daniels repeatedly underscores, in the measured tones reminiscent of Calvin Coolidge (Daniel's speeches are similar to Silent Cal's), that the failure to recover the hearts of Americans on the prospect of actual self-government leads us in a new direction of social democracy. This is the central moral loss, and from it flows even more of the San Francisco and faculty lounge moralizing we have heard for years and are now seeing slowly implemented.

The central moral and political question evoked by Daniels is what do we make of our lives as human beings and as American citizens? Do we want to be citizens? Are we free and capable of self-rule in any muscular sense? One gathers that Daniels may see the culture wars not as unnecessary but as the inherent consequences of the primal failure of a manly assertion of political honor for oneself, one's family, and one's community. If we are incapable of these basic tasks, then, of course, the fallouts of abortion, deconstruction of the family, and a hiding within the therapeutic mentality that existentially absolves life of meaning and consequence (moral relativism) inevitably follows.

Daniels proclaims the political good of pride, courage, and liberty as the central elements of limited and rightful government. His venture into the national political waters is predicated on the notion that a significant enough cross-section of American citizens will understand this and join him. These are neither the "achievatrons" of America's meritocratic elite, nor the 20-30% who support entitlement politics, but a group who are in conversation with rightly ordered political habits that still seem real and plausible. Moreover, these political habits are our own as Americans.

This, of course, says nothing about Daniels' constitutional conservatism that would lead to originalist appointments across the federal judiciary.

Discussions - 10 Comments

I 'm basing much of my opinion of Mitch Daniels on Andrew Ferguson's article in the Weekly Standard, and the Heritage interview, and I'm impressed ! I think we must have someone like Daniels or Chris Christie, who is unafraid of battling and persuading to reduce spending, and get this runaway government under control.

For all Romney's fondness for data, Massachusetts Health Care has turned out to be a disaster, and he is unwilling to accept that fact. Could not vote for Huckabee, ever.

We have a number of fine governors, and it's going to take some time to get acquainted. I'm inclined to think Daniels' suggestion of temporarily shelving the divisive social issues is just right. I know that for many the only issue is abortion. If we cannot get the financial excesses of this administration and Congress under control, we're going to be Greece, far sooner than anyone expects. These brilliant ideas that fill the 2000 pages of Health Care and Financial Regulation are simply not going to work. One of the very simplest -- the drive to computerize medical care is already falling apart at the national level, and at my doctor's office. And it is only going to get worse. Democrats do not understand evidence and consequences, and it shows.

EC, I don't worry primarily about those people for whom abortion is the only issue. I do worry about those for whom it is an issue, along with the death penalty, the Second Amendment, marriage and the role of judges on those issues. As Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out, the idea of a "truce" (or shelving or whatever) is absurd as a matter of policy. It raises the obvious question of what a President Daniels would do in the event of the retirement of Justice Kennedy and all the important policy implications that would flow from Kennedy's replacement on the Supreme Court.

I think that the problem is based on a bigger misunderstanding. Our political problems at the national level are not that GOP social conservatism was too strong. It was that GOP economic conservatism was too weak. The GOP did not lose because of the appointments of Roberts and Alito, the ban or partial birth abortion, stem cell research or marriage. Those were, at the margin, winning issues - though they were not central. The GOP's problem was a very weak economic message. It does not follow that the addition of a strong economic message (and Daniels might be the best messenger on economics) must be accompanied by ditching popular positions on social issues. It doesn't make either political or economic sense to say that one doesn't want to comment on whether the federal government should subsidize abortion because Medicare spending is unsustainable at its current pace, What constituency is pro-Medicare cuts AND pro-abortion subsidies? The constituency for the reverse is actually much bigger and ditching pro-lifers on this issue actually makes getting government spending under control harder rather than easier. How does being in favor of constitutionalist judges make it harder to reform entitlements?

Now what if Daniels were a basically vanilla conservative on the social issues (which he basically seems to be) and instead of calling for a truce that is impossible in policy terms he 1) emphasized that his policies on social issues would be incrementalist and proceed only with majority support and 2) didn't talk about them unless asked? Would people be talking more or less, about Daniels and the social issues? Doesn't that seem like a more realistic way for a potential Republican presidential candidate to "put aside" those issues - to the extent they can be put aside?

One correction, I don't think stem cells was a winning issue for the GOP (I guess a case could be made, but I don't buy it). I also don't think that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was the reason the Rpublicans lost in 2006 and 2008 (or why they won in 2002 and 2004.)

If the Republicans want to win the presidency again, they are going to have get more votes from people who support things like legal abortion. John Marshall's post offers the insight that Daniels may be pointing they way to unite people with differing views on particular "social" issues (abortion, gay marriage, stem cells) by emphasizing the issuse of self-government - whatever one's views on these issues, Republicans should be able to agree that they should be decided through the processes of self-government - the same process that the Left seeks to dismantle through empowerment of an unaccountable technocracy and creating a nation of individuals dependent on government beneficence for their liveliehoods. That said, I think Pete may have a good tactical point in the third paragraph of his first comment.

I am skeptical of polls showing that Americans tend to be anti-abortion. Does that mean they believe doctors who perform abortions should go to jail, be fined, or lose their licenses? Have they even thought about that? To what extent do their putative "pro-life" views have any effect on the votes they cast? In the latter regard, how many of the "pro-life" majority or plurality are blacks or recent Latino immigrans, who are far more motivated by perceived ethnic self-interest in voting than by individual views on particular issues?

djf, to win, Republicans will have to win lots of different kinds of people, and as time goes on, more and more of those they will have to win will be Latino and African American. I think that an incremental pro-life politics that focuses on the abortion radicalism of the Democratic Party can have a secondary but nontrivial role in making those gains. Especially if it were added to a good economic message that could plausibly offer rising living standards and at least somewhat more health care security. Over the long term, making gains among nonwhites will be crucial to avoiding persistent minority status.

I think most social conservatives would be quite happy with a self-government approach to abortion, gay marriage, ect (the one partial exception being certain cases under the Second Amendment) but they are unlikely to support such a politics from someone who is claiming to be agnostic on whether the government should be subsidizing abortion or whether there should an unlimited license for late term abortions. It is not clear to me who a politics of "I' don't have any particular position on those issues, but I will support policies that will somewhat advance the goals of social conservatives." I doubt that would win over any social liberals, while it would earn the distrust and maybe cause the demoralization of social conservatives. Like the idea of a truce, it is a loss without a gain - at least as compared to an incrementalist strategy.

Part of the problem is that even if we were to think about the political spectrum and the two parties in terms of abortion, we should start thinking about which nominally pro-choice voters the GOP has a realistic chance of winning over without alienating an even larger group of pro-life voters. There is one of pro-choice voters that it would be suicidal for Republicans to orient their strategy around winning. These are pro-choice radicals (unlimited abortion license at every stage of the pregnancy, plus government subsidies) and who place such policies at the highest priority in their ranking of issue importance. As Reihan Salam pointed out, there is already a party for those voters. Anyway, it is unclear how many the above group of voters are just waiting to vote for Mitch Daniels' economic policies if only the GOP would adopt (if only implicitly) Barbara Boxer's social agenda.

So that leaves pro-choice moderates (in favor of, or at least not too concerned about some restrictions on abortion) and nominal pro-choicers who rank the abortion issue fairly low on their list of issue priority. A politics built around a presidential candidate that tells social conservatives that he shares their principles on most issues, but that any policy progress in their direction will be incremental and where majority support is with social conservatives is about the best strategy for mobilizing social conservatives and making what gains are to be made among non-social conservatives who are open to be recruited to a center-right politics.

There does not seem to have been much of a public pushback at the penalties in the partial birth abortion law that congress passed in 2003. That law includes potential prison time, though generally I am in favor of penalties of loss of license.

On an anectdotal level, I never stop being shocked at how many young, nominally pro-choice, pro-Obama, often nonwhite people I meet who believe that third trimester abortions are already illegal and are sickened at the thought that it isn't and would prefer it were banned. Thats not to say that there is a pro-life majority in the country, only that there is room for an incremental pro-life politics in the short and medium term. Though our current President and the pro-choice lobbying groups would be right to recognize such a politics as something other than a truce.

Pete Spilakos, I completely agree that it is fruitless for the GOP to go after the most committed and extreme pro-choicers; the hope should be to get the votes of the sort of nominal or moderate pro-choicers you describe. Of course, being generally pro-choice does not translate into support for late-term abortion, and it is those who want to limit the abortion right, but not eliminate it altogether, who should be targeted. I don't think my original comment said anything to the contrary. I generally agree with what you say, but I think there is a distinction to be drawn between being "incrementally" social conservative and staking out a position in favor of self-government. In other words, being anti-Roe does not necessarily mean being anti-abortion. That does not mean the GOP presidential candidate needs to be personally agnostic about abortion - only that moderate pro-choicers should be given the feeling that, by voting for him, they are putting the country on the road to the sort of prohibition sought by the organized pro-life movement.

As to nonwhite voters, I am extremely skeptical of the value of GOP outreach efforts to them. In the short term, I think the GOP would do better to try to get back some of the middle-class and affluent married white voters that have drifted away from them and now may again be reachable due to the overreach of the current administration and Congress. In this regard, the sort of creative thinking on economic policy advocated by, e.g., Ramesh Ponnuru is welcome, and rote recitation of Reagan-era small-government/low-tax bromides is not. But I recognize that, in the long run, the GOP's lack of salability to nonwhite voters will make it a permanent minority party. I just don't see what there is to do about this. That's one reason, among others, I am extremely pessimistic about the country's longterm prospects. Fortunately, its not up to me to come up with a viable strategy - that's the function of geniuses like Michael Steele and the Connecticut hacks who are nominating a wrestling promoter for the Senate. ;)

The last sentence of the first paragraph of my previous comment should have read:

That does not mean the GOP presidential candidate needs to be personally agnostic about abortion - only that moderate pro-choicers should NOT be given the feeling that, by voting for him, they are putting the country on the road to the sort of prohibition sought by the organized pro-life movement.

I am first and foremost a conservative federalist and as such, I would like to remind social conservatives the issues they are concerned with are not issues that rightly or constitutionally the responsibility of the National gov't, but rather to the states. Now yes the liberal have used the national courts and Congress to nationalize a lot of social issues. But answer is to return them to the states!! This is what the founders intended... to allow the people and their local gov't to address these issues as they see fit. THat is democracy as the founders designed it. And we ought to respect it.

djf, I think that on short and medium-term abortion policy, our differences are smallish, but the political differences could play out those policy issues out in very different ways. One way points to an incrementalist pro-life party that seeks to maximize common ground with moderate pro-choicers and those indifferent to abortion. The other points to a moderate pro-choice party, most of whose members are somewhere on the pro-life side of the political spectrum on abortion. It is in other words, a choice between say a Mitch Daniels with an incrementalist strategy or a 2008 model Giuliani. Such a comparison shows why Daniels' strategy of a "truce" (to the extent that this truce extends to not commenting on issues like public subsidies for abortion) is so politically self-defeating. Giuliani actually offered pro-lifers a better policy deal.

So why not nominate a constitutionalist, moderate pro-choicer rather than an incrementalist pro-lifer? For starters, an incrementalist pro-lifer would be in the best position to unite the spectrum of abortion opinion from those who favor a the Human Life Amendment to those who are moderate pro-choicers. As a political matter, it also makes sense to nominate a presidential candidate who can articulate the pro-life view within an incrementalist framework. This might alienate some potential voters, but how many voters who are alienated simply by the avowing of pro-life principles are really realistic Republican "gets" in any case? This is compared to the pro-lifers who might be alienated at seeing zero major party presidential candidates who share their basic views on abortion. I think that you make a basic mistake about who needs to be reassured in the context of an incrementalist and (mostly) localist abortion strategy. It is not so much that moderate pro-choicers will need to be reassured that they won't wake up to find themselves living in The Handmaid's Tale, it is that pro-lifers will need to be reassured that incrementalism isn't a hustle that will lead to no changes in federal policies and more Souters on the Supreme Court.

As for who Republicans need to win over: In the very short term (as in 2012), Republicans need to squeeze every last vote out of their existing base, and make gains among persuadable whites, and probably make some marginal gains among Latinos and Asians. Moving left on abortion (or nominating a pro-choicer -even a moderate pro-choicer) will probably hurt turnout among conservatives while, in itself, doing little to help Republicans among from which the other groups they need to make gains. Since 2004, Republicans have lost ground because of a combination of Iraq, gas prices, Katrina, the financial crisis, and a 2008 candidate that seemed indifferent to economic issues, seemed uninterested in his own economic program, and practiced a kind of rural/exurban identity politics as a substitute for a domestic policy. Whatever the problems were, it wasn't because Republicans spent too much time talking about abortion, and moving left on abortion would have been of zero help (and would probably have hurt.) If Republicans want to make gains from outside the conservative base in ways that add more votes than they subtract, Republicans need to look really hard at their economic agenda and message as their primary problem.

As for Republicans making gains among nonwhites: There is a book to be written about that, or at least one of those really long Atlantic Monthly feature articles. Actually probably several articles since I don't think there is any single right answer and the problem is multifaceted. I nominate John J. Miller to start for fwiw. I'm pretty sure that neither despair nor Michael Steele are the answer

Clifford, ROE and the role of the federal judiciary in setting a national abortion policy made abortion a national issue unless pro-lifers were to practice a kind of political quietism. A reversal of ROE that mostly returned abortion policy to the states would be a welcome development for most pro-lifers. There would still be some federal questions regarding abortion through the federal government's social welfare functions, and maybe some others that I'm not thinking of. It is of course not guaranteed that the reversal of ROE would convince activist pro-choicers to abandon federal policy and focus primarily on the states, so whether, and to what degree abortion remains a national issue is not really within the unilateral control of pro-lifers.

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