Can Conservatives Unite and Recover?

Conservatives are understandably responding to their rejection in the past two elections by questioning what to do next. Peter Berkowitz argues that the path out of the political wilderness is for conservatives to unite around the concept of supporting the Constitution. In  principle this would be an admirable start, but it would necessitate a complete rejection of what the Republicans have done in recent years. It is the Republicans’ poor record on civil liberties, attempts to dismantle the restrictions on Executive Power established by the Founding Fathers, and a total disregard for a part of our heritage as crucial as separation of church and state, which have led to the rejection of the Republican Party.

Even many conservatives realize that the Republicans will have a hard time passing themselves off as a party which respects the Constitution. This rebuttal comes from The American Spectator:

I agree that conservatives should be united around the Constitution and I look forward to the longer version of Berkowitz’s article that will appear in Policy Review, but I’m afraid this op-ed piece does more to show that conservatives are not in fact united in support of a constitutionalist platform. Aside from the president’s judicial appointments, the Bush years will not exactly go down in history as the high water mark of constitutionalism in American politics.

The real problem for the Republicans can be seen as Berkowitz outlines the conflicting views of the social conservatives and the more libertarian-minded Republicans:

Some social conservatives point to the ballot initiatives this year in Arizona, California and Florida that rejected same-sex marriage as evidence that the country is and remains socially conservative, and that any deviation from the social conservative agenda is politically suicidal. They overlook that whereas in California’s 2000 ballot initiative 61% of voters rejected same-sex marriage, in 2008 only 52% of voters in the nation’s most populous state opposed the proposition. Indeed, most trend lines suggest that the public is steadily growing more accepting of same-sex marriage, with national polls indicating that opposition to it, also among conservatives, is weakest among young voters.

Meanwhile, more than a few libertarian-leaning conservatives are disgusted by Republican profligacy. They remain uncomfortable with or downright opposed to the Bush administration’s support in 2004 for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and its continuation of the Clinton administration’s moratorium on government funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

In addition, many are still angry about the Republican-led intervention by the federal government in the 2005 controversy over whether Terri Schiavo’s husband could lawfully remove the feeding tubes that were keeping his comatose wife alive. These libertarian conservatives entertain dreams of a coalition that jettisons social conservatives and joins forces with moderates and independents of libertarian persuasion.

But the purists in both camps ignore simple electoral math. Slice and dice citizens’ opinions and voting patterns in the 50 states as you like, neither social conservatives nor libertarian conservatives can get to 50% plus one without the aid of the other.

Berkowitz believes that the social conservatives and libertarians, along with the hawks, can form “a coalition of principle” rather than one of convenience. I disagree, seeing the Republicans as having a coalition of convenience with viewpoints which could not coexist indefinitely.

The views of both the social conservatives and the national security hawks in the Republican Party conflicted with the views of true libertarians (as opposed to the views of many conservatives who call themselves libertarians without supporting libertarian views). The true libertarians have been drifting away from the Republicans and increasingly voting Democratic.

This breakdown of the Republican coalition was foreshadowed by Barry Goldwater, who objected to the influence of the religious right in the GOP and considered himself a liberal in his later years. Social conservatism is virtually the opposite of libertarianism (despite those who concentrate on “economic liberty” while ignoring the big picture).

The real difference between social conservatives and those of us who object to their views is often not one of life style or actual actions. Many of us social liberals actually live quite conservative life styles (and many social conservatives do not live the life style they advocate). The real difference is whether one supports the power of government to impose their life style on others. The belief in the use of the power of the state to impose one’s life style choices on others makes social conservatism totally incompatible with  libertarianism. Of course with our imprecise political language we get contradictions like conservatives such as Ron Paul being called libertarian.

Besides the religious right, the other primary threat to both liberty and Constitutional law in recent years has come from those who support the “war on terror,” mistakenly believing that these policies enhance rather than undermine our national security. These have been the people who would most quickly ignore the Constitution in the name of national security. This, along with social conservatism, are the primary reasons most young and more educated voters have rejected the Republicans in the last two election cycles.

The dilemma that the Republicans face is that in order to be taken seriously again they must jettison the ideas of the religious right and the neoconservatives. Berkowitz is correct that at present there is no clear electoral majority for the minority of Republicans who would remain. However to remain with this mindset is to likely doom the Republicans, and the conservative movement, to increasingly become a southern regional phenomenon which is ridiculed by the rest of the country.

Attempts to preserve the current Republican coalition might bring about brief moments of electoral success but it is a losing proposition in the long term. Repudiating the religious right and the neoconservatives will guarantee that the Republican Party remains in the wilderness for the next several years, but there will be hope of coming out of it as a meaningful party. There is hope for a serious conservative movement to thrive, but not one dominated by the views of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin.

Making any predictions about the long term is risky in politics, including predictions that the more reasonable portions of the Republican Party cannot succeed in the future without the extremists. Imagine any predictions about the future when George Bush took office in 2001. Factors which led to both temporary electoral success for the GOP and later doom such as 9/11 and Katrina could not even have been taken into consideration.

The Democrats are dominant now, but this is largely due to unity because of widespread opposition to past Republican actions. The wide variety of people now supporting the Democratic Party will find it was easier to agree in opposing the Republicans than to agree on policy matters while in power. New issues will emerge and there will be prospects for a reasonable opposition party to grow and perhaps take power in the future. To do so will mean more than uniting around empty rhetoric of supporting the Constitution. It will also require understanding of why the Republicans were repudiated as opposed to repeating the same mistakes, or arguing they lost because the were not conservative enough.

Obama’s Leftist Advisers

Some Conservatives Fear Obama Advisers Lean Too Far Left is a headline which should surprise nobody. For the most part Obama has received praise from both the left and right for the relatively centrist nature of his initial appointments. Considering that those on the right were expecting a far more leftist government from Obama than we are likely to see, I’ve seen far more complaints from liberals. Still, saying that “some conservatives” believe his advisers lean too far left comes as no surprise. After all, we had a campaign where, despite receiving much of his economic advice from the University of Chicago, we had a campaign were the Republicans distorted Obama’s statements to claim he desires redistribution of the wealth in a Marxist sense. We also saw a trivial association with William Ayers distorted to claim Obama palls around with terrorists.

Saying that some conservatives will think that Obama advisers lean too far to the left sounds like a “dog bites man” story. The most surprising aspect of this story is that they couldn’t make a better case to support the premise. The criticism cited is primarily from one person, Roger Clegg. Certainly there must be some better known conservatives who could also be quoted if one wanted to make this argument. The criticism is also primarily about advisers on the transition team as opposed to those actually given appointments in the new government. I would think that those who will actually hold government positions are more important than transition advisers. I also question whether you can complain that the transition advisers are too far to the left if the actual appointees are seen as more centrist.

A Vicious Cycle Plays Out in Gaza

Blogging, as opposed to more in depth writing, tends to lend itself toward issues in which the author is clearly on on side of an issue. While some recognition might be paid towards the nuances of an issue, for the most part bloggers are for or against a candidate, and are for or against the Iraq war. The situation in Gaza is far more difficult as neither side is totally in the right. Megan McArdle sums up the problem with writing about the conflict between Israel and Hamas:

Since no action in the region has occurred without plausible provocation for 4,000 years or so, this requires constantly shifting the metrics by which you measure whichever side you happen to favor. Point out that Israel is killing a lot of civilians and you are told that they had to do something in response to the Hamas rockets. Point out that practically, the response they chose has absolutely no strategic or tactical benefit, and a huge potential downside, and you are castigated for your lack of moral outrage about Hamas’s attacks on civilians. Either Israel is doing this because it hopes to gain something, in which case the whole thing is hopelessly ass-backwards–they are strengthening Hamas and worsening their international political position–or it thinks that it’s okay to kill boatloads of civilians purely for revenge against Hamas; revenge for attacks that have so far killed and injured almost no one. This rather undercuts the argument of moral superiority, because guess what? That’s what Hamas thinks it’s doing.

On the other side, there’s a tendency to forget, or forget to mention, that whatever the provocation, a plurality-to-majority of Palestinians constantly and actively wish to kill large numbers of Israelis purely for revenge. Gaza wants to be at war with Israel, and then hide behind the protections of not-quite-war, because they haven’t the foggiest hope of winning anything like a real war.

As with many such conflicts, this is a situation where plenty of fault can be found on both sides. While Megan does attempt to avoid taking sides, and I share her skepticism that Israel’s current actions will be of any long term benefit, ultimately the most important point here is that “Gaza wants to be at war with Israel.” There is no doubt that Israel has reacted to this situation in ways which are objectionable, with regards to the occupation, the subsequent blockade, and its conduct during war, but the underlying reality of the situation is that whether these conflicts continue is far more up to the Palestinians. There is no hope for peace as long as one side to the conflict has a visceral objection to making peace. Overreaction to such a situation, while perhaps not always morally justified, is the inevitable response.

While some speak of a proportional response, such expectations are not realistic. Shooting rockets into civilian areas will inevitably lead to a disproportionate response from virtually anyone, even if civilian casualties have so far been low. I don’t totally buy Alan Dershowitz’s argument that Israel’s actions are “proportionate” but his example still remains relevant to understanding the situation:

When Barack Obama visited Sderot this summer and saw the remnants of these rockets, he reacted by saying that if his two daughters were exposed to rocket attacks in their home, he would do everything in his power to stop such attacks. He understands how the terrorists exploit the morality of democracies.

In a recent incident related to me by the former head of the Israeli air force, Israeli intelligence learned that a family’s house in Gaza was being used to manufacture rockets. The Israeli military gave the residents 30 minutes to leave. Instead, the owner called Hamas, which sent mothers carrying babies to the house.

Hamas knew that Israel would never fire at a home with civilians in it. They also knew that if Israeli authorities did not learn there were civilians in the house and fired on it, Hamas would win a public relations victory by displaying the dead. Israel held its fire. The Hamas rockets that were protected by the human shields were then used against Israeli civilians.

These despicable tactics — targeting Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians — can only work against moral democracies that care deeply about minimizing civilian casualties. They never work against amoral nations such as Russia, whose military has few inhibitions against killing civilians among whom enemy combatants are hiding.

Regardless of whether it is justifiable, Israel’s actions are going far beyond the actions of Hamas (primarily because Israel has far greater ability to wage war than Hamas does), and violate what we would like to think are accepted laws of war. AP reports on the destruction being caused by Israel in Gaza. Still it is notable that they report:

Before the airstrikes, Israel’s military called some of the houses to warn of an impending attack. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn civilians before flattening the homes with missiles, Palestinians and Israeli officials said.

Giving warning by itself does not justify targeting of civilians, but this does note a significant difference between the two sides. The Israeli airstrikes might be a disproportionate response to the rocket attacks fired by Hamas, but Hamas did not give any warning first. Israel does deserve criticism when civilians are harmed by its airstrikes, but at least their goal is to minimize such casualties. On the other hand when Hamas rockets hit schools in Beer Sheva it was most likely due to a fortunate chance and not the wishes of Hamas that no children were killed. Israel would also not use school children as human shields, but Hamas is not above this.

Kevin Peraino, writing for Newsweek, considers whether these actions will help or hurt Israel and finds both short term benefits in restoring its aura of invincibility but long term problems in terms of achieving peace in the region. The article concludes:

Retaliatory strikes aside, an intense Israeli assault on Gaza could indeed restore some element of its deterrent power vis-à-vis the Islamists. The Jewish state “has already improved its reputation and powers of deterrence by yesterday’s performance,” says Jerusalem-based historian Michael Oren. Yet even as Israel strengthens its position with regard to Hamas, it risks simultaneously weakening its ability to confront larger, more-dangerous players—particularly Iran. Regional Arab allies like Egypt and Jordan will be critical if the United States and Israel are to effectively increase pressure on the Islamic republic. The bloody images of dismembered corpses that are now airing around the clock on Al-Jazeera will strain those ties. Israel’s latest campaign may restore some measure of its long-lost aura of invincibility. Yet in the long run, it will come at a price.

Part of this price is that yet more Palestinians will find justification for rocket attacks or other terrorist activities in the future, leading to yet more acts of retaliation such as the current strikes in Gaza, even if counter-productive. There is no clear end for this vicious cycle.