"Iraq is the worst strategic blunder in our lifetime. And for it, George W. Bush, his War Cabinet, and the neoconservatives who plotted and planned this war for a decade bear full responsibility."
So wrote Patrick Buchanan, firebrand populist conservative and founder of the The American Conservative in a November 8 cover feature in that magazine. It was his endorsement of Bush for president.
And that wasn't all that the pugnacious Pat, who ran against papa Bush for the GOP nomination in 1992 and against this Bush as the Reform Party candidate in 2000, has against his commander-in-chief. He goes on to slam Bush for being "wrong on...Sharon, NAFTA, the WTO, open borders, affirmative action, amnesty, free trade, foreign oil, and Big Government." Still, the prodigal Pat, as his story's headline has it, is coming home to the Republicans—even though by the evidence of his happy meeting of the minds with Ralph Nader, he should be waving the flag for the Corvair Killer.
Buchanan's return to the GOP fold comes at an interesting time in the chatter about Bush, the election, and what it portends for the future of conservatism and the Republican Party. Former Republican Georgia Rep. Bob Barr (whose seat was targeted by Libertarians opposed to his fervid drug war positions) has come out in support of the LP's Badnarik this time around; New York Post editorial writer Robert George, a serious Contract with America-style GOP partisan, writes in The New Republic about how he's had enough. Gingrich's 1994 Contract, George notes, sought "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." He rightly notes Bush has been a disaster on all those fronts.
Other bigthinkers see trouble and tumult and big readjustment in Republicanism. Franklin Foer in the New York Times discerns telling hints of a revival of traditional Republican foreign policy isolationism in the conservative intellectual movement; David Brooks in the same paper sees the rise and dominance of a more "progressive" conservatism that isn't afraid of government action; and Marshall Whitman, a former Christian Coalition and McCain man, now with the Democratic Leadership Council, is mad at Bush because of the one thing the paleos and libertarians aren't: his tax cuts. (Whitman claims to represent a wing of "national greatness" conservatism that Bush is betraying. I'm dubious that there is much support for his particular brand of Teddy Roosevelt big-project, fight-the-monied-interests talk in the contemporary Republican Party, and he must agree, else why the DLC position now?) And of course anecdotal accounts abound of longtime Republican stalwarts walking away from the Bush trainwreck.
All sorts of people smooshed uncomfortably together under the modern Republican Big Tent have reason to dash for the fire exits. Paleos can't stand Bush's work permit approach to immigration (which has led to a mini-revolt from strongly anti-immigrant Republicans and fans of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who shares their stance but rejects the movement among them to write him in for president), and his free trading ways; small-government libertarian types are appalled at his out-of-control spending and massive new entitlement programs and his stances on "enemy combatants" and the Patriot Act. And many from both sides, as well as just some everyday Americans who can't really see the point anymore, want to carpet bomb Bush's Iraq policies.
Still, Gallup has recently found that 71 percent of Republicans still strongly approve of our man in the White House. And apparently 60 percent of all Americans consider themselves conservative. From any intellectual understanding of conservatism, Bush doesn't deserve the term. (He might not even deserve to say the term.) So what exactly is it that those 71 percent are approving of?
That's where Buchanan's comments become important, even if Buchanan himself and his small-circulation mag don't represent much of a constituency. (If the American Conservative has a constituency, it's a terribly conflicted one—Pat's own colleagues Taki and Scott McConnell came out for Michael Peroutka and Kerry respectively.)
Buchanan's reasons for endorsing Bush come down to a pre-intellectual vision of conservatism—a tribal one. "A presidential election is a Hatfield-McCoy thing, a tribal affair," he writes. "No matter the quarrels inside the family, when the shooting starts, you come home to your own." Like Buchanan, many Republican voters who think of themselves as conservative may well merely be standing by their own vision of the Party as their political home, their political family. I think the polling data give some credence to the notion that something like this—or complete ignorance of Bush's actual policies and accomplishments—is driving many Republican voters. This means that a huge realignment of the Party's intellectual stances isn't likely anytime soon. (Intellectuals and journalists, of course, have to have some big idea to play with to fill all those magazine pages and Internet URLs. So I expect the idea of a huge conservative crackup/realignment will continue to be hotly discussed.)
A recent article in the Washington Monthly by Benjamin Wallace-Wells smartly laid out all the many ways the GOP has gone wrong since 1994, and predicts doom for them. But one has to ask: wrong by what standards? Their policy mistakes have earned them control of all the federal government, and however many problems their big spending and wars may create in the long term, for now, well, they've all still got their cushy jobs. The two parties together have gerrymandered Congress to guarantee that no huge imbalances in party power in Congress are likely anytime soon; and in terms of the big programs and the war, well, both parties will probably end up walking the same path in those regards no matter what happens Nov. 2.
Tax cuts without spending cuts; huge new entitlements; imperial wars; nothing much conservative about any of that, just a hubristic "we can do anything" mentality grossly inappropriate when dealing with other people's lives and treasure. Still, it's likely Bush and the Republicans will continue to win the electoral support of that portion of conservative America that votes (it always helps to remember, when making generalizations about American attitudes based on elections, that only around half of eligible voters vote), and that 2004 will not represent a crisis point in the relation between conservatism and the Republican Party.
It doesn't matter so much how well the home team is playing, who the members are this season, or what strategies they pursue on the field—a true-blue American is for the home team. That's pretty much what Buchanan is saying, and while his policy views don't dominate the Republican Party, I suspect the attitude expressed in his endorsement of Bush does.