Conservatives With Pink Cheeks

Joe Scarborough stands athwart history, yelling "slow down."


The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America's Promise, by Joe Scarborough, New York: Crown Forum Publishers, 271 pages, $26

Given how the last eight or so years have worked out for them in far-flung battlefields and domestic ballot boxes, you'd think that conservatives in general and Republicans in particular would be pretty gun-shy about war rhetoric. But here's Joe Scarborough, a former GOP Florida congressman, letting it rip in The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America's Promise: "Congressional leaders  will…need to take a more prudent path on the environment by declaring war on foreign oil."

And in case you're wondering, just saying no to such a glorious future is not an option. "Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a Libertarian or a Marxist, understand that it is historically inevitable that the 'Age of Conservatism' is coming soon," writes Scarborough, the Hegelian author of Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day (2004). "The winds of history provide us no other choice." 

If this book is indeed the last best hope of conservatism and America's promise, well, it was nice knowing you. Scarborough offers not a choice but an echo of the Bush-Obama status quo regarding everything from bailouts to stimulus spending to rendition policy. He unwittingly tells us that conservatives can at best stand athwart history yelling "slow down" but can't fundamentally change its direction.

Scarborough is the host of Morning Joe on MSNBC, the most consistently engaging morning talk show on cable television. His co-host, Mika Brzezinski, and a stable of regulars that includes the plagiarist Mike Barnicle and the John Demjanjuk enthusiast Pat Buchanan are a genuinely spirited crew who discuss and debate the news of the day with a rare mixture of conviction, knowledge, and humor. Compared with, say, Fox & Friends, Scarborough's show is the Algonquin Round Table on steroids, or at least Vivarin.

Yet The Last Best Hope is less a serious manifesto than a breezy bull session. Scarborough argues that rightwingers seeking to recapture Ronald Reagan's box office mojo need to embrace environmentalism (they should be "going green for God"); acknowledge the permanence of troubled entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare ("everyone is going to have to give until it hurts"); and pursue a humble foreign policy (except when they don't: "Most Republicans, including myself, were steadfast in their support for the war" in Iraq). 

On contentious social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Scarborough writes, the heirs to Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley Jr. should push for decisions to be made at the state level—not necessarily because localized decision making provides better answers but because "that is the only way to protect the advances conservatives have made over the past generations." Most of all, Scarborough counsels, conservatives need to channel their inner Gipper by "following the advice of Jesus and the example of Reagan, by trying more often to turn the other cheek" during fractious policy debates.

This may be sound strategy, but such sentiments certainly don't provide an alternative to the surplus of centralized solutions emanating from Washington, at least sinceGeorge W. Bush and a Republican
Congress championed the Medicare prescription drug benefit, passed No Child Left Behind, and created the enormous Department of Homeland Security.

Scarborough dedicates his book "to conservatives of all parties," in homage to the Nobel Prize–winning economist F.A. Hayek, whose 1944 book The Road to Serfdom was dedicated "to the socialists of all parties." If he were interested in pointing out a truly different direction, Scarborough would have done well to read another Hayek text. In his essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative," Hayek noted that conservatism is a reactionary impulse that "by its very nature cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving." At most, Hayek said, it might succeed in "slowing down undesirable developments."

Hayek pushed a decentralist, libertarian line instead, because he believed that none of us has a monopoly on truth or knowledge and that "to live and work successfully with others requires…an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which… others are allowed to pursue different ends." In such thoughts is the beginning of a very different political program, one that might go much farther in restoring "America's promise" than supporting, as Scarborough did when he served in Congress, "increased funding for school lunch programs by 4 percent instead of 6 percent."

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. A version of this review ran in The New York Times.