Tim Montgomerie writes:
My week in the USA has come to an end and I have just arrived in Ottawa to spend a few days with Canadian Conservatives. It's then off to Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney to spend some time with Australian conservatives. I then hope to write a few bird's eye essays on conservatism in the English-speaking world. Here, in the meantime, are some headline observations about the conservatism in America...
The Bush legacy. George W Bush's disapproval rating is now at 65%. Only Nixon - a few days before he resigned - had a worse rating (66%). The unpopularity of Bush cost the GOP control of the Senate and House last November. His deep unpopularity is the main reason why the Democrats are expected to win the White House next year. My own belief is that the Bush Presidency can still claim some big achievements...
- The tax cuts that have powered the American economy and proven 'Laffernomics' again.
- The appointments of Justice Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court and other conservative judges throughout the judicial system. Appointing John Roberts as Chief Justice may be Bush's greatest legacy. Scalia and other conservative judges are good at winning arguments but not at building majorities. Roberts is almost worth two judges because of his gifts of persuasion.
- The cultural impact of the faith-based initiative. Although the initiative can claim little to zero legislative success it has encouraged American churches and other social entrepreneurs to take their personal responsibilities to the poor more seriously.
- The liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the enormous failures associated with both 'liberations' the world is still better off with the Taliban running Afghanistan and Saddam ruling Iraq. The US military is better equipped than it has ever been. A big increase in the recruitment of ground troops is underway.
...this is not to deny that there has been incompetence and failure but the Presidency is far from the disaster that its critics claim.
The conservative movement. The Economist's Adrian Wooldridge worries that the movement has three main problems:
- Social conservatives are disproportionately strong. There is a danger that culturally conservative issues that benefited the Republicans in the past - eg gay marriage - are going to be surpassed by new 'moral issues' that favour the Democrats. GOP strategists, for example, fear that Christian conservatives' highly-principled opposition to embryonic stem cell research will be a vote loser when Democrats are promising to clear the obstacles to research that - it is controversially claimed - will cure terrible diseases like Alzheimers. The Democrats are using more religious language and emphasising 'creation care' and justice issues to attract moderate Christians away from the Republican Party.
- There is an intellectual sluggishness. Wooldridge is concerned that the right isn't currently matching the intellectual energy of the left. He asks: "Where are the new ideas on the right? Where are the agenda changing books like Losing Ground? Where are the young James Q Wilsons and Charles Murrays? The first-rate books that have appeared—such as Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power—tend to be as much diagnoses of a problem as prescriptions of a solution."
- The Ann Coulterisation of the right. Tune in to Talk Radio or glance at some of the books that sell well within the American right and there is a worrying level of hysteria that repels mainstream voters. This is not to say that the Left doesn't have equivalent problems. Powered by the netroots there is also a Cindy Sheehanisation of the American left. Ms Sheehan recently announced plans to challenge liberal Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi should the Speaker fail to to introduce articles of impeachment against George W Bush.
There are reasons to be more optimistic, however, about the conservative movement. Movement organisations like the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute - unlike the Republican Party - are winning record fundraising.
American conservatives - currently depressed by the immigration row, in particular - would do well to remember that most conservative movements around the world (and there aren't many of them) would love to have their movement's achievements. The dynamism of the US economy, welfare reform and zero tolerance policing are worthy of special highlight.
Conservatives and government. One of the big aims of the Bush presidency was the attempt to end the anti-government rhetoric of the Republicans. In 2000 he abandoned the long-standing Republican pledge, for example, to abolish the Department of Education. During his Presidency George W Bush has allowed spending to rise considerably. This has produced consternation among many diehard conservatives but it is far from clear that there is a big voter appetite for a smaller government. Bush would almost certainly have lost the 2000 election if he had not produced his own prescription drug benefit to offset the Democrats' earlier and very popular commitment to do the same. Whilst there was majority opposition to the big government of the sixties and its welfare dependents there is not necessarily opposition to a government that promotes middle America's interests. Voters still dislike centralism, waste and fiscal ill-discipline but there are serious dangers to any Republican attempts to make big cuts in government programmes.
The 2008 field. Conservatives are not as enthusiastic about their candidates as Democrats are about theirs. 65% of Republican supporters are happy with their choice of candidates (13% very satisfied) but 83% of Democrats are satisfied (33% very). But the security issue may yet come to the Republicans' rescue. In yesterday's Wall Street Journal a progressive commentator, Mark Ribbing, noted that Americans inevitably choose Republicans "in times of perceived peril". Rudy Giuliani, in particular, has the capacity to polarise the 2008 choice as between a Republican - him - who will keep America safe and a Democrat who won't. His record of competence and fiscal conservatism will also help him to be seen as an alternative to the weaknesses of George W Bush. A socially conservative running mate and a promise to appoint judges in the mould of Robert and Alito may help him to overcome the suspicions of socially conservative Republicans but others worried about his personal life and harsh treatment of juniors will not easily support him. Former White House chief speechwriter Mike Gerson has suggested that Giuliani's views are completely opposed to the Catholic social teaching championed by Bush: "Giuliani is not only pro-choice. He has supported embryonic stem cell research and public funding for abortion. He supports the death penalty. He supports "waterboarding" of terror suspects and seems convinced that the conduct of the war on terrorism has been too constrained. Individually, these issues are debatable. Taken together, they are the exact opposite of Catholic teaching, which calls for a "consistent ethic of life" rather than its consistent devaluation. No one inspired by the social priorities of Pope John Paul II can be encouraged by the political views of Rudy Giuliani."
Mike Gerson and another former Bush speechwriter - David Frum - will each publish major books on the future of conservatism towards the end of this year. Frum's book is expected to emphasise security issues. Gerson's book will focus on the conservative attitude to the scope of government and international justice. The two books are eagerly awaited by an uncertain and demoralised conservative movement.