Authors: Stuart Stevens;
The inability of the tax issue to persuade voters in the 2000 campaign was played out again in the next three presidential races. In the Romney campaign, jobs and the slow economic recovery from the Great Recession dominated the race. But none of our polling showed that voters believed tax cuts were the key to reducing unemployment. Most voters who were for Romney or open to voting for Romney supported tax cuts, but there was no intensity to the issue. Had President Obama been promising a major tax increase on middle-class voters, it would have had power as an issue, but that’s like saying had one candidate declared he was pro-terrorism, there’s a high likelihood terrorism would spike as an issue. But still the Republican Party continues to push tax cuts the same way the Roman Catholic Church uses incense for High Mass, as a comforting symbolism for believers that reminds them of their identity.
The same political reality is tied to the deficit, and the two are linked in a deadly embrace of a dangerous status quo. Being against “out-of-control federal spending,” a phrase I must have used in a hundred ads, is a catechism of the Republican faith. But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. It just makes the members of the Republican Church feel closer to their political God. In reality, the Republican Party isn’t serious about deficit reduction, because politicians know their voters don’t feel affected by the mind-boggling numbers and subsequently don’t really care. Republicans are forced by their political DNA to be in favor of lower taxes, even though the fantasy of decreasing the deficit with tax cuts becomes ever more difficult to sustain. Any pretense that the Republican Party, if only given complete control of all three chambers of power, would focus on the deficit was just one of the myths shattered in the first two years of the Trump presidency. There is little energy to cut spending in the center of the center left in the Democratic Party, and the possibility that a Bill Clinton Democrat could emerge to restore some semblance of financial stability to the federal budget seems as fanciful as the notion a Republican would. The most likely scenario is that the deficit will continue to pile up until there is a financial crisis that forces the country to feel debt pain. Then the odds are that it will give renewed energy to a tax plan that greatly increases taxes on the wealthy.
This would be a fittingly ironic fate facing the so-called fiscal conservatives of the Republican Party. By pretending to care about an issue without the courage or will to act, they will have set in motion a scenario that is among their worst nightmares: an activated left with the moral authority to soak the rich with taxes. It will be the economic equivalent of Winston Churchill’s famous assessment of Neville Chamberlain: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
We’ve got to stop being the stupid party.
—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, 2013
Science was a Democrat thing.
—Landon “Tucker” Davis, an Interior Department official, according to notes by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General
As with most if not all large, successful political parties and movements, a body of intellectual work makes the case for a center-right party in America. The essential texts would include F. A. Hayek’s
Road to Serfdom,
Reflections on the Revolution in France,
and Richard Weaver’s
Ideas Have Consequences
. These are serious works by serious minds who have dedicated much of their intellectual life to examining the relationship between individuals and government, the true meaning of freedom, and what system of government affords individuals the greatest opportunity to maximize their potential.
The American conservative movement evolved after World War II in different and often contradictory directions. In
The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America,
George Nash has a chapter titled “What Is Conservatism in America? The Search for a Viable Heritage.” In it he quoted from William Schlamm, who is seen as the “father” of the
in that he encouraged William Buckley to found the magazine. The Austrian-born Schlamm, who had been such a fervent Communist that he had actually met Vladimir Lenin, made the case that there was no conservative historical tradition in America and for a reason:
(to the extent that there really is such a thing) is, of course, populist rather than conservative—and for a very forceful reason: America happens to be the only society in creation built by
human intent…and developed, by Europeans
of Europe’s ancient commitments, and determined,…each in his own way, on a “new beginning.”
Schlamm saw this as an opportunity to craft a new brand of American conservatism that must succeed not because of a historical tradition but because of “its moral and aesthetic superiority.” This is the role he thought a new conservative magazine like the
could play. Today in the Trump era, many conservatives who believe Trump has denigrated all political discourse and destroyed any meaning of conservatism—which, of course, he has—look back longingly at the
as being everything that Trump World is not: clever, erudite, committed to principle. But what is often forgotten is that the
began as basically a well-educated-racist publication. In an infamous editorial published in 1957, Buckley fiercely defended segregation:
The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists….
believes that the South’s premises are correct….It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
Buckley loved to be a provocateur—when he ran for mayor of New York and was asked what he would do if he won, his response was, “Demand a recount”—but his defense of segregation wasn’t a Swiftian piece of fancy meant to stir up a debate.
as the unofficial intellectual beating heart of the American conservative movement, was committed to the principle that a “white” culture was superior to all others. William Schlamm went on to edit the John Birch Society magazine,
. In 1965 at the Cambridge Union, Buckley debated James Baldwin on the topic “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro.”
It was an extraordinary exchange and one of the few moments when Buckley faced an opponent more eloquent in word and elegant and appearance. James Baldwin slaughtered William Buckley; at the conclusion of the debate, 544 supported the Baldwin argument and 164 the Buckley side. The losing Buckley argument was one that would continue to be a touchstone of the Republican credo on race until today: that in America, race doesn’t matter; anyone can succeed. It is the essence of the “color blind” assertion that is perversely racist but reassuring to white people. It has the benefits of sounding antiracist—we are all people, or, as it were, “all lives matter”—but is in practice deeply racist because it ignores the reality of the impact of race in every element of American society. James Baldwin took his audience through a journey of what it meant to be black in America:
It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you….I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing….The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors….Why is my freedom, my citizenship, in question now?
Buckley’s response was to deny the existence of race as a societal force:
It is quite impossible in my judgment to deal with the indictments of Mr. Baldwin unless one is prepared to deal with him as a white man, unless one is prepared to say to him that the fact that your skin is black is utterly irrelevant to the arguments you raise.
He then pivoted to the argument that is also used today by Republicans, that being black in America is actually an advantage because government and society treat blacks with a differential preference:
Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you without any reference whatever to those surrounding protections which you are used to in virtue of the fact that you are a Negro….My great-grandparents were presumably your worth also.
Many current anti-Trump Republicans wax nostalgic about the days of the intellectual firepower of the
but the truth is that Trump’s racism is a direct descendant of William Buckley’s early racism. By 2004, Buckley would say, “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong. Federal intervention was necessary.”
Instead of obsessing over language to communicate with African American voters and those of lower income, Republicans should face the reality that many in these demographics view government as a positive and necessary tool in bettering their lives. The avowed hatred of government that is such a Republican bedrock principle is offensive and alienating to much of the country. A constant crowd-pleasing refrain of Ronald Reagan’s sums it up: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ”
For most white Americans of the middle class, that strikes them as both funny and poignant. (It is also a practice of the white middle class to be completely blind to the vast help they get from the government in all aspects of their lives.) But how does a black person hear these same words, knowing that it took thirty thousand federal troops to force the University of Mississippi to accept one African American?
When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he made a conscious effort to make the case for a conservative role of government that could also be compassionate, hence the phrase “compassionate conservatism.” I moved to Austin, Texas, in the spring of 1999 and later wrote a book about the campaign,
The Big Enchilada
The entire conceit of compassionate conservatism was an acknowledgment that conservatism had failed to provide an alternative to the conservative critique that liberals believed any problem could be solved through more money and more government. As Steve Goldsmith, then mayor of Indianapolis and the chief domestic policy adviser for Bush, put it, “The Republicans’ message was that government had been harmful. Therefore, eliminate government, and people in tough circumstances will suddenly be better off. Both the public and many Republican mayors said that’s naive. Merely the absence of bad action is not going to be sufficient.”
When I first joined the Bush campaign, Karl Rove handed me a copy of
The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass
by Myron Magnet. “Read it,” Karl said. “This is what the governor wants to talk about.” I’d never heard of Magnet and promptly devoured the book. It was an elegant description of a conservative alternative to deeply rooted problems of contemporary American society, from government’s role in enabling generations of welfare dependency to the success of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s approach to law enforcement that had greatly reduced crime in New York City. It fell to the speechwriter Michael Gerson to put many of the themes addressed by Magnet into words that would be emotionally powerful and politically persuasive. Phrases like “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to describe a failed education system that processed children more than educated them, or “reading is the first civil right,” or celebrating those involved in private efforts to help those in need as “the armies of compassion.”
A year or so into the Trump presidency, it occurred to me that so many of the most strident voices against Trump were those I’d worked with in the Bush campaigns: Michael Gerson, now a
columnist; Nicolle Wallace, who has her own show on MSNBC; Steve Schmidt, who ran rapid response for the 2004 Bush campaign; Matthew Dowd, who coordinated polling in the 2000 campaign and was a 2004 strategist turned ABC regular; and Mark McKinnon, who, along with Karl Rove, brought me into the Bush world and now has a show,
on Showtime. Years ago we often worked together in the same room, and individually we have reacted to Donald Trump with like disgust and dismay. Excepting a few times on Nicolle’s show, I’ve actually never spoken with any of my former campaign workers about Trump, but it’s easy to understand why we are all saying the same thing in different ways. The embrace of Trump by the Republican Party is a repudiation of everything we claimed to believe. We felt that we were part of a movement to prove that a “different kind of Republican,” as we sometimes described Bush (intentionally ripping off Clinton’s “different kind of Democrat” 1992 slogan), could redefine conservatism. There was a basic humanity and decency about George W. Bush that we believed could draw those who had been alienated by the harshness of conservatism into giving Bush a second look.
Today it’s impossible to imagine a candidate running on George W. Bush’s definition of conservatism having any chance of success in a Republican primary. Jeb Bush lost for many reasons, but the basic one is that he was running to win a race in a party that no longer existed. He was like a guy who showed up with a tennis racket at a bowling alley. But in retrospect, I have to wonder if the party that many of us thought was defined by George W. Bush ever really existed, at least in the incarnation we believed. A year or so into the Trump presidency, I reread
The Dream and the Nightmare,
assuming it would remind me of what it was we aspired to and refresh a sense of hope of what could emerge after Trump. Instead, it filled me with dread, starting with the preface that Magnet wrote for a new edition issued in 2000:
The Dream and the Nightmare
was the first book to argue that culture, not racism or lack of jobs or the welfare system, was the cause of the underclass. I didn’t mean that the culprit was some “culture of poverty” or “ghetto culture.” The problem, I contended, lay in the majority culture. Led by its elite institutions—the universities, the judiciary, the press, the great charitable foundations, even the mainstream churches—American culture underwent a revolution in the 1960s, which transformed some of its most basic beliefs and values, including its beliefs about the causes of poverty. When these new attitudes reached the poor, and particularly the urban, minority poor, the result was catastrophic: Many of the new culture’s beliefs downplayed the personal responsibility, self-control, and deferral of gratification that it takes to succeed. At the same time, the new culture celebrated an “if it feels good, do it” self-indulgence that for the poor, whose lives have less margin for error than the prosperous, too often proved disastrous. The social policy that these ideas engendered compounded the disaster.
In Magnet’s view, the 1960s were a time when America lost its way and became disconnected from the moorings of culture and faith that had…made America great. What I realized I was reading was an articulate, erudite evocation of the world as seen by Donald Trump. The period of some of the most dramatic and uplifting social change in America, a time when millions of Americans were granted the right to vote after pitched battles were fought in the streets, that was not the civil rights era we should celebrate but the time in which America lost its way. White families own more than 90 percent of the wealth in America not because of institutionalized racism and the legacy of slavery but rather because of their “culture.” In Magnet’s world,
economic opportunity is meaningful only if individuals are culturally equipped to seize it. Cultural values such as neatness, punctuality, thoroughness, and dependability are the causes, not the results, of economic mobility. The same is even more true of such cultural traits as ambition, entrepreneurialism, respect for education, or pushing one’s children to succeed.