Evil Forces in the World

Reflections on ''Evil Forces in the World,'' as well as occasional remarks concerning ''Good Forces in the World.''

Monday, August 30, 2004

Ferguson is right

Jonathan Last writes the following, in a riff on Niall Ferguson’s “Republicans for Kerry” piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Niall Ferguson has a typically engaging and thoughtful piece over at OpinionJounral. He posits that a Bush defeat might actually be good for conservatism.You should read it, because it's Ferguson, and he's always a fine read. But his larger point is, while very clever, completely wrong.

The smartest thing Fred Barnes ever said to me is that if there's one Iron Law of Politics, it's this: Winning always beats losing. When you win, problems recede, divisions smooth over, and you control, at least a little bit, your own direction.When you lose, problems are magnified, divisions become more pronounced, and--worst of all--you become even more susceptible to events outside your control.

This is, in the best conservative tradition, a paean to stability over uncertainty. Go with the devil you know, or rather go with the devil who is at least rhetorically committed to your own designs, and not the devil who emphatically is not. The logic is impeccable, and there’s every reason to believe that it’s right on the money. Being wooly-headed, I disagree even so.

I’m reminded of the McCainiacs, a species thick on the ground at the Standard in 2000. Right before the McCain insurgency collapsed, a moment rued by my right-leaning and left-leaning friends alike, William Kristol and David Brooks penned a wide-ranging essay on “the politics of creative destruction.” I will now excerpt large portions of it shamelessly:

There aren't many concepts as beloved by conservatives as the great economist Joseph Schumpeter's notion of creative destruction. Capitalism is superior to socialism because it is dynamic: Old forms and structures have to change or give way -- or be destroyed -- so new ones can prosper. Government shouldn't get in the way and try to prop up faltering businesses and industries. But Schumpeter's concept doesn't apply only to economics. It applies to politics as well.

These days it applies to the Republican party. To stay with business terminology, the Republican party has been losing market share. In 1984, Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by 18 points. In 1988, George Bush beat Dukakis by 8 points. Four years later Bush lost to Bill Clinton by 5 points and four years after that, Bob Dole lost to Clinton by 8 points. On the congressional level, the Republican party had a great anti-Clinton triumph in 1994, but failed to translate it into a governing conservatism. The Gingrich revolution petered out, and the GOP lost seats in each of the last two congressional elections.

The midterm elections notwithstanding—appropriate in light of the highly unusual circumstances: a national emergency, an opposition so pathetic and hapless as to have shocked large swathes of the previously undermotivated bourgeois left into disciplined, concerted political action, a talented slate of candidates drawn from a shrinking pool—there’s no reason to believe the drift into permanent minority status has ended. Rove’s efforts to woo growing demographics are a faint memory. Consider the WSJ’s front-page analysis in today’s paper:

The nation's face is being reshaped in ways that aren't helpful to the Bush effort. The Hispanic population is exploding in size, and Hispanic voters are heavily Democratic. Other nonwhite ethnic groups are also growing. If all demographic groups split their votes this fall as they did in 2000, the Bush team estimates that Mr. Bush would finish with three million fewer votes than Democratic candidate John Kerry. In 2000, Mr. Bush lost to Al Gore by 500,000 votes in the popular vote. The growth in Hispanics largely accounts for the bigger gap.

It gets worse:

Other trends also put bumps in Mr. Bush's road. Younger voters who grew up in the era of Bill Clinton rather than Ronald Reagan seem harder for Republicans to reach. Also, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg notes that birth and demographic trends make them the most diverse generation yet: Just 65% of them are white, compared to 90% of seniors 65 and older. Early on, these youngest voters were the most supportive of the war in Iraq of any age group. Now they are the least.

Among women in 2000, Mr. Bush was 12 points behind Mr. Gore, but as president he seemed to narrow the gender gap after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Republicans spoke hopefully of "security moms." Yet polls show the gap has widened again. Meanwhile, Democrats are mounting an unprecedented effort to register unmarried women -- an estimated 20% of the electorate that tends to be less educated, less affluent and Democrat-leaning.

Many Arab-Americans and Muslims, who once seemed an emerging Republican constituency, are upset over Iraq. Among senior citizens, Mr. Bush had hoped that with the new Medicare prescription drug law, he'd more than make up the four percentage points by which he trailed Mr. Gore among voters 60 and older. Instead, polls show roughly half of seniors oppose the law, and a majority oppose him.

And so the Bush campaign is relying on what you might call a 50.1 percent strategy of turning out the vote among evangelicals. That might work this time around, but my strong suspicion is that it will never work ever again. When you’re shooting for 50.1 percent of a demographic snapshot, you might end up with 49 percent or 51 percent and carry the day. But the snapshot will be unrecognizable in four years’ time, and you’ll be royally screwed.

I mean, you’ll be royally screwed in the absence of “dynamic scoring,” but as we know, all kinds of probabilistic gobbledygook is happening every minute, a butterfly flapping its wings, etc. The nature of this campaign will reverberate. Ask Pete Wilson.

Take the various constituencies identified by Jackie Calmes and John Harwood in the WSJ: Will younger voters welcome a harder-edged social conservatism that gets exurban evangelicals to the polls? Will unmarried women, another growing constituency? If the loss of Arab-Americans and Muslims is an inevitable result of pursuing a robust foreign policy, it’s a price worth paying—I’d rather the Republicans lose than abandon a policy of forward engagement. The problem is that there will be no compensatory gain among, for example, Jewish voters, a constituency eyed by the Bush campaign: despite expectation that backing the Sharon government would yield considerable gains among Jewish voters and donors, the vast majority have remained solidly behind Kerry. Indeed, Sen. Lieberman, who expected to yield considerable support from the Jewish community fell far behind Dean in his fundraising efforts, maintaining an edge only among the religiously orthodox and the very conservative, many if not most of whom were partisan Republicans. Keep in mind that Jewish voters tend to be wary of the religious appeals that energize evangelical voters. Might there be compensatory gains among, say, Asian Indians? Hardly. First, there aren’t very many, and so they’re outgunned on political and financial clout. Second, they are, like most Asian American ethnic groups (even younger Vietnamese Americans, the most reliably Republican of them), trending left. As for seniors, well, that’s a wash.

So what does "dynamic scoring" tell us? That 49 + 1.01 sometimes equals 43. A second Clinton administration, anyone?

Back to “Creative Destruction”:

Reagan won, and created a new governing majority, bringing the now famous Reagan Democrats and independents into the fold. That majority has served the country well. But times and issues change. Busing is gone. Crime is down. Soviet communism is dead. It's hard to argue that the country is being strangled by taxes and regulation when the economy is chugging along at nearly 7 percent growth. And though it took them three presidential defeats to do so, the Democrats finally reengineered themselves, and they started winning. In the last two presidential elections, the Republican candidates were left with about 40 percent of the vote -- the Republican base and little more.

Along comes John McCain. Either by accident or by design, he has become an agent of creative destruction. He has the temperament -- to say the least -- to challenge the old order. He has attracted support from a diverse group of people -- independents, Democrats, and reenergized Republicans -- who are largely unmoved by old Republican themes. It's fair to say that the McCain campaign has done a poor job of persuading members of the old structure that it is in their best interest to change, and it's also true that the destructive effects of the McCain campaign have been more evident than the creativity. But it is always that way at first. The iconoclastic phase of creative destruction comes first; only then does something new have space to bloom and prosper.

This is where, to the strains of mandolins, we wistfully consider what might have been. Right. Anyway, Brooks and Kristol proceed to sketch a viable “McCain majority,” paralleling the Reagan majority:

Electorally, the McCain majority coalition would take in the independent voters who have grown more numerous in the information age. During the 1990s, two outsiders briefly (and remarkably) led in presidential preference polls: Ross Perot in mid-1992 and Colin Powell in late 1995. As a reformer, McCain aims to be the thinking man's Perot. As a patriot, he aims to be a politically engaged Powell. The patriotic reform impulse, which flared up in 1992 and 1995, has reemerged in the McCain campaign. Even if that campaign now falls short, this sentiment could be at the heart of a new conservative governing majority.

This new majority -- whether led by McCain or someone else -- would include mainstream conservatives in the North and South, bicoastal independents, and the midwestern bourgeoisie. Whereas the Goldwater Republicans jettisoned the northeastern Republicans, McCain would jettison the most self-caricaturing leaders of the right. If forced to explain this in realpolitik terms, he'd probably say, you can't win the large group of swing independents needed for electoral victory unless you disavow the Robertsons and Falwells (while striving to retain the religious conservative grass roots). By framing his moral crusade as a patriotic rather than a religious movement, McCain could create an alliance between the independents and most social conservatives. He might fail this time; some of his recent rhetoric was harsh. But general election match-up polls pitting both Republicans against Gore suggest that the potential McCain majority may be the only governing majority available to conservatives.

Who can seriously question this diagnosis? The bitter-enders, of course, who believe that everything is perfectly fine with the Reagan majority, despite the fact that large numbers of Reagan voters are dead while others, in the wake of welfare reform and the economic expansion of the 1990s, have returned to voting straight Democratic tickets, leaving behind a Reagan minority. The conclusion of the article remains relevant:

Either way, it is now clear that the Republican party has more to fear from stability than from change. Conservatives from Burke on have always emphasized that it is necessary to evolve in order to conserve. Conservatives should have the courage of their Burkean and Schumpeterian convictions. They shouldn't fear the creative destruction that is now necessary to a healthy party and movement; they should join it and shape it.

Then again, what the hell do I know?

In case it's not pellucidly clear, I think Ferguson is roughly right, which is not to say I always find him engaging, but that's another story.