January 6, 2004

The Real Third Party, or Why Some Conservatives Ought to Vote for Howard Dean

Howard Dean is not my favorite candidate (of the available field, I like John Edwards best) but it’s screamingly apparent to me that a Dean Administration would be hugely preferable over a second Bush Administration. I’m not talking modest improvements here, but the difference between the continuation of the best traditions of American democracy and the continued magnification of serious internal and external threats to those traditions under Bush. More importantly, I think that there are quite a few conservatives who ought to feel the same way if they're at all true to their convictions, and I am baffled about why they do not.

Let me be clear here: I am not a registered Democrat, nor would I vote slavishly for any of the party’s candidates. If by some bizarre twist of fate Kucinich, Braun or Sharpton were nominated, I’d rather cover myself with honey and lie on a hill of fire ants than walk into a booth and pull the lever for any of them. If I was compelled to vote in that circumstance, I’d pull the lever for Bush and then scrub myself with steel wool for a week afterwards. I’d feel only slightly less viscerally repelled if Gephardt was the nominee but I’d probably still stay away from the voting booth if that was the scenario. If it were Joe Lieberman, well, I’d vote for Bush just because better the Bush you already have than the Bush you don’t: Lieberman is like Bush and Ashcroft rolled into one person.

Dean is a different kettle of fish. His actual record in governance is moderate, and for all that Karl Rove’s little team of operatives (and some of Dean’s rivals) would like to tag him as a wild-eyed ultra-liberal, most of his actual positions are reasonably mainstream, and at times more conservative than the bulk of his competitors (on gun control, for example). The most “liberal” thing about him is his unbending opposition to the war in Iraq, which is only the first thing that should make him a preferable choice for some conservatives. The main thing that makes him preferable is that Dean is not George Bush, and that his past record and stated positions, especially with the likelihood of a Republican Congress, makes him inevitably less harmful to certain kinds of conservatism than George Bush has been and will be.

Let’s start with the libertarian branch of conservatism, in either of its chief manifestations, the bedrock defense of civil liberties and individual freedom to act or the core belief “that government which governs least, governs best”. For anyone whose conservatism primarily originates from these convictions, George Bush is unambiguously the most dangerous American President since Franklin Roosevelt.

It should be enough to note that the initially alarming interest that the Ashcroft Justice Department took in neo-censorship prior to 9/11 has turned out to be less of a threat to civil liberties than one might have supposed at the time, but only because the Administration has been too busy pursuing a much more breathtaking assault on the Bill of Rights. Any conservative who comes from a libertarian perspective ought to be openly terrified by the Patriot Act and its various bastard policy offspring, and most of all by the Administration’s stated intent to ignore constitutional protections and rights for American citizens (as well as non-Americans: the obligations of liberalism are universal, or so we’re often told) and to even deny the validity of judicial review of its actions. Let me go over this again: this is an Administration which has asserted that it can deny constitutional rights to American citizens based on its private, classified and secret determination of whether someone is an "enemy combatant", and has asserted that the courts have no right to review such a determination. This is also an Administration which has asserted that critics of its policies are aiding or comforting its enemies, and so for the first time in a long time, it doesn't require a paranoid to be nervous about the short slippery slope between secret unreviewable determinations that someone is an "enemy combatant" and a disdain for all opposition and criticism. For the first time since the Nixon Administration clashed with the Supreme Court on “executive privilege”, I think it’s fair to honestly wonder whether a second Bush Administration would actually bow to a ruling by the Court that it cannot arbitrarily deem Americans seized on American territory to be “enemy combatants”. That’s assuming that Bush doesn’t have an opportunity to “pack the Court” first. What’s the comparable threat from Howard Dean? What, he might say something blandly positive about a schoolmarmishly oppressive hate-speech code on a college campus?

Suppose that’s less important to you as a libertarian-leaning conservative than the feeling that the federal government should be smaller and less intrusively involved in local and state affairs. Again, the Bush Administration is in this respect vastly worse than the Clinton Administration or any other post-World War II presidency save perhaps Lyndon Johnson’s, and not merely on national security grounds. The Administration’s assertions of federal power over a huge range of issues, many of them not at all related to national security, have been sweeping and precedent-setting. It’s back to the days of unfunded or underfunded mandates from Washington roughly and heedlessly overriding local prerogatives and standards. Purely from a checks-and-balances standpoint, a Dean Administration would have to be preferable: even if Dean wished to be as pervasive in his use of federal power (and the evidence from Vermont is that he won’t), he’s going to be checked by both Congress and the courts.

Let’s suppose your conservatism is instead about good fiscal policy and a healthy respect for free market capitalism. I grant you that some of the Democratic candidates are anathema to a conservative of this kind, particularly Richard Gephardt (not to mention the no-hope fringers like Kucinich). Howard Dean, on the other hand, has a quite reasonable record in this area. In contrast, George Bush does not. He has been one of the most protectionist Presidents in recent memory, and in a way that is nakedly, avidly about personal political gain. In some ways, a philosophically committed protectionist might be better from the standpoint of sound fiscal management, because at least in that case, the protectionist in question might not make policy on the basis of seeking votes in Pennsylvania but instead with a strategic economic vision in mind. Bush’s protectionism is of a piece with his drift towards “crony capitalism”, and any conservative whose political ideology is primarily about sound economic policy ought to view that drift with alarm, given the devastating impact of similar economic policies in much of southern and eastern Asia. Leaving that aside, the President’s staggering disinterest in deficit management and his heedless off-loading of fiscal burdens onto state and local governments ought to be equally troubling. Whether Bush is “really” a big-government spendthrift or is just cynically forcing some later Administration to radically downsize government because he lacks the political strength or will to do it himself, he is still appalling.

You might think that a strong-defense, national-security conservative would at least find Bush preferable to Dean, but at least for the rational-pragmatic school of conservatives, Dean is a better candidate. I grant that Dean’s unwavering commitment to pull back from Iraq is going to cause a number of problems: his election would immediately destabilize Iraq still further (if that’s possible). But that mess is not of Dean’s making. Cleaning up will be hard for anyone. What is more important for someone whose primary concern is with maintaining American strength in the world is that Bush’s once and future mismanagement of the most crucial challenge of our times is a mortal danger to American influence, not a strengthening of it. The war in Iraq, or more specifically, the bluntly incompetent handling of it by Bush and his advisors, has done enormous damage to the power of the United States, damage that it will take a generation of leaders to undo. Dean is not the man to begin that work, but he will at least staunch the bleeding and prevent further self-inflicted wounds. Dean is not the ideal candidate for a national-security conservative, not the man who best knows how to be strong where the U.S. needs to be, and in the ways it needs to be, but he is by any standard preferable to Bush. He can begin the process of reconstructing our influence and strengthening the struggle against terrorism simply by not being George Bush.

I suppose it should be obvious that a neo-isolationist, narrowly nationalistic conservative like Patrick Buchanan should be opposed to Bush, but given that the net effect of Bush’s policies are isolationist, perhaps that’s not so.

So what’s left on the right? Who should really want Bush rather than Dean? Only two kinds of conservatives, as far as I can see. First, neoconservatives, who as a colleague of mine has observed, are really the strongest contemporary disciples of the Wilsonian tradition of idealist American foreign policy, the naïve belief that the United States can compel the world by military force to become the world we desire. I am not the first to observe in this light that it is hardly surprising that many of the neoconservatives have intellectual and personal roots in the statist left, and that their actions have been largely consistent with a philosophy that celebrates the possibilities of compulsion exercised by a overwhelmingly strong government, with little interest in the constraints imposed by respect for the rights and freedoms of the governed. One has to wonder where popular anti-intellectualism is when you need it, because the influence of neoconservatives on the Bush administration is vastly out of proportion with their actually existing demographic or political presence in the electorate. They don’t speak for anybody besides a fairly narrow if influential group of inside-the-Beltway elites, but if you’re a committed neoconservative—make that latter-day Wilsonian idealist who believes that military power alone is sufficient to compel the world to be as we wish it to be—then by all means, vote for Bush. He’s your man.

Who else? Well, the one major demographically important segment of American conservatism that ought to be for Bush rather than Dean is the religious or cultural right. For a conservative who could care less about the size of government, or about pragmatic assertions of national strength in the world, or about sound fiscal management, who primarily sees the President as the leader of a moral crusade to purify American society, Bush is clearly the best choice, not only over other Democrats but even within the Republican Party. No Republican leader in the past forty years has had the will and boldness to pursue the chosen agenda of this constituency with such unrestrained gusto. If this is your conservatism, there’s no question about who you ought to vote for.

What I don’t understand is why libertarian-leaning or pragmatic conservatives are willing to go along with the modern Republican Party’s captivity to interests that they ought to view as anathema. The Western Republican Party has become a kind of impotent wart on the ass of the Southern Republican Party. In this respect, the elections of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura really should serve as an indication of the electoral viability and political legitimacy of a genuine “third party” in the United States, a socially and culturally libertarian, fiscally prudent, pragmatic party that is strongly committed to checking the authority and size of government without compromising its necessary functions and positive capabilities, strongly pro-market capitalism but anti-monopoly and anti-cronyism.

This is the political faction that speaks for what Jonathan Rauch and others have called “the radical center”, not a center that is the proverbial dead armadillo in the middle of the road, choosing a little of this and a little of that from the ideological smorgasbord in order to bolster poll numbers (as technocratic, managerial politicians like Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, George Bush the Elder or Al Gore have done). This is a center that has a coherent political philosophy, a consistent set of convictions that sets it apart from both the old statist, unionist, urban core of the Democratic Party and the cultural fundamentalism and neoconservative idealism of the current Republican Party. This faction is ill-served by both parties, but at the moment, the most pressing threat to its interests and needs by far comes from George Bush.

Any conservative who is not a committed member of the religious right or a neocon needs to give serious thought to Howard Dean. He cannot possibly be worse than Bush for the abiding interests and beliefs of those conservatives, for the "radical center" —and he quite possibly could be substantially better. If you're a libertarian, a fiscal conservative, or a pragmatic conservative, and you would like to see candidates that you can vote for with passion, then the time has come for you to consider leaving your party altogether--just as there are Democrats who ought to think about doing the same. But that's for the future. The now is that the majority of Americans, conservative, centrist, liberal, libertarian, what have you, need to stop George Bush before the wounds he is inflicting on America become mortal--even if that means pulling the lever for Howard Dean.