Sunday, November 11, 2012

Moving Forward

Perhaps the most interesting, and shocking, statistic from Tuesday's election was the fact that Mitt Romney did not pull as many Republican votes as did John McCain. If he had, it is likely he would have defeated Barack Obama. This is both bad and good news for Republicans. The bad news is that Republicans lost what was apparently a very winnable election. They fumbled the ball on the most consequential elections of our lifetimes.

The good news is that the election may not have been the decisive affirmation of the social welfare state that some of us (me) initially supposed. I assumed that Republican turnout would be heavy, so the only way Obama could win is if the generalized vote had moved in his favor. The possibility that Obama's vote total would be way down from 2008, yet he would nonetheless squeak through because Republicans weren't interested enough to vote against him, wasn't something I ever considered. But the depressed vote totals for both Obama and his Republican opponent seem to indicate that voters, while not enamored of Obama, never came to really believe that Romney was an acceptable alternative. This combined with Republican retention of the House (including reelection of Tea Party members), would seem to point to the fact that Romney never overcame his deficiencies as a candidate.

What are those deficiencies? I think it is helpful to compare him to John McCain. I don't have any numbers or poll results, so this is largely based on my own impressions, but here goes. McCain was not a great candidate, but virtually no Republican would have been able to win in 2008, given the fatigue with Bush and the financial crisis that occurred shortly before the election. Yet McCain outpolled Romney despite the fact that Romney faced an Obama after four years of unpopular policies like Obamacare and the stimulus, and McCain faced the still mythologized Hope and Change Obama. The only conclusion can be that McCain was a much more personally attractive candidate than was Romney. And the obvious personal difference between the two men is McCain's history as a Vietnam War hero and Romney's as a business/finance wizard.

I do not like to listen to political speeches and generally find them to be fingernails-on-the-chalkboard unpleasant, but McCain's acceptance of the 2008 Republican nomination was perhaps the most inspiring political speech I've ever heard. He recounted his experience as a prisoner of war, thinking he was tough enough to take whatever the Communists dealt out, and later slunk back to his cell in humiliation after being broken under torture. Asking the rhetorical question of whether he was bitter about his experience, McCain said that he was not bitter but grateful: "After I was broken under torture, my country saved me. My country saved me." Thinking about it still gives me chills and I was never more proud to be an American, a veteran of the Marine Corps, and a Republican.

The virtues are attractive, Aristotle tells us, and John McCain, while far from a perfect man and even farther from a perfect conservative, had virtues people find attractive in a time of crisis: The virtues of duty, sacrifice and service. People understand that sacrifice is necessary in a crisis, and they look for someone they can trust who can reassure them that their sacrifices are neither in vain nor a subtle form of exploitation. McCain was such a man, which is why he did as well as he did despite the favorable political winds for Obama.

Mitt Romney is by all accounts a good and decent man, responsible with respect to his family and personally generous with his money to charity, but he is not anything like an exemplar of the public virtues of duty and service that is John McCain (who could be?) He was never in the military nor do any of his five sons ever seem to have expressed an interest in military service. This is not the only way to express public virtue but it is the traditional one expected of social elites (e.g. HRH Prince Andrew flying in the Falklands War). Conservatives, as the "daddy party" of not only responsibility, self-restraint and self-reliance, but also of duty and sacrifice, must have candidates who can sell those virtues by displaying them. Romney was not that man.

It has been said that this election proves that Republicans have lost the culture. I was sympathetic to this view in the immediate aftermath of the election, but now I am not so sure. Much of the culture has no doubt been lost, but the counter-counter-culture did not really have a spokesman in this election, someone who could sell the sacrifice that is necessary to save the nation from imminent catastrophe. In the absence of such a leader, voters defaulted to the candidate who has promised that sacrifice isn't really necessary (except by "the rich", for whom it isn't really a sacrifice because they've got so much).

But the fact is that broad and deep sacrifice will be required by everyone if a catastrophe is to be avoided. The President is not prepared to demand these sacrifices, nor could he sell them anymore than could Mitt Romney if he tried, not to mention that his reelection was based on his insistence that sacrifice was not really necessary. This means a catastrophe is probably inevitable. Right now Republicans are insisting that no taxes by raised, not even on the wealthy, which will allow the Democrats to blame Republican intransigence when disaster happens - Republicans allowed the country to collapse merely for the sake of saving their rich friends a few dollars. The fact is the tax increases the President is talking about will barely move the needle on the debt and will kill jobs, but much bigger things are at stake. The entire social democratic project is at stake in the President's insistence that he just needs a little more time to make things right. If granted his pathetic tax increase, it will become undeniably obvious that the President must either come on board with substantial cuts in social welfare spending - cuts far beyond the measly cuts Paul Ryan proposed last year and for which he was denounced as a dangerous extremist - or a catastrophe will ensue. The President himself will find it necessary to tell us that what he sold in his reelection campaign was way out of touch with reality. Or he will lead us over the cliff and there will be no denying who was behind the wheel. Reality is about to vote on the social democratic program.

Republicans must be prepared to offer an alternative that involves more than the standard appeals to lower taxes, spending and regulation, but appeals to an alternative understanding of community and civic virtue, an understanding that hearkens back to Jack Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you..." For this conservative leaders must have the personal moral capital to sell the conservative vision of duty, self-restraint, and sacrifice for the the greater good which, in the end, is the only vision that can work because it is in accord with the natural truth. This doesn't mean conservative politicians must have a story like John McCain's, but it does mean that Newt Gingrich-type politicians (no military service or other visible signs of genuine sacrifice, plus multiple wives) should be unacceptable. Nor should the premier conservative voice in the national conversation be a 61 year old man with no children who trades in his trophy wife for a newer model every few years.

If conservatives cannot convincingly sell the virtuous life that is necessary to a free, republican people, then even in the event of the catastrophic failure of the social welfare state, the consequence will be a further descent into tyranny rather than a return to limited government.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Thoughts

There were many of us on the right that thought that this election was our last chance to stop America’s decline into social welfare statism. Last night proved that we were wrong - the hour was later than we thought, and our last chance to stop it had already passed. The tipping point had already been reached. Mitt Romney did not run a flawless campaign but it was about as good as could have been expected; in fact, if we remember what we thought of Romney before the general election began, he exceeded expectations as a candidate. The President got a nice gift from the heavens in the form of Hurricane Sandy that allowed him to look Presidential and bi-partisan (thank you Chris Christie) leading into the election. But that is all in the noise; if America were truly interested in remaining a unique bastion of liberty rather than sliding into the soft despotism of nanny-state paternalism, this election wouldn’t have been close.

Give Obama credit for this: He recognized the state of affairs better than conservatives did. Unlike Bill Clinton, he made no pivot to the center and neither did he hide behind a vague Hope and Change mythology as in his first campaign. He ran as a straightforward Big Government leftist intent on punishing the rich with taxes, expanding the size, scope and reach of government, and squeezing religious conscience into a publicly irrelevant private box. He bet that enough people were now getting government benefits in the form of checks or Obamaphones or crony capitalist bailouts that he had a coalition sufficient to explicitly move the leftist project forward, everyone else be damned. And he was right. Those who say he earned no mandate with his narrow victory miss the point; he is not a guy to ever let his ambitions be stopped by lack of a mandate (or even the rule of law), but he can fairly say that pushing forward the leftist project is exactly what he ran on: “Forward!”

The interesting thing about Romney’s much talked about “47%” comment is that critics said it was foolish and insulting... but I didn’t hear anyone say that it was false. In an unguarded moment Romney spoke the truth that we all know but don’t speak: There is a vast constituency of people receiving a government check of one form or another for whom elections come down to the single question - Will the government keep writing the check or not? Talk of trillion dollar deficits, fiscal cliffs, economic ruin through taxation and regulation - these things mean nothing in light of the single question. This is the current situation in Greece. As the Greek nation plunges ever further into ruin and chaos, riots break out and cars burn on any suggestion that the government might scale back the check writing. This is our future.

One of the things that, paradoxically, has helped Obama is the long period of unprecedented prosperity this nation has enjoyed. People are used to seeing supermarkets with shelves fully stocked with a mind-boggling array of good, cheap food, fresh vegetables and fruit, steak for a few dollars a pound, and fresh baked bread. They are used to eating cheaply at places like the 99 or even Wendy’s that are unknown to the vast majority of the world’s population. They are used to having several flatscreen TVs, a refrigerator, washer and dryer, and several computers in their house. This has gone on for so long and so consistently that people cannot imagine it ever ending. They see no connection between the rare combination of relatively limited government, the rule of law, and free markets this nation has traditionally embraced and the prosperity they have enjoyed. They imagine that they can embrace the social welfare statism that has been tried and failed in so many parts of the world and those supermarket shelves will forever go on being stocked with fresh, cheap food. Even in our current recession, Americans live far better than almost anyone else in the world. But there is nothing inevitable about any of this; the goods on those supermarket shelves are the result of a complex, dynamic, and always evolving free market system that needs a specific environment in which to thrive. And we have embraced the man who has made it his mission to change that environment.

Years ago I spent time in England working as an engineer. What struck me about the country was that it was similar to home but everything was smaller, usually dingier, and much more expensive. They had supermarkets, but they didn’t have the quality or variety normal in American supermarkets, and what they did have cost more. When the English engineers would come to the states for a project, they would bring an empty suitcase that they would stuff with American bought jeans and other clothing, and sometimes even electronics (this was pre-9/11) which were far cheaper over here than in the UK. This too is our future. I wonder how long it will be before Americans are bringing empty suitcases to Australia or Hong Kong.

Besides the fact that this election revealed that the bell has already tolled for basic liberty in this country, it also revealed a moral complacency among those opposed to the militant secularism that is part of the Obama vision. I am thinking specifically here of the Catholic Church, which was vocal when the assault on religious liberty in Obamacare became clear with the HHS mandate that health insurance support contraception and abortion. The mandate was an expression of Obama’s contempt for the Church and the moral vision it represents: In an election year, he was willing to give the middle finger to the Church and dare her to oppose him. After some initial public opposition, the response of the Church faded and the bishops were silent about Obamacare in the closing months of the election. The only way to stop the mandate was to unseat Obama, and if the Church really cared about the threat to freedom of conscience it would have publicly and forcefully committed to making it an issue in the election. At least this is how I suspect Obama will interpret it, and the passivity of the Church in the face of Obama’s outrages will only increase his contempt for her. If he was happy to insult the Church in the runup to an election, we can expect him to mercilessly bring the full weight of the Federal bureaucracy, and its regulatory and legal apparatus, down on the Church now that he is safe for his final four years.

There is a Weimar feel to what is now happening, but perhaps I am just overreading things in my gloom. I don’t mean that Obama is leading us to a Hitler-like situation, because he’s not.  I’m referring to a lack of moral resolve in people in positions of power who should know better, but who either stay silent or offer half-hearted opposition until it is too late. In the latter camp I place the Catholic bishops. In the former are the university elites and particularly the mainstream media. Media bias is one thing; deliberately suppressing stories involving someone in the chain of command leaving four Americans to twist in the wind, allowing them to be killed by terrorists despite repeated calls for help over hours, is quite another. I am of course referring to Benghazi. Obama claims he gave orders from the beginning that every effort should be made to help the stranded men. If this is true, someone in the chain of command disobeyed his orders or there was a massive communication failure (over seven hours). Whatever the case, the family of those that died, not to mention the military and the country in general, deserves answers as to how those men were left to their fate. Yet no one in the mainstream media shows any interest in finding out, obviously for the sake of protecting Obama. Isn’t anyone’s conscience in the CBS/ABC/NBC/CNN/WashPost/NYTimes newsrooms troubled by the plaintive cries of the mothers and fathers of these slain men? They are not partisans; they simply want to know what happened to their children. But our media watchdogs are unmoved.

At times like these I ponder my parish Church, a stone building up the street built in the Romanesque style. The ancient architecture is appropriate for a Church, for it is a sign that the Church endures. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail before the Church; he made no such promise for the United States or its Constitution. The United States is a purely human institution susceptible of no divine guarantees; as an online commenter noted today, 100 years is a pretty good run for a superpower. The most depressing aspect of this is that we did it to ourselves. The British spent 200 years as a global power and only relinquished the status after suffering through two devastating world wars. In 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union, an enduring era of peace and prosperity seemed at hand. Barely twenty years later, and without suffering any calamity on the scale of a world war, the nation teeters on the brink of economic catastrophe, and has reelected a man who has no serious interest in addressing the problem.