Will real conservatives?
Posted on Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Almost from the first, President Bush has acted as if there would never be another election. That’s the main thing adepts of the cult of personality surrounding this arrogant, befuddled little man love about him. “As his supporters saw him,” Sidney Blumenthal writes in his bracing new book, “How Bush Rules,” “ his simplistic rhetoric was straight talk, his dogmatism fortitude, his swagger reassuring, his stubbornness... a bulwark against danger, and his rough edges proof that he was a man of the people. ” What most Americans have appeared reluctant to grasp, Blumenthal thinks, is the radical extremism behind the administration’s concept of the “unitary executive” —seizing upon the metaphorical war on terror to declare the commander-in-chief above the strictures of the U.S. Constitution and unfettered by whatever limitations a timorous Congress might seek to impose. By and large, the rubber-stamp Republican House and Senate have imposed none. On critical issues, the so-called GOP moderates and mavericks have feigned resistance, then gone along for the ride. Last month’s shameless capitulation allowing Bush to strip “enemy combatants” —American citizens included—of the right to challenge their imprisonment in court was a dramatic example.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., for example, opined that the White House’s bill permitting indefinite detention by presidential fiat set American law back 900 years. It’s blatantly unconstitutional. The Constitution specifically forbids suspending habeas corpus “unless... in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion.” Lest he be branded soft on terrorism, Specter then voted for it with the rest, including alleged maverick Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
There’s long been an undercurrent of authoritarianism in American politics, particularly across the South and agrarian Midwest. Some of Bush’s warmest supporters are direct descendants of the 19th century nativist Know-Nothing Party. Many seem morally outraged by anybody who can count higher than two. I get frequent e-mails telling me that being anti-torture makes me pro-terrorist or that it’s un-American to oppose life imprisonment without a trial. Some take grim pleasure in identifying the enemy as Islam itself, making the conflict religious and racial—just how they like it.
There are many ways to characterize such views, but conservative isn’t one of them. There’s nothing conservative about a lynch mob. To his credit, Bush stresses that “Islamic” and “terrorist” aren’t synonyms. But he also tells thunderous falsehoods casting Democrats as enemy sympathizers. At a GOP fund-raiser recently, he charged that “177 of the opposition party said, ‘You know, we don’t think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists.’”
Challenged, the White House press office was unable to identify a single
Democrat who’d said anything so absurd. Nobody’s against spying on terrorists. What they objected to was the president’s refusal to obtain warrants from the FISA court specifically set up for that purpose—a statute Congress would surely have amended had the White House requested it. Instead, Bush chose to defy the law, seemingly to prove himself above it.
Has terrorism succeeded? Have Americans become too gutless for democracy? Blumenthal cites a trenchant passage by Theodore Roosevelt. Writing about Oliver Cromwell, the self appointed “Lord Protector” of 17th century England, Roosevelt wrote that “when the people will not or cannot work together; when they permit groups of extremists to decline to accept anything that does not coincide with their own extreme views, or when they let power slip from their hands through sheer supine indifference; then they have themselves chiefly to blame if the power is grasped by stronger hands.”
Dudes, we’re there. Most Americans are more pragmatic than ideological. They want a government that works. By any reasonable measure, one-party Republican government has been a disaster. On almost every issue, from stem-cell research to runaway budget deficits to the ongoing disaster in Iraq, Bush has substituted dogma for reality, party loyalty for competence. The results range from comical to catastrophic. Imperfect as Democrats are, the only remedy available to engaged citizens is to vote them into power. Imperfect as he is, that’s what Bill Clinton was getting at in a recent Nevada speech. “For six years,” he said, “this country has been totally dominated—not by the Republican Party, this is not fair to the Republican Party—by a narrow sliver of the Republican Party, its more rightwing and its most ideological element.... [T] His country has been jammed... into an ideological corner, alienated from its allies, and we’re in a lot of trouble.” He added: “The Democratic Party has become the liberal and conservative party in America. If you want to be fiscally conservative, you’ve got to be for us. If you want to conserve natural resources, you’ve got to be for us. If you want a change of course in Iraq... you’ve got to be for us.” This strikes me as cogent and politically shrewd. What remains unclear is how many Americans are listening.