Ross’s latest NYT column makes a point I think I alluded to earlier: just because losing Arlen Specter is bad doesn’t mean having him to begin with was good . And this is not just a charge you can level due to Specter’s stance on policy (on ‘strictly political’ issues or cultural ones). It’s one that really hits home — on Ross’s account, at least — courtesy of Specter’s defective intellectualism. The defects under consideration go beyond the recent jibe — I forgot who said it — that Specter is an attorney and his only client is himself. The enlistment of the intellect in the business of personal aggrandizement is lamentable enough, I suppose, but it’s hard to imagine when high-octane careerism will finally be purged out of congressional politics. A while ago elsewhere I think I made the argument that the Senate has rather pathetically taken shape as a would-be farm league for Presidents — something historically it is horrible at being. The Hillary Clintons of the world reinforce a destructive assumption that the only real reason to become a Senator is to grab a suitable platform for mounting a national campaign. But the Arlen Specters of the world remind us that even today rank careerism sometimes tops out at the ‘most exclusive club in America.’

And why not? For this, as I noted, is incidental to Ross’s attack:

The Republican Party will miss the Pennsylvania senator’s vote, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking inspiration from such a consummately unprincipled figure. The larger species to which he belonged — Republicanus Rockefellus , the endangered Northeastern moderate — likewise has little to offer a party in distress. Indeed, if you listen carefully to high-profile Yankee moderates like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee, who fanned out across op-ed pages and TV shows last week to bemoan their marginalization, it seems as though they don’t even understand their own political situation, let alone the Republican Party’s.

And, right — the role of Ombudsman to Big Government has a certain Weberian dignity to it, but it can hardly carry a party; and besides, all the action today pertains to the kind of moral life we’re living in America. If the Pat Toomeys of the world are about as relevant to abating the economic crisis, practically speaking, as Ron Paul, then Rockefeller Republicanism, as a standpoint on political economy, is similarly moot when it comes to the main controversy in Republican circles today — namely, how much or how little to be culturally libertarian. Unsurprisingly, the RockReps’ claim to relevance today is their ‘big tent’ stance on ‘social issues.’ Yet Ross seems to want to circle the conversation back to political economy (to avoid a doomstruck Second Ypres of culture war attrition?):
What’s required instead is a better sort of centrist. The Reagan-era wave of Republican policy innovation — embodied, among others, by the late Jack Kemp — has calcified in much the same way that liberalism calcified a generation ago. And so in place of hacks and deal-makers, the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.

Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.

No equivalent faction — rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway — from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh — but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.


I welcome such an efflorescence of policy innovation among practicing politicians — much as I have welcomed it from practicing commentators like Ross and Reihan themselves. But I am pessimistic about the ability of Bold New Innovators to skirt a reckoning within the Republican party about how officially to manage the shifting intersection of public policy and sexual ethics. (For, as I have said elsewhere, the ‘culture war’ is almost exclusively a fight over sex as an ideal.) And one reason I am so pessimistic is that I am unsure how such Bold New Innovators are going to emerge organically from a party distracted by the real question about its identity.

But now let me reverse this pessimism by keying it to pessimism somewhere else. The Jack Kemps of the world did not rise up in the GOP because of an existential crisis brought on by Rockefeller Republicanism — though to be sure, a real struggle for primacy transpired on the right between the RRs and the supply-siders. The Kemps arose because the Democratic approach to political economy was a big loser. Some of this can be pinned on the RockRep stylings of Nixon and Ford, but the catharsis was Carter; and Carter meant a Republican landslide, not on account of the decisive defeat of Freak Power by Orthogonians Everywhere but because the political economy was crumbling and crumbling on a Dem’s Beltway-centric watch. Reagan did not win on a Law and Order platform. He won on the Anti-Declinist ticket, and Anti-Declinist in 1980 meant Anti-Government.

I say all this to suggest that the rise and success of the sort of innovationists Ross describes is almost entirely contingent (in my early view) on the failure of the ‘innovations’ currently underway at Obama HQ — carried out under our 21st-century version of a buck-stops-here motto, The Government: Too Big to Fail.

Remember, we’ve seen this movie before: the much-needed Republican version of neoliberalism was called, uh, neoconservatism, an uber-intellectual movement that started out hoping to cure the culture though the sheer power of smart innovation and wound up freaking out over just how willing people were to let a sea change in sex mores radically revise the basic premises of society, culture, politics, and economics alike. Neoliberalism, in fact, was largely an attempt by the sea-changers to get serious about technocracy: yes, here are some fatally narcissistic adulterers, but they’re wonky! They know stuff! About hard-to-pronounce foreign places and potentates, a-and health care! Neoliberalism — at least on the backs of the Harts and Clintons of the world — promised the old guard, first-wave neocons and all, a momentous, high-stakes bargain: cultural libertarians could do good government .

At its most pathological, this grand hope cashed out in the repellent proposition that being President is so hard, and a good President is therefore so hard to find, that trysts with the help are virtual perquisites, to be tacitly bestowed by a grateful nation. But at its most powerful, neoliberalism showed just how competent, efficient, and innovative a country of people with messed up personal lives can be — an important data point for anyone championing a condominium of wonkocracy and loose mores. Ultimately, the kind of mass fail the GOP needs to retain its most fundamental brand as the Party of Normal People involves a societal collapse of the neoliberal or liberaltarian project. But something rotten happened between the Clintonian ‘passing of the torch’ and the swearing-in of model family man Barack Obama: the Bush GOP revealed that apparently the forces of cultural libertarianism could only be held at bay in an avalanche of bad government .

This, of course, is a parody and profanation of first-wave neoconservatism in the worst way, but it is where we are today; and it is the toxic waste out of which any Neo-neoconservative innovator of the moderate, intellectual right will have to crawl.

Articles by James Poulos

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