Is our politicians lurning?

The title was an old favorite of Dean Barnett’s (I think I’ve got it right).  The occasion is a post over at Non-Zombie Contentions in which Jonathan Tobin takes a gander at the British Conservatives’ slo-mo political trainwreck.  His summary:

Cameron, a telegenic upper-class swell, believed that Tories who were actually conservatives couldn’t possibly win. So he recast his party to be advocates of global warming alarmism, criticized the closeness of the Labor government to that of George W. Bush (Obama’s disdain for Brits of any political persuasion has taken the juice out of this issue), and proposed an approach to domestic issues based on a communitarian idea of a “Big Society,” which sounds suspiciously similar to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” liberal boondoggles of the 1960s.

Yet far from greasing the skids to victory, trying to be liberal has actually derailed his campaign. A third party, the Liberal Democrats, are further to the Left than Labor on many issues and have in Nick Clegg, a far more focused leader than either Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labor or the good looking but feckless Cameron. Cameron thought that fudging the differences with Labor would make it easier for him to win.

Tobin clearly hopes that American conservatives will draw the proper lessons, and adopt a bold colors, no pale pastels approach, and I do, too, but I hope that conservatives avoid overdoing it, both for the sake of winning, and eventually for the sake of governing.

Tobin pointedly quotes David Frum’s counsel of late 2008 to emulate Cameron: “The leader you want,” wrote Frum, “is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, not the voters you already have”; Frum also urged that Republicans follow “educated and professional voters” to the left.

Frum and Cameron may both have gone too far, but there’s some truth in those observations that we ignore at our peril.  The initial aphorism is clearly overstated.  Taken literally, it’s even a bit ridiculous.  The leader you want is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, as well as the voters you already have.  It’s possible – the British rightwing blogs seem to bear this out – that Cameron has actually come close to embodying Frum’s absurdity:  a leader who expressly does not appeal to his own constituency.  But that doesn’t make the opposite, an appeal strictly to one’s own, desirable.

As for those “educated and professional voters,” do conservatives want them or not?  Is it really true that the only way to appeal to them is through liberalism?  How comfortable are we with the implications of an affirmative answer to that question?  If not, is it safe to assume that they’ll simply drift back en masse after getting re-educated on the ills of the left?

Some speak about ideology these days in a way that turns the label almost into a compliment:  “Ideological conservative” becomes functionally equivalent to “committed conservative” or “solid, feisty conservative” or maybe “conservative who reads the right books and sites.”  But being “ideological” is never to a thinker’s credit, and rarely a positive in an election.  It implies reflexive or unthinking adherence to a program or perspective.

Each winning Republican of the major ’09-’10 prelims – McDonnell, Christie, Brown – embraced a politics that suited his immediate environment, oppositional but not heavily ideological.  None ran as an ideologue.

Maybe it’s just that the leader who appeals to the voter you need to gain is the leader who appeals as a human being – through strength of character – one who is neither ashamed of nor obsessed with political precepts.  Maybe some, enough, of those educated voters – and members from other prematurely written-off constituencies – can be approached by a conservatism that’s intellectually confident enough not to rely on ideology, and also not to try to buy off voters with poor imitations of the other side.

29 comments on “Is our politicians lurning?

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  1. It’s better to phrase it as “principled conservative” instead of ideological, it provides a framework for their decision making. Cameron is being advised by Axelrod and Dunn, so now I think he’s crossed one London bridge too far. I see him as Heath 2.0, the results of with characterized a bland accomodation with Labor that yielded few results., or Ford redux for an American analogy. The fact that Clegg is now in the lead in some polls, indicates that they
    missed something along the way

    Now of the three new Republicans, Christie has really burst out of the gate and is in the lead, Brown hasn’t been dissapointing, and McDonnell seems to hava ‘macaca’ed him self after a good first
    start, he’ll recover but this was certainly an unforced error

  2. I think that this debate in this country has been over for quite some time now, with all Republicans (even Mc Cain) trying to channel the growing anger at the arrogance of the 0bamabots.

    The English……well, they’re just English, they are….too many long days at Oxford and Cambridge listening to leftists in black gowns, yup.

  3. And, Jemima Puddleduck just wanted everyone to just get along better.

    It’s what comes when you are all crowded together on a small island, having to be nice and line up 7 times a day, and then some bloke in his Rolls wizzes by. The nerve of ‘im! Who does ‘e think ‘e is wizzing around in a Jag or a Rolls? It’s bloody unfair, it is!

  4. Zoltan Newberry wrote:

    I think that this debate in this country has been over for quite some time now, with all Republicans (even Mc Cain) trying to channel the growing anger at the arrogance of the 0bamabots.

    And that gets you how far? Maybe control of the House and balance in the Senate, a check on arrogance amidst dissipated anger, with six more years of Obama – welcome to the new power structure same as the old power structure.

  5. It’s not philosophy,it’s the Economy,
    Obama has proved he can’t turn it around. Because our GDP is so dependent on Household spending,and it takes jobs to create disposable income to improve the economy creating more jobs and more dispoable income etc etc. We can’t do it with Debt anymore,and that is what’s killing Obama. The Debt overhang is affecting Government and Households. Many Companies have excellent cash reserves,but without the disposable income to buy their stuff,they’re not spending that money. As a tactic to jumpstart the economy,DEBT IS DEAD.
    So that means,that by 2012,the GOP has the presidency and both house,that also means that in 2012,the GOP is f—ed,because like now,they won’t have debt to jumpstart the economy,and the cycle starts over again. The only thing that will work to jumpstart this economy is a new source of disposable income,not debt,not home mortgage ATMs, it’s going to take twenty years to rebuild the job infrastructure that was lost during the last twenty years and that depends on the committment on any party to do that,but DEBT IS DEAD.

  6. @ Rex Caruthers:
    I’m not convinced Ø is dead. It depends on the timing and character of the next crisis. It could reinforce his power if it comes at the right time (Jimmy Carter’s popularity ROSE at the outset of the Iranian hostage crisis) or remain irrelevant to his electoral prospects (if the crisis takes place after 2012). If the crisis merely consists of structural unemployment, then the Dems will pose as the defenders of the downtrodden and the sponsors of government-guaranteed income and consumption support, casting the Rs as heartless purveyors of greed, etc. The old tune. Meanwhile, the R Congress may get little done, the economy may putter along gradually improving, and Triangulobama will pose as the guardian of the people’s interest against the wild schemes of the free market ideologues who “got us into this mess.”

    On a different subject, how would we operate if we declared a floor on the price of oil at $50/barrel in 2008 dollars? At a stable $50/barrel, coal is economically convertible to gasoline, meaning that the U.S. possesses a ca. 1000-year supply. (Oil shale is convertible at ca. $75/barrel, another several millennia at current consumption.) Would we be better off with a carbon tax, proceeds to go to the debt, or with energy asset-backed certificates supplementing the currency?

    If it’s determined at some point that global warming really does pose a threat, set the floor higher.

  7. Floor/$50/barrel

    Nobody would accept that without guarantees against dollar devaluation/$50 Barrel is equal to $7.50 barrel in 1970 dollars.

  8. I’m not convinced Ø is dead

    OK,I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,In 2005,my family had $400,000 avaliable in Credit Card credit and various Credit lines,and another $150000 in Home Equity Credit on a Family income of $140000
    annual. Today,on $115000 annual family income,we have $30000 of Credit Card/Credit Line Credit and 0$ home Equity. In 2005,our family debt level was total including house/$200000,today it is over $400000 including house. This is a fairly typical comparison. Please figure out our family’s disposible income and our potential for further debt. Looks like 0 to me.

  9. @ Rex Caruthers:
    If people lacked confidence in the dollar, they could take their exchange in energy or for that matter they could convert their barrel of oil into gold at whatever gold is going for. But that’s a monetary question.

    You’ve frequently proposed that we take over the world’s oil fields as a source of new wealth, but any operation that cost us more than supporting $50/barrel (ca. 60% today’s spot market price) would be counterproductive. If we have several trillions to spend on conquest, why not spend a fraction of that amount building gasification plants that solve the same problem without blood and larceny?

    Just asking.

  10. You’ve frequently proposed that we take over the world’s oil fields as a source of new wealth, but any operation that cost us more than supporting $50/barrel (ca. 60% today’s spot market price) would be counterproductive. If we have several trillions to spend on conquest, why not spend a fraction of that amount building gasification plants that solve the same problem without blood and larceny?

    Good points,we had the window and the justification when OPEC declared war on us by Quaprupling the price of oil. Lost opportunity too bad, so if we were forced,because of an Existential situation,to sieze Assets today,the whole point would be that the loser,the siezeee would pay for the cost of our trouble out of the siezed assets. You have a big problem thinking like an Imperialist.

  11. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Yeah, because it consisted of like 50% typical spam stuff – credit, debt, home equity, etc. If you had thrown in cheap drugs, “thank you, your blog was very helpful to me,” “emmy rossum nude” you might have taken down the whole system. ;)

  12. CK MacLeod wrote:
    @ Rex Caruthers:
    Yeah, because it consisted of like 50% typical spam stuff

    Can you post it anyway,if not,please show me yours anyway,I went first.

  13. @ Rex Caruthers:
    I’ve read ’em. They’re not very good on Rules for Imperialists. They’re more into other stuff.

    Your comment has been posted. I don’t think my own tragic tale stands for much of anything relevant to the discussion, so I’ll spare us all the recitation.

  14. Mr. Farrell is confused, Obama is the Kraken, the embodiment of unfettered statism, being fed sacrifices, (health care, financial industry
    energy, ultimately media, if Mark Lloyd has anything to do with it. Who is Perseus in this scenario, is a more interesting question,

  15. Mr. Farrell is confused:

    NOPE,the Kraken is pure Destruction,unconstrained Wall Street, Obama is the helpless “LEADER” who thought he could control the Kraken that has turned on him. The Gorgon is what destroyed the Kraken,Perseus was the Soldier,the Question is,Who is the Gorgon?

  16. CK Macleod:

    I am by no means a pollyanish type regarding GOP chances. I remember well the way they blew it after the 1994 elections.

    Nevertheless, have you seen the electoral map of Obama’s popularity? It doesn’t look like Obama 2008; it doesn’t even look like Kerry or Gore. He is down by at least 10 points in most states. The states where he’s up look like Dukakis + California. His popularity may not seem that bad, although it’s increasingly underwater, but that’s deceptive, because he’s up big in a few big states and down almost everywhere else.

    We’ve gotten so used to the back and forth, up and down, of the two parties over the last thirty years that we’ve forgotten what a really incompetent failure is like. Basically, all the recent Presidents except Bush I were beneficiaries of Reaganomics–including Clinton, who raised taxes but still left them lower than they had been when Reagan was reelected.

    Obama isn’t in trouble because he made some mistake on TV, or because the Republicans found a good way to get their message out. He’s in trouble because his policies cannot and do not work in the real world.

    You should also consider not just 2012 but 2014 and 2016. Do we really want a Cameron-like President who won’t fix the problems? The economy is in serious trouble, and we need a leader to fix it, not a point on a political graph.

  17. I think part of the problem for people like Cameron and Frum is similar to what Hayek was talking about, except in politics rather than economics. Hayek’s point was that economics had too many variables for one man to understand all of it, and that the invisible hand of free enterprise was needed.

    Politics isn’t quite as complex as economics–it involves possibly a few billion votes in a Presidential election year (for all races), whereas there are probably that many financial transactions in the US in any given hour (minute?), not to mention foreign transactions.

    Nevertheless, Cameron, and “moderate” Republicans in the US, have shown a remarkable ability to make sweeping decisions regarding their campaigns that show their inability to comprehend the political situation on the ground.

    Case in point: the tone-deaf embrace of cap and trade. If you take a poll, you may very well find majority support. However, it’s a guarantee that any supposedly conservative candidate who signs on to hikes in energy prices will go down to a humiliating defeat. That didn’t stop Cameron in the UK, or Frum in the US, from endorsing it because it would make their parties seem more “centrist.”

    This doesn’t just hurt them among conservatives, either. An independent or even liberal voter who doesn’t have Cameron’s wealth is going to hate a rich conservative candidate who is making that voter spend more money every time he heats his home or drives to the store.

    To put it differently: Cameron and Frum view politics as a straight line, with Leon Trotsky on the left end, Ayn Rand on the right end, and every person as a single point on that line. Whereas in reality, it is a construct with hundreds of dimensions or more, and in which people move constantly to new positions in that construct.

  18. @ Ken:
    I think Cameron and Frum probably both thought they were thinking creatively, outside the “conventional” straight-line view. They just out-thought themselves or were, in the British phrase (very suitable in these circumstances), too clever by half.

    They’re not wrong that conservatives need to claim the middle to win and govern. Their ideas about doing that depend too much on accepting the opponents’ premises and adopting the opponent’s program piecemeal.

    If an issue appears to be moving the voters, then a failure to address it in some meaningful way will harm a party’s chances. That doesn’t mean, though, that you just stop thinking or abandon your principles in order to look more like the other party.

  19. That seems to be the problem,(ie; ostensibly Frum is for a more free market alternative to the current system, which has become much more a sysgy since the HMO and later the ERISA bill, but all his contempt was directed at critics of the Obama economic and health
    policy. He is for a more resolutely pro Israel and anti IRGC regime
    policy, yet whose side did he chose to join, based on little but vague effusions of hope and change. To his credit, he has not yet jettisoned that point of view, on Afghanistan or Israel. But it does beg the question following the ‘ O Sullivan rule’

  20. You’re aware that Frum didn’t endorse Obama, right? He has been very critical of the O-crats on a number of issues. He’s also raised some good questions about the R strategy – along with a number of bad questions… and a series of very difficult-to-forgive or -explain, excessively personal attacks on movement conservatives.

  21. @ narciso:
    Frum’s endorsement reads a lot better a year and a half later than it did the Saturday before the vote. He was part of the trashing of Palin, which harmed the campaign and the party, so a lot of people remember him as one of the Obamacons, and in a way he was, despite the late decision.

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