Some call this the closing of the conservative mind. Alas, the conservative mind has proved itself only too open, these past years, to all manner of intellectual pollen. Call it instead the drying up of conservative creativity. It’s clearly true that the country faces daunting economic troubles. It’s also true that the wrong answers to those problems will push the United States toward a future of too much government, too many taxes, and too much regulation. It’s the job of conservatives in this crisis to show a better way. But it’s one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama’s stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own. It’s one thing to worry (wisely) about the long-term trend in government spending, and another to demand big, immediate cuts when 25 million are out of full-time work and the government can borrow for ten years at 2 percent. It’s a duty to scrutinize the actions and decisions of the incumbent administration, but an abuse to use the filibuster as a routine tool of legislation or to prevent dozens of presidential appointments from even coming to a vote. It’s fine to be unconcerned that the rich are getting richer, but blind to deny that middle-class wages have stagnated or worse over the past dozen years. In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.
I refuse to believe that I am the only Republican who feels this way. If CNN’s most recent polling is correct, only half of us sympathize with the tea party. However, moderate-minded people dislike conflict—and thus tend to lose to people who relish conflict. The most extreme voices in the GOP now denounce everybody else as Republicans in Name Only. But who elected them as the GOP’s membership committee? What have they done to deserve such an inheritance? In the mid-sixties, when the party split spectacularly between Ripon Republicans, who embraced the civil-rights movement, and Goldwater Republicans, who opposed it, civil-rights Republicans like Michigan governor George Romney spoke forcefully for their point of view. Today, Republicans discomfited by political and media extremism bite their tongues. But if they don’t speak up, they’ll be whipsawed into a choice between an Obama administration that wants to build a permanently bigger government and a conservative movement content with permanently outraged opposition.
This is, unfortunately, not merely a concern for Republican voters. The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just “wasn’t done.” In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just “weren’t done.” Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren’t done suddenly are done.
We can debate when the slide began. But what seems beyond argument is that the U.S. political system becomes more polarized and more dysfunctional every cycle, at greater and greater human cost. The next Republican president will surely find himself or herself at least as stymied by this dysfunction as President Obama, as will the people the political system supposedly serves, who must feel they have been subjected to a psychological experiment gone horribly wrong, pressing the red button in 2004 and getting a zap, pressing blue in 2008 for another zap, and now agonizing whether there is any choice that won’t zap them again in 2012. Yet in the interests of avoiding false evenhandedness, it must be admitted: The party with a stronger charge on its zapper right now, the party struggling with more self-imposed obstacles to responsible governance, the party most in need of a course correction, is the Republican Party. Changing that party will be the fight of a political lifetime. But a great political party is worth fighting for.