Today the Cato Institute in Washington hosted a forum on New York Post columnist Ryan Sager's new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. Sager, who also writes at RealClearPolitics.com, made a brief presentation about the book, followed by comments from U.S. News and World Report political analyst Michael Barone and questions from the audience.
The F.A. Hayek Auditorium was filled to capacity, with extra chairs brought in and more than a dozen audience members watching on a TV monitor in an overflow room. There was clearly a lot of interest in this book's topic.
Sager, who once interned at the Cato Institute and also served as a research assistant to Cato executive vice president David Boaz, began by noting that "as Republican-controlled Washington looks more and more like Animal Farm, the Cato Institute is our own slice of The Fountainhead," which brought chuckles from the largely libertarian audience.
On the surface, Sager suggested, the Republican Party looks quite successful, with control of many statehouses as well as the White House and both houses of Congress. But the GOP, he said, tends to "mistake winning for actual victory." While part of the problem is George W. Bush, there is something deeper the Republicans must be concerned with, "a tear in the fabric of the conservative movement."
"This isn't a 2006 crisis," he said, referring to anticipated losses at the polls this coming November, "it's an existential crisis of the conservative movement."
Sager referred to the conservative movement's past, and directed his audience specifically to look at the writings of Frank Meyer in the 1950s, whose theory of "fusionism" brought together disparate elements in the conservative movement -- what today we call libertarians and social conservatives, but who were then known as libertarians and traditionalists.
The big issue then was the Cold War, with both libertarians and "trads" opposing communism -- libertarians because communism was anti-liberty, traditionalists because communism was "godless."
There was a formulation at play, which stated that "traditionalist ends could be achieved through libertarian means." This allowed the two factions to work together for common purposes despite differences in approach and philosophy.
Meyer's theory of fusionism was applied successfully when the factions coalesced to support Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Although Goldwater lost the election, a new movement was born that eventually resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan, who also effectively held together the factions within the conservative movement. Sager describes the Reagan presidency as "the height of fusionism."
When the Cold War ended during the Bush I administration and George H.W. Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge, the glue that held the conservative movement dissipated. Then the Clinton administration came along to reunite the conservative movement, with the result being the Newt Gingrich-led, successful effort of the GOP to retake control of Congress for the first time in four decades.
All this leads to the question, How did we end up with George W. Bush? Sager's answer is that the Republican party began believing its own bad press, and thought that it had to overcome a reputation for meanness. Thus we got "'compassionate conservatism' instead of 'conservatism.'" Sager said it was unclear whether Bush's intentions were truly conservative or if he misled voters to believe he was a conservative when, in fact, he was not.
Speaking aphoristically, Sager concluded: "Bush lied, conservatism died."
Bush's defenders, Sager said, like to blame the growth of government during the last six years on a response to 9/11. But that "doesn't add up," he said, since most of the growth in government has nothing to do with the war on terror, listing as examples No Child Left Behind, the Medicare drug boondoggle, the transportation pork bill, the anti-First Amendment McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" law, and other non-defense related expansions in the federal government and violations of civil liberties.
Sager warned that, although the Republicans have still been winning elections while all this has been going on, "a reckoning is on its way." He said that 2008 is the year in which we will see where the party is going, specifically whether it will return to the traditional, pre-Bush emphasis on small-government conservatism.
Sager then shifted gears a bit to look at a regional divide in the American political landscape. He pointed out that the South, where the GOP has a lot of its electoral base, is more heavily social conservative, while the interior West (that is, the western states excluding California, Oregon, and Washington) is more heavily libertarian. He noted that, while most press reports after the 2004 election looked at the closeness of the outcome in Ohio (which, I might add, John Kerry is still whining about), the White House could also have gone to the Democrats if 70,000 votes in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico had shifted from red to blue.
The Democrats, he said, are beginning to understand the opportunity they face in the West. They have elected four governors there in recent years and are beginning to formulate a message that appeals to small-government-oriented, leave-me-alone voters in that region.
Sager concluded his remarks by suggesting that a return to fusionism will save the GOP. He said there are two major areas of common ground that need to be pursued: (1) a renewal of the commitment to school choice, which both libertarians and social conservatives value, if for different reasons; and (2) taking on the mantle of cultural federalism and "dropping the national crusade against gays." If Massachusetts or Vermont or Connecticut want gay marriage, he said, the federal government should not stand in their way.
Ending with a quotation from Frank Meyer, Sager said that "truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny."
For his part, Michael Barone said that, although he largely agrees with Sager, he wanted to focus on his disagreements, starting with a disagreement with the statement that "Bush lied, conservativism died." Barone said "there is a certain anger in this book, which is a young man's book. In 40 years, we'll see a mellower Ryan."
Barone argued that the "current state of polarization of the parties is in part an accidental matter of candidates."
He noted that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were born in 1946, the first year of the baby boom, and both graduated from high school in 1964, which was the high-water mark for SAT scores. Both, he pointed out, ran for president with a platform that promised they would be moderate but both ended up as polarizing figures. Using these as examples, he said, a lot of political alignment is actually "artifacts of candidates."
By 2008, Barone said, we will have a different set of characters, and he referred the audience to his column in this week's U.S. News and World Report, which compares several of the leading candidates for president in both parties.
The leading candidates for the Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, he said, are not pure libertarians, but both have aspects that appeal to libertarian voters. McCain, for instance, "would veto some spending bills." He also noted a recent poll that indicated a Giuliani-McCain ticket would beat a Clinton-Gore ticket, with a concentration of votes in the interior West, the region Sager identifies as most libertarian-leaning.
Barone was critical of Sager for tending to "concentrate too much on national politics." He assumes the "Franklin Roosevelt model" that says nothing happens unless Congress passes a bill to address it. Reform, however, "is bubbling up from states and localities." In mid-century America, he said, the country was centralizing. "We have moved to a more decentralized, market-oriented country."
He gave as an example education. "School choice is bottom-up," he said, starting in places like Milwaukee and Cleveland. In the District of Columbia, 24 percent of government school students are enrolled in charter schools.
"I see No Child Left Behind as a federal attempt to accelerate the process against the institutionalized opposition" to education reform, Barone said, mentioning teachers' unions and education schools as the chief opponents.
"The biggest difference I have" with Sager, Barone said, is that it is "less important to shrink government and more important to promote choice and accountability."
The book forum on The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party is available in a webcast at the Cato Institute's web site.