Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fissures in the Party

A number of mainstream media organizations have spent the last 2 weeks since the election beating the drum about how this is the end of the Republican Party. As you can see, Politico has led the way with this theme (as it did throughout the campaign), but today the New York Times has a story about the alleged end of intellectualism at the National Review. The reasoning behind this claim: Christopher Buckley, Kathleen Parker and David Frum. Which brings us to the second theme of the media these past weeks: the conservative movement has come to an end because a lot of conservatives liked Sarah Palin.

Parker and Buckley are allowed to support whatever political candidate they want (Frum continued to support McCain, and even laid out a cogent argument for supporting McCain). The circumstances surrounding Buckley's departure from National Review strike me as slightly embellished on his part. As for Parker, she wrote a column after the Couric interview suggesting Palin was not prepared for the job. I disagreed with her, but fine - that's her prerogative. She got a fair amount of vicious email for the column. I'm sorry that happened to her, but that's life. Just because someone is a conservative doesn't mean they are nice or a good person. Unfortunately, she felt the need to be just as childish by writing in a subsequent column that McCain picked Palin because, well:
But there can be no denying that McCain's selection of her over others far more qualified — and his mind-boggling lack of attention to details that matter — suggests other factors at work. His judgment may have been clouded by ... what?
What indeed. If I can say so, the departure of Buckley does not mark the end of intellectualism at National Review (he only wrote the column for a matter of months), and, should National Review stop running Parker's column, it certainly would not mark the end of intellectualism at the magazine. The departure of David Frum is a bit more disappointing. I often disagreed with him, but enjoyed his writing. I can't seem to figure out his reasoning, though.
Mr. Frum said deciding to leave was amicable, but distancing himself from the magazine founded by his idol, Mr. Buckley, was not a hard decision. He said the controversy over Governor Palin’s nomination for vice president was “symbolic of a lot of differences” between his views and those of National Review’s.
To be honest, the Palin pick was one of the first times I've seen Frum in broad disagreement with the rest of the folks at National Review's blogs. Given Frum's post-election analysis that the Republicans need to drop social conservatives, perhaps this is what he has in mind. It's true, of the major conservative magazines (NR, Weekly Standard, Commentary, American Spectator), National Review is probably the most socially conservative (and I'm referring to the part of NR I am most familiar with: their blogs). Most of the comments on social conservatism, however, are usually posted by a handful of individuals (Kathryn Jean Lopez, Ramesh Ponnuru), and are often countered by (I believe) atheists such as John Derbyshire and Heather Mac Donald. In fact, National Review's blogs are the most active, and contain more robust debate among varying conservative viewpoints, than any of the other conservative magazine blogs.

The Times article claims that the National Review has become the mouthpiece for the Bush administration, and has "run out of ideas." This claim is patently absurd. National Review has broken with the Bush administration on any number of topics, the most notable one being immigration reform. In fact, this is where I differ from the magazine, as I think, during the immigration debate last summer, the content on National Review's blogs was particularly unhelpful. I think they made a mistake giving the platform on immigration to commentators like Mark Krikorian, Mac Donald, Derbyshire and others, who are not just against illegal immigration, but against most kinds of legal immigration as well, a position that I suspect will not find much support on the right, let alone in the rest of the country.

Throughout this debate, Frum was in complete agreement with his colleagues at the magazine. I thought his contributions to this debate were some of his less impressive posts, for example, arguing that open borders was actually protectionism. At one point he defied all logic and tried to blame the coming loss of the Hispanic vote on those pushing for immigration reform:
The deal will worsen Republican prospects among Hispanic voters. Over the years, the Republicans have done not too badly with Hispanics, typically winning about 35%-40% of the Hispanic vote as compared to under 10% of the black vote.

Republicans have done so well because until now, the highly diverse Hispanic population has not voted as an ethnic bloc. Now we ourselves are forcing that to change. It's as if this Republican president and these Republican senators have said, "Hmm. Can we invent an issue that will teach Cuban-American doctors, Honduran day laborers, and Mexican-American army officers to think of themselves as a unified ethnic group? Can we then provoke a fight that all of them (whatever their diverging practical interests) will treat as a symbol of acceptance in American society? And can we then stage-manage this fight to ensure that two-thirds of our party will have no choice but to fall on the wrong side of it?"

I find it hard to buy the argument that the "shamnesty" crowd forced stalwart opponents of immigration reform to scream "amnesty" every time the issue came up, come out against all forms of immigration (legal and illegal), and alienate Hispanic voters. To argue such would suggest the opponents of immigration reform had no self-control.

The other recent point of disagreement between Frum and his colleagues came regarding a column written by Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, in which, despite professing long-held admiration for John McCain, she endorsed...anyone but McCain. The reason, of course, being Palin. Certainly, this was somewhat better than those on the right who said they'd vote for Obama in the hopes that he'd run away from his far left record, despite any evidence at the time to give reason for hoping such. Nevertheless, Applebaum's column consisted of a less than cogent argument. Two individuals at National Review responded as such. On the media blog, Kevin Williamson:
There are all sorts of good reasons to not vote for McCain — e.g., if you prefer Obama's policies — but this bit from Applebaum is shabby nonsense. And I find it difficult to believe for a moment that this was some sort of wrenching, soul-searching exercise for the one DC-born/Sidwell Friends-and-Yale-alumnus/Europe-dwelling member of the Washington Post editorial board who was seriously thinking about going Republican this year. Spare us the opera; you're an Obama voter. Big deal.
Williamson later apologized for his tone, while sticking to his claim that Applebaum's argument was silly. The other criticism came from Ponnuru:
Max Boot writes, “There have been a number of absurd reasons given recently by self-described conservatives who are endorsing the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate in his bid for the presidency, but none are quite as unconvincing as Anne Applebaum’s.” Her effort did seem oddly perfunctory—Mickey Kaus makes sound criticisms of it—but I think Boot is overstating the case. I can think of a few Obamacons who edge out Applebaum in the most-unconvincing category. My sense is that Francis Fukuyama has been the most honorable and serious of the Obamacons (although it would probably be more precise to call him an Obama-neocon).
Ponnuru was probably a little harsh with the "honorable" charge, but again, he's right, it was a silly argument from Applebaum. In any case, Frum, a friend of Applebaum's, took exception to this talk, and got upset that Ponnuru and Williamson failed to mention Applebaum's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gulag. To some degree, I get his point, he's as annoyed as I am with conservatives who react quite so harshly to other conservatives with whom they disagree, even if their argument for supporting Obama is full of logical holes. Nevertheless, this seems like a silly incident to get worked up over, especially coming five days before the election.

But look, just as Frum is wrong to advocate dropping social conservatives, or to get worked up over disagreements on Palin, Applebaum, or whatever the issue may be, so are other conservatives wrong to run around afixing the "RINO" label to anyone who doesn't have all the boxes ticked on the "True Conservative Checklist." I think Frum is wrong about the way forward for the party, in part because of his antipathy towards social conservatives, even if they had nothing to do with losing this year's election, but also because of his mixed-up views on the role immigration played in losing the Hispanic vote. A post-mortem he recently posted from a Democratic friend mentions the significant drop in the Republican share of the Hispanic vote, even with "Amnesty John" (as he was once called on a NR cover) at the top of the ticket. I'm glad he recognizes this as a major problem for the Republican future, but I'm not sure his positions on immigration reform, as well as what seems to be support for for severely constricting legal immigration is the solution we need.

That said, I think our party is stronger for having Frum and Buckley as members (assuming Buckley still considers himself as such). Frum's book on the War on Terror, for example, was excellent. I hear his previous books on the conservative movement are just as good, though I have not read them. At the same time, I'm not going to leave the Party or stop reading NR or other magazines simply because I disagree with them on some issues, such as immigration. If the departure of Frum and Buckley really comes down to the Palin pick, or the presence of social conservatives, or the Applebaum tiff, or whatever the area of disagreement, then they hold as much responsibility for fissures in the conservative movement as the people following Ted Nugent around on "RINO hunts."