As I write during the final days of the California gubernatorial recall campaign, we are yet to know the outcome and what it will mean for the political future of that state and its implications for the national elections. However, regardless of the results of the election (and incidentally, as a social conservative, I don’t have a “dog in this fight” who can win), the lessons from this experience of the “left coast” should not be lost on the rest of the country. I will begin with the recall process itself, which, along with the concept of initiative and referendum, is an outgrowth of the progressive-era populist notion that our constitutionally based republican structure of governance is antiquated and antithetical to majoritarian democracy. Constitutional traditionalists are repelled by both concepts, but I must admit that these measures do fill a void because they are “customer-driven” and offer an opportunity for real debate on issues that are often perverted by the legislative process or, worse, deferred to the judiciary. To this extent, at least, the California experience will hopefully send a message to the political class that failure has consequences. Second, the most significant policy message is one that I believe applies to aggressive national, state, and local governments everywhere—the future belongs to those regions that are attractive to capital, treat it well, and whose policies are friendly and nurturing to the spirit of enterprise. Here we have clear evidence of the degree to which the incumbent California regime has been an abject failure, as reflected in the way capital and enterprise and the jobs they create express their “vote” with their feet by leaving unfriendly environments. As reported by Daniel Henninger in a perceptive Wall Street Journal essay, California has suffered a net out-migration of over 750,000 people since 1995 and this phenomenon is consistent in all those states that pursue highly progressive tax policies, boondoggle spending, and punitive regulation of enterprise. This is economic illiteracy and it deserves to be punished, if for no other reason so that its emulation will be discouraged.
A quick overview of my take on where we are in Iraq:
(1) We are winning the war and we must and will pursue it to a final completion, provided we have the political will to do so, with or without UN support.
(2) In fits and starts, trial and error, we are successfully building a nation in Iraq, not as the American Founders could and would have designed, but in a way that will allow its acceptance in the community of free people under the rule of law.
(3) As messy and uncivil as some of it has been, we are conducting a meaningful national debate on the Bush Doctrine, the first, and necessary, major foreign policy paradigm shift since the end of the Cold War.
President Bush’s problem is the “spin”—of the media’s failure to report our successes and mistakes in a balanced way; of the anti-American and anti-war left’s ambivalence on the use of American power in the world; of the Bush-haters’ tendency to protect, to a certain extent for Hillary’s sake, Bill Clinton’s legacy of neglect of the war on terrorism that began on his watch; and, admittedly, of Bush’s own deficiencies in articulating, forcefully and more often, the degree to which the war in Iraq was one of choice for the right reasons. Of all the spin, none is more outrageous than that coming from some among the leadership and presidential candidates of the opposition party. As Charles Krauthammer has noted, recent comments from Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, and other irresponsible Democrats can no longer be dismissed as simply partisan political rhetoric. They have reached the pathological stage. For here is a President that they relegated to the classes of “illegitimate” and “accidental” who now has a once per century opportunity to change the direction of world history, and they are terrified of what that might mean for their long-term competitive viability.
The fact is that Iraq is the front–our enemies in the world know it and Bush’s political opponents know it. The absolutely essential ingredients for success are moral clarity on the mission and perseverance in the face of political considerations.
From the outset, one of the underlying themes of The Texas Pilgrim has been the notion that “ideas have consequences”, and one of the thinkers who inspired that notion in me is Richard M. Weaver, whose book of that name, published in 1948, has been an invaluable source of the wisdom of that aphorism. Weaver diagnoses the ills of the age as the culmination of an evolution of thought that began with a major change in philosophy when, in the fourteenth century, man’s conception of the reality of transcendentals was first seriously challenged. In short, the issue involved whether or not there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man. Thus was born the philosophy of nominalism—the idea that the only reality is that perceived by the senses. Once this concept took hold, the rest, as they say, is history. From there, we proceeded beyond the careful scientific study of nature to the denial of anything transcending experience, to rationalism elevated to the rank of a philosophy, to the materialistic idea of man explained only by his environment, and to psychological “behaviorism” and the abolishment of free will. And from there it was not a great leap to the postmodern abandonment of timeless moral truth and the attendant moral relativism that plagues our age. Needless to say, the consequences abound.
In my view, President Bush’s re-election prospects depend less on our success in Iraq than on his success on the domestic front, read broadly to include the economy of course, but also spending and other aspects of domestic policy. Frankly, although they have been relatively muted in their criticism, much of it so far has been a disappointment to his core base of movement conservatives. The litany of obvious mistakes has been well documented—the steel tariff, the agriculture subsidy bill, etc.—but there have been at least as many mistakes of omission as of commission. My concern is that the President has not used the “bully pulpit” and his position as “teacher-in-chief” nearly to the extent that he should. There are numerous examples:
· The Supreme Court decision in the University of Michigan affirmative action case that effectively entrenched the concept of diversity through racial preferences as a compelling public interest was, in effect, applauded by the White House.
· The tax cut was a big victory, but was sold by the administration simply as a stimulus package, without any reference to the validity of supply side fiscal policy or its long-term impact on the size and role of the government in people’s lives.
· The most significant reason for the return of budget deficits is the largest non-defense discretionary spending spree since the Great Society of the 1960’s, mostly for education, health care, and transportation, which was largely condoned by the administration.
· Bush is the first President since John Quincy Adams not to have vetoed a single bill at this point in his term in office.
· The Senate Democrats get away with blocking Bush’s judicial appointments without a serious fight and without even a real filibuster, allowing advice and consent to be completely subverted into a partisan contest requiring a super-majority for confirmation.
· Aggressive leadership on the wedge cultural issues that are crucial to social conservatives is avoided except for glancing references in occasional speeches.
· Spending on “corporate welfare” has reached record levels, almost three times the amount that will be spent on the war in Iraq this year, and, in the case of the agriculture subsidies, undermines our credibility in world free trade negotiations.
· The plan to privatize Social Security has taken a back seat, and the priority of marketizing prescription drug benefits and Medicare has obviously been subordinated.
· Legislation to provide school choice for the District of Columbia, which would provide a major breakthrough for the concept nationally, is languishing in the Senate without significant vocal support from the White House.
Does this resemble the party of Ronald Reagan? Is this all that is left of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994? Has “compassionate” conservatism become “big government” conservatism? Bush has already proven himself as a transformational foreign policy and wartime leader and, unless the Democrats significantly improve on their current message, he will probably be re-elected provided the situation in Iraq does not become a disaster and the economy continues to rebound, but I remember a line from his acceptance speech in 2000—“they did not lead, we will”, and I believe he and his advisors are underestimating the latent political support for much more aggressive advocacy of conservative domestic policy. He should use his 2004 State of the Union message to aggressively re-launch such an agenda.