I'm Voting for the Conservative Candidate--If I Can Find Him


I've watched the Presidential Election of 2008 unfold with anxiety. As a life-long Republican, I've never had any question about who I wanted to be the next President. Indeed, I've usually been completely committed to the Republican candidate before the primaries were even over.

Not so this year. No--this isn't an announcement that I've thrown in with Obama. Rather it's a confession that McCain and the Republican Party of Bush II have left me cold.

Reagan or Bush

Part of my problem is that more than a Republican, I am a conservative. I've been a conservative since fifth grade--the first Presidential election I remember. The Vietnam War was raging and I watched the nightly news aghast at the behavior of those only a little older than I was. My instincts have always been to trust historical norms--a classic (in the Burke sense) conservative position. Interestingly, I don't remember my parents ever uttering a political thought. I don't think they even knew who the other voted for.

Peggy Noonan made an interesting distinction in the pages of the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago between the Republican Party under Reagan and that same institution under Bush. No matter whether you agreed with Reagan or not, there was never any question that his decisions were grounded in his conservative philosophy.

With George W. Bush, by contrast, as hard as conservatives have tried to stick with and defend him over the past 8 years, it's clear (at least to me) that his decisions are largely based on the emotion of the moment or hubris--perhaps both. When I say hubris, I don't mean the kind of personal hubris to which all politicians are prone, but rather a kind of nationalistic hubris that colored every decision made.

Bush's decisions don't seem principled. I've tried to find the underlying philosophy what will knit together the last eight years. I can't divine it. Maybe you can. I certainly don't recognize him as a conservative. He has increased government size and oversight in ways that appall me.

Iraq

This gut-feel approach to policy, combined with cowboy-style hubris led us to the debacle that the Iraq War has become.

I have been a supporter of the war in Iraq. I never believed that it was about weapons of mass destruction. I understood it from the start to be a calculated risk to significantly disrupt the Middle East and change the dynamics of the region.

That reality, while still relevant, has faded behind the Bush administration's need to couch the war in terms that would gain support of the electorate in ways that even the opposing party couldn't ignore.

Did the Bush administration lie about the reasons for going to war? Yes, but so have other administrations. That isn't their unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin was failing to prosecute the war and the subsequent occupation of Iraq in a way that achieved the necessary goals and didn't undermine America's interests.

Going it alone in a war without broad support is risky business. Yet the Bush administration didn't approach the war like it was risky. They failed to commit sufficient resources--against the advice of the professional soldiers--in spite of that fact that they were engaged in a contest that America could not afford to lose. That's hubris or stupidity. I don't think they're stupid.

The result of this, maybe more than any other thing, is that Republicans were forced to stand firm with an administration that was blowing in the philosophical wind. That damaged not just the Republican Party's brand, but I think caused the Party to lose sight of what it stands for and what it means to be conservative.

Parties of Convenience

Over the years, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have had to court independents to win. As that block has become larger both parties have become collections of special interests and increasingly defined by fear. To be sure, there have always been some unlikely alliances in politics, but I think it's gotten worse to the point that both parties have lost their philosophical underpinnings.

As a result, the Republican party has become identified with issues that, to me at least, have little to do with conservatism. Pro-life and being tough on illegal immigration are just a few I could mention. I'm strongly against abortion, but Republicans have controlled the Presidency and the Congress for much of the last thirty years and Roe v. Wade still stands. I'm increasingly skeptical that the best way to save the lives of the unborn is to overturn that decision. And even if you did, it would simply be a battle won in a war long from over.

The battle against illegal immigration is, of course, a valid security concern. But too often it spills over into anti-globalism and xenophobia. Conservatives are supposed to be pragmatic (as opposed to idealistic) in their approach to issues. The immigration issue has conservatives arguing idealistically and ignoring pragmatic issues. Fences aren't the answer to this problem.

But before we go down the rabbit hole of arguing these two issues, however, let me pull the argument back to my main point: the Republican party has lost it's philosophical way. Both of these issues are trotted out on the campaign over and over again to "energize the base." That is my point. The base of the Republican party is apparently religious fundamentalists and gun toting Minutemen. And all this time I thought it was conservatives. Apparently there aren't enough of us.

For me, the heart of conservatism rests on the concepts that small government is better than large government, local government is better than remote government, and private property and individual freedom are more important than social good.

American conservatism is much more libertarian than not and we've lost sight of the strong appeal that the desire to be left alone has for people. Rather than being defined as the party of less government intervention, Republicans have settled for being about some kinds of intervention and not others. The key difference between Republicans and Democrats today is what kind of intervention you favor.

I'm distressed by the rising anti-intellectualism in the Republican party. More and more arguments, if you can call them that, are made on the basis of ad hominem attacks on the "intelligence" of the opposition. The message is you can't trust people who think too much.

For me conservatism can be at home--even happy--with science and intellectuals. Science should be non-partisan and partisans would do well to treat it as the tool that it is, not the enemy. I find no disconsonance between rationality, science, and conservatism.

The Candidates

All of this is a long-winded explanation of my unease as the election approaches.

I have great respect for Barack Obama. I've read his books and find him to be a man of integrity and intellect. He is more like me in many ways than John McCain because of generational issues. John McCain is the 20th century. Barack Obama is the 21st century.

But that doesn't disguise the fact that Obama is the most anti-business, pro-government (and those two don't always go together) Presidential candidate in my memory. He has no business experience to speak of and--more to the point--his other experience is in organizations that are almost vehement in their anti-business rhetoric and activity. On top of that, his overall experience is very thin.

Obama's associations show that he's a very "big tent" kind of guy, but they can be troubling. I don't doubt his ability to hear things he disagrees with and filter those out. That's the sign of intelligence and I hope that every President would hear opinions of all stripes before making decisions. But Obama has been slow to denounce ideas that he must disagree with making me wonder whether he is a thought leader or follower.

Moreover, Obama is the Democrat's plaything. The Democratic Party is as much an unholy alliance of special interests as the Republicans and Obama has almost never said no to any of those special interests in his--admittedly brief--public life. Much has been made of the fact that McCain voted with President Bush 90% of the time, but Obama's record is an even more dismal 97% of the time. With that number, 90% looks downright rebellious.

Obama is more symbol than candidate and that is his great strength. Unfortunately, symbols don't govern. People do.

McCain has his own set of liabilities. He is, as I mentioned, a product of the 50's and spent very little time outside of Government. His experience is a plus only to the extent that his experience is relevant or right. His association with Keating at best shows him to be naive in the way that most politicians are about business.

I have no faith in McCain's ability to handle the economy. His grandstanding during the recent crisis show little judgment about what his role could or should be and, worse, his inability to make a difference was telling.

This may not be such a bad thing. Of one thing I'm sure: Bush and the Republicans did not cause this latest crisis and no amount of government intervention--short of breaking markets entirely--would have prevented it. Had Al Gore won the election in 2000 (no, he didn't) then he would be presiding over this problem and the Republicans would be reaping the benefit of voters fearful of their future.

In something that matters a great deal to me, technology policy, McCain is consistently out-of-touch. To some extent this speaks to the generational issue, but more than that, it represents a marked lack of understanding about how the world works. Technology isn't just a way to send letters without a stamp. Technology underpins the modern world in the same way that economics does and anyone who does not understand it is bound to make poor policy decisions.

McCain rather than shoring up his conservative base has, rather, been shoring up the base of convenient bedfellows we call the GOP. As a result his campaign has degenerated into a litany of populist ideology. Nothing speaks to this more than his choice of Populist-in-Chief Sarah Palin as the Vice-Presidential candidate. (To be fair, Obama is no better; his campaign has also been overtaken by populist rhetoric.)

Palin is decidedly Bushian, not Reaganesque. Moreover, the campaign has treated her badly by using her as an attack (bull)dog instead of a figure (symbol?) who could appeal on the basis of diversity and reform.

So you see my anxiety. Obama represents every policy I believe is wrong for America and yet is more like me in temperament and viewpoint. If I sat down for an afternoon with Obama, I'm sure we would have a very interesting conversation (for me at least).

On the other hand, McCain while seemingly more in line with my beliefs on individual policies, seems to be out of touch on key foundational issues that I see as critical to good governing and decision making. He also is not like me. He's not even like my Dad. I think if McCain and I sat down by the BBQ for an afternoon we'd both be bored stiff unless we talked about the Navy (I was in the Navy for 14 years).

With all that, who am I voting for? I'll let you guess. I'm not sure I know.