Done Right
Are conservatives just incompetent? Or is it their ideology? Hey, why choose?
By Mark Schmitt
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As even the most committed conservatives have begun to recognize the scale of the debacle, foreign and domestic, of the seven years during which they have held unchecked power, they have begun to plot a slick escape from the consequences. "Oh, that?" they will say. "That wasn't conservatism. That was something completely different." It started out as conservatism, they say, but was corrupted by the culture of Washington, by Jack Abramoff or Tom DeLay. Or, they say, so sorry, we misjudged George W. Bush, failed to see how incompetent he was. Or, as in recent tributes to Karl Rove on his resignation from the White House, they will admit that the single-minded focus on winning elections, bending all policy to that purpose, destroyed the conservative soul. If they have the chutzpah of Rove himself, they will blame Hillary Clinton.

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If there were any justice in the world, such claims would take their place in history alongside those of the old Marxists who, as Alan Wolfe noted in these pages last year ("Why Conservatives Can't Govern," July/August 2006), insisted that the only problem with communism was that it had never been properly implemented. The noble dream, they argued, should not be judged by its real-world manifestations. Maybe so. But in the real world, ideologies are judged by their consequences.

Such justice is unlikely for the recent American right, however, and the evasion of responsibility has been made easier by Democrats' nearly total focus on individual actors: George W. Bush and, to a lesser extent, Rove and Dick Cheney. Thus the spate of books with titles like The Lies of George Bush and Bush's Brain. Now Rove is gone, DeLay is gone, and in sixteen months Bush and Cheney will join them, but their brand of conservatism may never be held to account for its failures in practice.

Two years ago, writing in the American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias coined the phrase "the incompetence dodge" to describe those liberal supporters of the Iraq War who hid defensively behind the claim that the war was a good idea in the abstract but they could not have known it would be executed so poorly. In his new book, The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing, Century Foundation vice president of policy Greg Anrig extends the argument of the incompetence dodge to nearly every aspect of conservative rule. Anrig's principal contention (to oversimplify somewhat) is that ideas that turn out badly were probably bad ideas to begin with. Anrig posits that each failure—from the Bush administration's planning and conduct of the war to its mishandling of Hurricane Katrina to the results of tax cutting and privatization at the state and local levels—was the result of a real-world experiment in a flawed ideology rather than just the fault of a few incompetent or nefarious individuals.

And for the most part, he succeeds. It is important to be reminded, for example, that Bush's extreme claims of executive power are not just arbitrary power grabs, but are rooted in two decades of theorizing, from leaders of the conservative Federalist Society, about the "unitary executive," and even the appointment of incompetents such as FEMA director Michael Brown was based in conservative ideology and conservative think tanks, particularly the contempt for institutions of government and impartial bureaucracy. And deregulation has been at the heart of conservatism, resulting in tangible, fatal consequences in auto safety, health, and the environment.

But in some cases, Anrig begs the question, Is conservatism possible without the particular extremes of the Bush era? Or, to paraphrase political philosopher Michael Walzer, can there be a decent right? There's nothing inherent in conservatism that says, "Fire all U.S. attorneys who aren't 'loyal Bushies'" or "Appoint losers to life-and-death positions in government." As a counterexample, we have the Reagan administration, which was a decidedly conservative government that—with some notable exceptions—appointed reasonably competent people and adjusted course in response to results. (When the 1981 tax cuts led to deficits, the Reaganites raised taxes, and when their own excesses of executive power led to the Iran-Contra scandal, Howard Baker was made White House chief of staff and the adults were put in charge.) Washington is full of middle-aged Justice Department lawyers and Environmental Protection Agency scientists who will tell you that all through the Reagan and Bush I years, no less than in the Carter and Clinton eras, they did their jobs and their professional recommendations were honored, without interference, and only in the second Bush administration did that change. In some cases, it seems unfair or unwise to generalize from the particulars of the worst administration in history to conservatism writ large.

It's possible to imagine a very conservative regime that would limit the scope of government to a few core activities—defense and disaster relief surely among them—and carry out those limited missions with professionalism. I wouldn't vote for such a regime, and that's the problem—neither would most Americans. George W. Bush has held office at a time when citizens haven't actually wanted limited, conservative government; they've wanted government that would do more, from prescription drug benefits to aid to education, and to win elections conservatives had to deliver some version of those things. Yet they did so in a passive-aggressive way, colored by their contempt for the very government they were expanding. It is this particular combination, and not conservatism alone, that gives birth to some of the debacles Anrig notes, such as the Medicare prescription drug program.

Anrig's argument is richer and more persuasive when he moves from the special case of Bush to more generalizable examples, such as the long history of deregulation and conservative policy at the state and local levels. His strongest chapter—at least for me, because it changed my mind—examines experiments with private school vouchers in Milwaukee and elsewhere. I have supported school choice, or at least a more careful and thorough experiment with the effects on both public and private school students than has been conducted to date, so this chapter was a bracing read, making clear that to support choice conditionally puts one in bed with people who have no interest whatsoever in the outcomes of such an experiment. Anrig doesn't so much show that private school choice has failed—although it appears to have—as that conservatives have manipulated and broken every honest effort to determine whether it has succeeded or failed, because the answer is of no interest to them. Improving educational outcomes is a lower priority, if a priority at all, than breaking down successful public institutions and implementing the gospel according to Uncle Milton.

As the incompetence dodge supporters of the Iraq War discovered, there are times when the abstract merits of an idea cannot be judged separately from the motives and bad faith of its advocates.

These chapters sharpen Anrig's critique of conservatism: at least as much as the substance of conservatism, it is the refusal of conservatives to acknowledge and respond to these real-world outcomes that he objects to. At times, Anrig uses the word "ideology" interchangeably with "conservativism," suggesting that it is ideology itself he opposes, if the word is defined as a blind commitment to certain ideas and agendas, indifferent to their results. And the alternative he is proposing seems not to be liberalism or progressivism as ideologies, but "pragmatism," in the sense of "doing what works" and responding to results.

Pragmatism in both the philosophical and vernacular sense of the word is of course a noble element of the liberal tradition, and some historians argue that even FDR was a pragmatist, doing whatever needed to be done to end the Depression and win World War II. At the high tide of liberalism, its very essence was to disclaim ideology, as in John F. Kennedy's 1962 Yale commencement speech declaring that the problems of the modern world were technical questions to be solved not by ideology, but by "experts." Michael Dukakis inherited that brand of liberalism when he made "Competence, not ideology" the motto of his 1988 presidential campaign.

But Kennedy and Dukakis were wrong: pragmatism and expertise is not enough, and liberals paid a price for that technocratic smugness for decades. There's a place for ideology, giving coherence and direction to public life, as the political success of conservative rhetoric has demonstrated.

As liberalism moves into the ascendance again, it will have much to learn from both the successes and failures of conservatism, as well as from its own past mistakes. It should shed the technocratic illusion that it is not an ideology, but also avoid the blinders and indifference to results that have now brought conservatism to the brink of extinction.

Anrig's fine book has the intended effect. But at the end, I started to feel sorry for conservatism itself. It's an ideology with some good ideas and sometimes useful correctives to the excesses of liberalism. Unfortunately, it can't be separated from the bad motives, bad faith, and incompetence of its supporters.

   

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Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist for the American Prospect.  
 
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