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Thinking Like a Conservative (Part Three): On Shutting Down Government | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Thinking Like a Conservative (Part Three): On Shutting Down Government


Texas Senator Ted Cruz is among the group of congressional Republicans pushing for the overturn of the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

What the hell is going on? What could House Republicans possibly be thinking?

You’re not the only one asking. On Facebook, I read many questions: Where’s the logic? Do House Republicans see a government shutdown as but a small price to pay for a chance to enter a sweepstakes for the biggest possible prize, the actual repeal of Obamacare? What’s the calculation—that stodgy Republican Senators finally come to their senses and vote for repeal after a government showdown? Do they believe Obama will fold, and actually agree to sign a bill defunding his signature initiative? That tough old Harry Reid will blink? And what’s up with the “you delay Obamacare for one year, we agree to let the government run for another ten weeks and won’t let the nation default” compromise? Do they actually think that proposal is for real? Who are these people?

Come back with me to 1964. Barry Goldwater has won enough delegates for a first-ballot nomination victory at the Republican National Convention. But according to the Gallup Poll, by a margin of 55 to 34 percent, Republican voters—Republican voters; the percentage of all voters would have been much, much higher—preferred his opponent for the nomination, William Warren Scranton. What the hell was going on? What were the people who thought Goldwater could beat Lyndon Johnson thinking? Well, as I wrote in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, Phyllis Schlafly was thinking this: that Gallup just asked “a lot of questions of a very few people” in order to “come up with answers that pleased the New York kingmakers.” Delegates for Goldwater, meanwhile, pressed to see reason and nominate a candidate who could actually win, wrote telegrams of reassurance to Goldwater: will vote for you if my vote alone is the only vote you obtain… i am prepared to stand by you as resolutely as did general thomas for the union at chicamauga… i have been, and will be, subject to pressures of tremendous force. however, i will be able to stand up to this and come out of the convention with a clear conscience to face our god and our people. Young Republicans in Wisconsin wrote to delegates from their state: “Vote our wishes in San Francisco or continue westward.”

And then, two months later, in September, when all the polls predicted exactly what ended up happening—Goldwater losing in a landslide—William F. Buckley addressed a convention of Young Americans for Freedom, and shocked them. He spoke, in his bizarrely orotund way, of the Goldwater campaign: “A great rainfall has deluged a thirsty earth, but before we had time to properly prepare for it. I speak, of course, about the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater.” As I wrote in Before the Storm, “His heresy sucked the air out of the room. The silence was broken by the sound of a single woman sobbing.”

They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. One of the distinguishing features of belonging to a movement is hoping against hope; perhaps you have been there yourself.

Now this. It has been a slow, steady process, one beginning with the Goldwater years and all but completed now, with the Tea Party ascendency: in the Republican Party, the conservative movement rules. One of the founders of that movement, Bill Buckley, was also one of the movement’s crucial counterweights as an occasional, and lonely, voice of temperance. But William F. Buckley is dead now. It is not an accident that the Tea Party madness coincided not merely with the rise of Obama but with the death of Buckley. Rush Limbaugh used to refer to Buckley as “Mr. Buckley”—he didn’t thus honor anyone else, let alone the politicians who pay him sycophantic court. It’s not hard to imagine Buckley placing discrete phone calls to Rush telling him he was going too far, and Rush respecting his counsel. No counterweights any longer. And so the day after Obama’s triumphant first State of the Union Address, which won a 68 percent approval rating from the public, Rush went further than he’d ever gone before, mimicking John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s “principal of reversal” about how you were supposed to interpret Communists: “Pay no attention to what he says. He means the opposite in most cases. What he says is irrelevant.”

That was the political culture of the conservatives controlling the Republican Party—before there was such a thing as a “Tea Party.” Recall how, within a fortnight of Obama’s inauguration, House Republicans held a retreat at which organizer Mike Pence of Indiana screened the scene from Patton in which George C. Scott barked of “the enemy:” “We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time, and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose.” No different, really, from last week’s meeting in which the same lovely gang, according to the testimony of Representative John Culberson of Texas, shouted, “‘Let’s vote!’ and I said, you know like 9/11, ‘Let’s roll!’” They were, he said, “giddy.” They were the French Resistance. They were the men plotting to decapitate Hitler. They were the Southern governors pledging massive resistance (read historian Nelson Lichenstein on the subject; it’s fascinating; he nails it)—though they were also, naturally, Martin Luther King. Even if they lose they have won; they have made their heroic stand. And if they win, they… win. (Either way, living in safely gerrymandered Republican districts, they win re-election, and, sanctified as “true conservatives,” can’t be primaried from the right. But can enjoy boatloads of Kochtified “dark money” too.)

This is war for them, folks. Stop pretending to try like it isn’t. William Baroody, head of the American Enterprise Institute, October 1972: conservatism is a “war for the minds of men.” Ralph Reed, November 1991: “I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.” And now the estimable Representative Culverson, in an article on his “100 percent united!” caucus and their euphoria at what they about to attempt: “Ulysses S. Grant said, ‘Quit worrying about what Bobby Lee’s doing and let’s focus on what we are doing. We are focusing on what we need to do and not worrying about what the other guy is going to do…. That’s how Ulysses S. Grant won the war.”

And the Republican “establishment,” the folks who are supposed to be holding these forces in check, the guys like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, calling the proposal to defund Obamacare a “silly effort”? Thank of them like shabby gentility. You know the concept: the folks depicted in Chekhov’s plays and many of his short stories; in Visconiti’s filmic masterpiece The Leopard; or, more recently, in the narrative arc of Downton Abby. The class whose vestments of power are now merely formal, their actually command of events nugatory, trying to hold on to scraps of dignity and self-respect as they negotiate their uneasy peace with the bourgeois louts who don’t just misunderstand the old rules of civility but actively flout them.

In this case, they do it on “principle.” So here’s a good question I’ve seen: If this is a “principled” stand, what is the principle? It’s not hard. As movement conservative Brent Bozell Jr. ghostwrote for Barry Goldwater wrote in 1960’s Conscience of a Conservative, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.” If you believe that, why would a government shutdown be all that undesirable? Listen to Buckley again from that September 1964 speech: “Any election of Barry Goldwater would presuppose a sea change in American public opinion,” as if American society, “prisoners of all those years, succeeded in passing blithely through the walls of Alcatraz and tripping lightly over the shark-infested waters and treacherous currents, to safety on the shore.”

Yes: if you were a conservative, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—Medicare,the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.—was the equivalent of incarceration in Alcatraz. And this was conservatism’s grown-up.

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There’s something worse now. Many movement conservatives are driven, if implicitly, by a terrifying intellectual foundation not even present in Goldwater’s day: the Christian Reconstructionist view that, since the family is the basic unit of God’s covenant, the secular humanist state is a false idol held up by minions like Obama (and you) in order to mock all that is godly—a well-nigh Satanic rival for the redemption of the world. Though there is also, if you’re not a particularly theological conservative (or if you believe theology, Leo Strauss–ishly, is bread and circuses for the rubes), a pragmatic motivation to draw from as well. Consider William Kristol, in his infamous 1993 memo “Defeating President Clinton’s Healthcare Proposal.” As I wrote a couple of years ago, for Kristol “the notion of government-guaranteed health care had to be defeated, he said, rather than compromised with, or else: ‘It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.’ Kristol wrote on behalf of an organization called the Project for a Republican Future. The mortal fear is that if government delivers the goods, the Republicans have no future.” Even their pragmatists are nuts.

Midnight deadline. Let’s hope reason prevails.

In part two of this series, Perlstein deconstructs Republican efforts to restrict voting.

In part one of this series, Perlstein discusses the static position of conservatives on gun control legislation.—

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