How failure in the war has meant success for conservatism

February 21, 2007|By Thomas F. Schaller

Last week, I argued that President Bush's Iraq war has demolished the foundations upon which the Republican Party had, until 2006, built a national majority. Paradoxically, the war has nevertheless been a huge victory for conservatism.

To explain this paradox, we begin with William F. Buckley's famous definition of conservatism as "to stand athwart history, yelling, `Stop!'"

Setting aside the dismal implications of this mantra for conservatives - a life where change is inherently bad, new ideas and peoples are threatening, social and technological advances must be resisted, and the future always frightens - conservatism's first principle is that slower is better, particularly in matters of governance.

By this standard, the Iraq war will be remembered as the great conservative triumph, for the focus and fortune diverted to Iraq have stalled so much else on the nation's agenda.

Travel back a moment to the 2000 election, the last of the pre-9/11 era, and recall the critical national issues then under discussion: energy, education and health care, to name just three.

Sure, there has been some progress on these problems, including new teaching standards and a new prescription drug benefit. (I leave it to readers to decide how well No Child Left Behind and the Medicare "Part D" prescription benefit are working, but my sense is that conservatives and liberals alike are eerily unified in their dissatisfaction with both.)

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, our supposed national wake-up call. We reoriented ourselves toward the rest of the world, especially the Islamic and Middle Eastern portions of it. On so many domestic issues, however, we hit the snooze bar.

Energy policy has been mostly an exercise in foot dragging, as America's continued dependence on foreign-produced, nonrenewable sources of energy continues unabated. In fact, U.S. dependence on foreign energy has increased since Mr. Bush took office.

The geopolitical implications of that dependence, especially in terms of blood and booty for the "oil wars" of the Middle East, have generated many essays and ample laments, yet little movement. Movement toward renewable energy use and reduced domestic consumption has brought us not much closer to solving our dependency issues.

Health care reform? The number of uninsured is rising, not shrinking. And even if the rates of uninsured have slowed, the rising costs for those who do have insurance continue to outpace income growth or the inflation rate.

Meanwhile, just as automobile insurance premiums include the costs of covering uninsured motorists, those fortunate enough to be insured are subsidizing, via higher premiums, the health care of the uninsured who show up in emergency rooms. (I often wonder what would happen if insurers line-itemed this cost in their invoices. Would it be a useful reminder to the insured about the costs of inaction?)

As for education, consider that if we removed our troops from Iraq tomorrow, the total cost of the war, including replacement of our military equipment and the future costs for medical and veterans benefits, will be at least $1 trillion. That sum could have provided an average of $20 billion for every state to splurge on new school facilities, new books and new computers.

To turn President Bush's much-ridiculed question back on him, "Is our children learning" any better today they were six years ago?

I seriously doubt it.

Even immigration reform, an issue dear to social conservatives, has generated more talk than action. The U.S.-Mexico border is a bit tougher to cross, but the plucky can find their way to America if they want to badly enough.

Standing athwart history is grueling work. Beating back progress and progressives takes a lot of energy, because people - future-minded Americans, especially - have a habit of welcoming change. History has a similar penchant for never standing still.

The president has done his best these past six years to venerate conservatism. He says his successor will inherit the war. Because Iraq has drained attention and resources away from other issues, the next president will also inherit plenty of other unresolved problems.

And that is how Mr. Bush engineered a conservative triumph and a Republican collapse all at once.

If that sounds like a contradiction, perhaps you're standing too athwart history to appreciate it.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com.

His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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