Mark Schmitt's questionable analysis

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Mark Schmitt has a piece in The American Prospect that offers one wonderful passage and several to which I object.

Let's take them one by one.

Conservatives like to construct an elaborate tale of betrayal in which the true faith can be restored by wresting it away from the unseemly ambitions of Republican politicians. But that story denies the reality that the downfall of both the party and the movement began on the very moment that Bush shed all the hedges and compromises--such as "compassionate conservatism" and the Medicare prescription drug benefit--and began to try to govern like a conservative. The Bush era ended two days after the 2004 re-election when Bush declared, "I earned ... political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Starting with the effort to privatize Social Security, everything went straight downhill. The rejection of the Republican Party came not because it failed conservatism but because conservatism failed.

Hmm. I thought the rejection of the Republican Party happened due to a failing war, a souring economy, ineptitude symbolized by the failures after Hurricane Katrina, a series of political scandals that showed some GOP leaders to be corrupt idiots, an unpopular president -- need I go on? A half-hearted effort at Social Security reform is the least of the reasons for the GOP's unpopularity.

Next, however, comes the wonderful passage:

If the intellectual commissars of the opposition party were Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who in Grand New Party propose supplementing a mild social conservatism with actual economic supports for fragile families, our political system would be nicely balanced.

Grand New Party is an excellent book that you should definitely read. I disagree with a fair amount in it. But I'd gladly sign onto any project in which Ross and Reihan are my intellectual commissars.

Now back to the questionable passages:

The politics of American-ness needs to be cloaked in policy, simply because it's unpalatable otherwise. Without the helpful crutches of symbolic issues like welfare, crime, and immigration, the raw edges of the politics of people-not-like-us would be a little too uncomfortable, and not just for those of us who fall into one or more of the "pluribus" categories. But thanks to the unlikely trio of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and John McCain, the usual game is impossible. Clinton took welfare and crime off the political agenda. Bush made global belligerence and eternal tax cuts unpalatable. And McCain's inconvenient position on immigration takes away what Republicans last fall were dreaming would be their silver bullet. As a result, with Americans saying they are willing to pay more taxes for health care and better schools, with Republicans at a disadvantage in the polls on every single issue, there is no respectable costume in which to dress up identity politics.

One problem Democrats have is a mindset that treats welfare, crime and immigration as "symbolic issues." Bill Clinton "took welfare off the political agenda" by passing a once in a generation reform that led to an unprecedented decrease in welfare rolls, largely by encouraging lots of women who were formerly on welfare to get jobs. Crime got taken off the agenda because thousands fewer people were being murdered every year than at the height of America's crime wave. Immigration policy has perhaps the most dramatic impact on the future of the nation than any other issue. Dismissing these things as "identity politics" is willful blindness.

Traditionally, the phrase "identity politics" has referred to the Democratic coalition's caucuses, interest groups, and competitive claims of wrongs to be righted and rights to be granted. Identity politics on the left, according to this very conventional wisdom, opened the door to an alternative politics of national identity on the right. And yet in 2008, the Democratic presidential nomination battle between an African American and a woman has not exacerbated left identity politics but brought it to a peaceful close.