There are many great insights in Christopher Caldwell's essay on the state of conservatism in the NYTBR today, and before engaging him on where I disagree, I should note where I concur. I like his elegant expression of the core conservative divide:

Republicans’ future electoral fortunes will depend on domestic policy and specifically on whether they can reconnect with “small-c” conservatism the conservatism whose mottoes are “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “Mind your own business,” and the opposite of which is not liberalism but utopianism. The Bush administration was a time of “big-C” Conservatism, ideological conservatism, which the party pursued with mixed results. As far as social issues were concerned, this ideology riveted a vast bloc of religious conservatives to the party, and continues to be an electoral asset (although that bloc, by some measures, is shrinking). Had gay marriage not been on several state ballots in 2004, John Kerry might now be sitting in the White House.

But these were only mixed results, if you take an utterly cynical view of politics. The utopianism that gave us the Iraq war and nation-building in Afghanistan led to moral, strategic and fiscal disaster. Opposition to marriage equality may have saved Iowa in 2004, but it stranded the GOP against the tide of history, and branded it as intolerant and hateful. Ideological conservatism that argued that markets can regulate themselves - as opposed to small-c conservatism that understands that vigilant government regulation is essential to making markets work properly - gave us the worst financial crash and recession since the Great Depression. The rigidity on taxation, while blithely adding unfunded entitlements, gave us the real basis for the massive debt that we now face.

This is Caldwell's response on the supply-side calamity:

Yet the case against supply-side economics can never be airtight or decisive, and Republican tax promises will probably help the party this year. That is because taxes are not just an economic benchmark, but a political one. The public should not expect more in services than it pays in taxes. But the government should not expect more in taxes than it offers in representation. And the number of Americans who feel poorly represented has risen alarmingly during the Obama administration.

It seems to me that the evidence of the last twenty years proves conclusively - in, yes, an airtight way - that cutting taxes does not increase revenue. And the notion that the unpopularity of any president at any moment in time, despite regular elections, legitimately delegitimizes the need to raise taxes to ameliorate the debt ... is peculiar in the extreme. It would have forbidden Reagan, Bush I and Clinton from raising taxes, because they were unpopular for doing so.

Then we have this remarkable statement:

There is little of the ad hominem contempt that was in evidence during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Forbes magazine just photoshopped Obama as Stalin; tea-party rallies have been awash in Hitler comparisons; a huge chunk of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim (which they regard as self-evidently bad, as Fox News now propagandizes) or not eligible to be president. Yes, Obama has remarkably high favorables among independents and Democrats - but Republicans have projected every literally demonic caricature they could imagine onto him. They also, pace Caldwell, obstructed him monolithically from the very get-go. What was Christopher smoking when he wrote this:

It is often said in the president’s defense that Republican obstructionism left him no choice. Today, this is true and it has put an end, for now, to the productive part of his presidency. But it was not true at the time of the stimulus in early 2009, when the president’s poll numbers were so stratospherically high that it appeared risky to oppose him on anything.

Fully one third of the stimulus was tax cuts. We were potentially facing a second Great Depression. The Republicans had already backed TARP under their former president, bailing out the banks. Almost no economists favored doing nothing to stop demand spiraling downwards. Many on the left now argue that the stimulus wasn't big enough - and the unemployment rate certainly doesn't argue against them. And yet not a single Republican vote could be found for the president's measure at a time of enormous national danger and risk. That was how extremist and ideological the Congressional GOP was at the time, even as, of course, those very Republicans - who had taken pork

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barrel spending to new heights in the Bush years - boasted about stimulus projects in their own districts. I'm sorry but I do not believe the stimulus package was impossible for small-c conservatives to support in some measure, given the crisis we were facing. And so the monolithic Republican opposition in the president's first weeks in office was not a sign of Obama's sudden leftism, but of their profound and self-centered cynicism.

Caldwell then simply jumps from noting that Independents have moved away from Obama to saying they have done so because he has been far more left than his pre-election statements would imply, rather than concern over unemployment and the ever-rising debt. I challenge him: on what policy issue has Obama governed to the left of his campaign?

Healthcare? The policy that passed is close to identical to his campaign platform. Defense? He picked a Republican secretary of defense, stuck to Bush's withdrawal time-table in Iraq, and decided to out-Bush Bush on Afghanistan. He refused to prosecute the war crimes of his predecessors, was stuck with the limbo of Gitmo - where the torture of prisoners had made release and prosecution impossible or imprudent. Taxation? He cut taxes. The environment? He moved right - liberalizing deep sea oil exploration (which the GOP then tried to use against him with the BP disaster!) Social issues? He has not even lifted the ban on gay servicemembers in the military. This is to the left of where he campaigned? Please. And the polls, of course, do not even show the kind of unpopularity or disapproval that Chris diagnoses. Despite massive unemployment, Obama has higher ratings than Clinton or Reagan at this point in their presidencies.

Then he segues to class and religion and rightly sees a problem for the right because of the massive rush to the exits of the GOP by most people with something higher than a college degree. He air-brushes Palin as a pragmatist in Alaska, where any real understanding of her career reveals her to be, as she has subsequently shown, a member of the extreme religious and neocon right, wrapped up in cultural class warfare. And no, she wasn's slow in opposing the bridge to nowhere.

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She originally embraced it, even wearing sweatshirts championing it.

He is, of course, correct that victory in November will be a fascinating moment for the right. Will the GOP actually put forward a budget that raises no taxes but slashes spending - especially on Medicare and defense - to a degree not even envisaged by the British Tories? For that is what they will have to do to achieve any real progress. Will they repudiate the Debt Commission and fight against any debt-reduction at all, if it means returning to Clinton era tax rates for those earning over $250,000 a year? And will they try to repeal parts of the healthcare bill, which, like the ban on refusing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, individually are actually very popular?

They seem to forget that just as the Senate has a filibuster, the president has a veto. And that with the stimulus programs, health insurance reform and financial re-regulation, the president has already achieved almost all he wanted legislatively, apart from cap-and-trade (which passed in the House). And, given their Beckian and Ailesian propaganda machine, they are far more likely to be cocooned from the center than the ever cautious Obama, and, in my view, will likely be more hubristic than Gingrich in 1994, with even less margin for error. And this time, as well as having to balance Obama to their fiscal right, they will have to appease the purist ideology of the tea-party they have stoked, or risk a Palinite third party that could kill off what's left of the GOP for good.

On this, perhaps, Christopher and I can agree. It really will get more interesting from here on out.

(Photo: Jim DeMint, Senate Minority leader, and Palin-backed Tea Party Republican candidate, Christine O'Donnell, after winning the primary for the Senate seat in Delaware. Both by Mark Wilson.)

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