Mark Schmitt on the GOP

I suppose I agree with Mark Schmitt's overarching thesis in his essay on the GOP and identity politics: The Republican Party, with few winning policy issues on which to campaign, has fallen back on symbolic issues related to culture, patriotism and American identity in an attempt to hold its fraying coalition together. But many of the specific claims he makes seem more than a little puzzling. Conor Friedersdorf, ex-Atlantic intern extraordinaire, does a good job highlighting a few of them, including Schmitt's peculiar description of "welfare, crime, and immigration" as "symbolic issues" (which would seem to define the term "symbolic issue" as "any issue the Democrats tend to lose on"), and his even more peculiar claim that "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." (As Conor says: "!?") To wax solipsistic for a moment, I thought I'd focus on a passage that relates to our book, in which Schmitt writes:

The more specific ideas proposed in some of these books are mostly smart and palatable. 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. If former Rep. Mickey Edwards' call in Reclaiming Conservatism for a respectful constitutional libertarianism and a restoration of the balance of powers were the Republican ideology, I would think of the party as a sometimes useful check on the ambitions of liberalism. But most of these ideas are not what they claim to be: plans for renewing the party by anchoring it in a rediscovery of the moral absolutes of conservatism. Rather, they are purely improvisational, tactical positioning--attempts to meet the public demand for action on health care and climate change without accepting liberal solutions, much like the Bush Republicans' attempt to meet the demand for prescription-drug coverage under Medicare. These are elegant, short-term compromises disguised as ideology.

I confess that I have not read Rep. Edwards volume as yet, so I can't speak to his claims, but this strikes me as a peculiar description of our project. I must have missed the section where we claimed to have rediscovered "the moral absolutes of conservatism" (perhaps Reihan wrote it, and slipped in just before the book went to press), and the notion that we have "disguised" our policy proposals as "ideology" strikes me as absurd. Indeed, to the extent that you can read Grand New Party as saying anything about ideology, right-wing or otherwise, I would suggest that we are hostile to it: We tend to take the Kirkian (and, I would submit, '70s neoconservative) view that conservatism ought to be inherently anti-ideological, and we view the ideological turn on the American Right - the confusion of policy positions, which by definition ought to be open for debate and alteration, with "moral absolutes" that no true right-winger should deviate from - as a serious problem for conservatism, both in the Bush years and before.

As for whether our proposals are essentially "improvisational" and "tactical" - well, I would submit that there's plenty of material in our book that could ground a conservative party long after the particular controversies of 2008 have run their course. (It might ground it on a disastrous foundation, but that's a separate argument.) In another sense, though, Schmitt is clearly right - it's just that the quality he's describing is a feature rather than a bug. That's because my own (highly provisional) definition of American conservatism would run something like this: A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals. Any politics that takes this sort of conservatism as its touchstone will by its very nature be "provisional" and "tactical," in the sense that the threats to the American way of life, and the fronts on which it makes sense for conservatives to battle, are constantly shifting around. There are no final victories for conservatives: We are not struggling to "achieve our country," but to sustain it, and so "elegant, short-term" resolutions are often all that we should aim for.