The future of the Republican Party-10: The rise of neoconservative influence

The neoconservatives reached their pinnacle of influence with the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

The neoconservatives succeeded in planting key people in important positions. To the extent that we can discern any coherent political philosophy, Bush seems to be not a neoconservative himself, but through Dick Cheney and other key people in the Department of Defense, State, and NSA (such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, David Addington, Elliot Abrams), the neoconservatives have been able to achieve many of their goals.

Aided by the events of 9/11, they used and accentuated the fear and paranoia generated by that attack to create a mindset within the administration and the country that the US was at war with pretty much the entire Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, that this war must be won by any means necessary, and that the way to do that was to project American power, to show the world that America cannot be trifled with.

Looking back, it is amazing how so many people within government, the Congress, and the media, people who should have known better and in fact did know better, allowed this revved-up national sense of bloodlust to misdirect attention from al Qaeda, the organization behind the actual 9/11 attacks, to an attack on Iraq which had nothing to do with it and in fact was at odds with al Qaeda.

As a prime example, here is what so-called ‘moderate’ New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was saying in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq:

We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? . . . .

Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.

And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, “You will now be held accountable.”

This puerile macho posturing was what passed for serious analysis in the mainstream media. But it fit in perfectly with the neoconservative mindset because in their grand plan, Iraq was the first on the list of Middle Eastern countries that they wanted to dominate, followed by Iran and Syria, with the idea that Saudi Arabia would then naturally fall into the US orbit. So the fact that Iraq was innocent of the 9/11 attacks was deliberately obscured.

Getting the Bush administration to start the unprovoked, illegal, and immoral war with Iraq was the major ‘success’ of the neoconservatives and as a result of it, the Republican party has received strong support from them, that group seeing it as the best vehicle for advancing their agenda. In order to solidify their influence, they have provided the intellectual cover for this administration’s deliberate expansion of presidential power and authority, seeking to remove all judicial and congressional oversight.

It is this increased role and influence of the neoconservatives within the Republicans that poses a significant problem for the party.

Any political party needs a political philosophy, an ideological and intellectual base around which it can define its political and economic strategy. While the religious social values base provide the raw voting numbers for the Republican party, religious views by themselves are not sufficient on which to base a governing philosophy.

For a long while, the political philosophy of the Republican party was provided by the old-style conservatives. Things began to change with the rise of Christianist leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and the like who veered away from traditional religious concerns and added on three new features: a determined commitment to low tax policies, a total aversion to any government aid to the poor, and a belief in an ‘end times’ theology which sees the world as ending soon with Armageddon and Jesus’s second coming.

It was this last crazy belief that played a significant role in shifting the ideological base within the Republican party. The old-style conservatives are not particularly religious (and definitely not end-timers) and are uneasy with the many excesses of the Bush administration and its naked power grab. As a result, the crazies of the religious right now found themselves moving closer to the crazies of the neoconservatives because in both visions, the dominance of Israel in the Middle East and the subjugation of its Muslim neighbors play important roles in their eschatology. The neoconservative crazies saw Israel’s supremacy as a desirable foreign policy end in itself, while the religious crazies saw it as a signal, the immediate precursor to the really desirable end they fervently wished for, the end of the world.

As a result of this shift, what we have seen within the last decade or two has been the rapid decline in influence of the old-style conservative group within the intellectual and political leadership of the Republican party and its replacement by the neoconservative group, the key factor being the shift of allegiance of the Christianist leadership from the former to the latter. As a result, we saw the abandonment of a non-interventionist foreign policy with one that seemed to actually seek out confrontation with other countries to be used as vehicles for the projection of raw military power. The sophistication and education of the neoconservative crazies gave intellectual cover to the most outrageous policies, even to the extent of having ‘serious’ discussions of what kinds of torture was allowable and what was not.

In the last eight years, the old-style conservatives have seen almost everything they value being overturned by their party: A huge rise in government spending leading to record deficits, reckless and illegal wars started, the alienation of traditional allies, government breakdown as ideology replaced competence as criteria for job selection, violations of the constitution and rule of law justified by the most extreme arguments, people’s individual liberties trampled upon cavalierly, and finally the collapse of the economy due to reckless deregulation and a cavalier attitude towards the public trust.

While these changes may have been distasteful to them, for a long time the old-style conservatives seemed to be willing to go along with it as a winning electoral tactic, and they could delude themselves that they still had some influence within the party leadership. They were willing to remain silent and to even provide cover for some of the changes. Thus one found traditional old-style conservative Republicans bending logic into pretzel shapes trying to explain how the Bush policies could be consistent with what their party had always stood for, even though this was manifestly false.

But there had to come a breaking point and the last election provided it.

Next: The last straw.

POST SCRIPT: Finding the right Christmas gift

It helps when everyone knows what you really want.

The future of the Republican Party-9: The neoconservative problem

The struggle for the future of the Republican party has four groups vying for dominance.

One group consists of the old-style conservatives, people who want smaller government and fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, rule of law, respect for personal liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

The second group is the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, the Bible, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes.

The third group is the Christianist leadership, people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and John Hagee, who claim to speak for the social values base but, as I argued in the previous post in this series, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) and who vehemently oppose any government programs that provide assistance to the poor.

The fourth group is the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are the wild card in American politics, wreaking havoc wherever they go. Their interests lie less in domestic policies and more in creating a muscular foreign policy. They dream of America exercising hegemony over the world, using its might to destroy its enemies. They are firmly convinced that America is a force for good in the world and should not be shy about using its military, political, and economic muscle to dominate it.

In particular they want to remake the Middle East, to secure its oil supplies and change the governments of those countries that they perceive as threats to Israel, since they view the interests of America as identical with those of Israel (especially the hard-right spectrum of Israeli politics), and that what is good for one country is good for the other.

Neoconservatives seem to think the end justifies the means and if they need to, they will support the shredding of constitutional protections, committing torture, starting illegal wars, abusing the powers of government, and the administration accumulating almost dictatorial powers in pursuit of their objectives. A world dominated by sheer America power is their dream.

The neoconservatives have been around for a long time and eventually in 1997 created an organization headed by William Kristol and somewhat grandiosely titled The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Their mission statement can be found on its website.

The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.

The PNAC intends, through issue briefs, research papers, advocacy journalism, conferences, and seminars, to explain what American world leadership entails. It will also strive to rally support for a vigorous and principled policy of American international involvement and to stimulate useful public debate on foreign and defense policy and America’s role in the world.

For a while the neoconservatives wandered in the political wilderness, searching for a home. They are not particularly politically partisan, except for tactical reasons for the purposes of executing their long-term political strategy. Many of them are socially liberal and have been Democrats in the past, belonging to the strongly anti-Soviet/anti-Russian wing of that party that used to be headed by Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson. (Leading neoconservative Richard Perle was a staffer for Jackson for over a decade.) Many are not religious at all but believe in the utility of religion as a powerful means for influencing people to adopt particular political positions and keeping them in line.

They neoconservatives tried to influence the administration of George H. W. Bush (1988-1992) but did not have much success. That administration was dominated by so-called ‘realists’, people who dealt with the world as it was and not as they wished it to be, and who pursued a multilateral foreign policy based on alliances rather than on unilateral projections of American power. Ray McGovern, a long-time CIA analyst who worked in that administration and gave George H. W. Bush his daily intelligence briefing, says that the neoconservatives were then called “the crazies” and kept at arm’s length.

The neoconservatives may be crazy but they not stupid. They don’t care too much about who actually is the titular leader of the country or what party is in power. While they seek actual political power, they also believe that they can influence policies through occupying senior policy-making positions in government and dominating the discussions in the opinion-making media. They did the latter by building up their so-called think tanks and using them to gain prominence as media analysts. (For more analysis on how this works, see my series on the propaganda machine.)

After their failure to significantly infiltrate the administration of Bush Sr., the neoconservatives tried to move in with Democrats and influence the Clinton administration (1992-2000) to adopt their hard-line military interventionist policies, but again met with only limited success.

But then they hit the jackpot following George W. Bush’s victory in 2000.

Next: The rise of neoconservative influence.

POST SCRIPT: On being #1

Lewis Black comments on some American preoccupations. (Strong language advisory.)

The future of the Republican Party-8: Compassionate conservatism versus brutal conservatism

(For the previous posts in this series, see here.)

If you look at his Wikipedia page, it becomes clear that Mike Huckabee is too pragmatic on economic issues for the Christianists. He is someone who as governor of Arkansas sought to find ways to solve the social problems that he faced, even to the extent of cutting deals with Democratic leaders rather that sticking rigidly to the lower-tax ideological script demanded by the Christianist leaders.

In late 1996, Huckabee campaigned for ballot Amendment 1, a plan to adjust property tax rules to make school funding more equal across the state, and Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment increasing the state sales tax 0.125 percent to improve the state’s park system and natural resources.

On April 1, 1999, Huckabee signed into law a three cent increase in tax on gasoline and a four cent increase on diesel. Attached to the bill was a bond issue to pay for highway construction.

Huckabee also seems to be genuinely progressive on race, concerned about the state of the environment, and interested in trying to improve the conditions of the poor.

Huckabee proclaimed 1997 as a year of racial reconciliation by saying “Let every one of us make it our priority to bring reconciliation, not so much that we can force it or legislate it, because we cannot, but that we begin in each of our own lives to purpose in our hearts that we will not harbor anger, hostility, prejudice, bigotry and racism toward any person.”

Huckabee signed legislation to create a health insurance program which extended coverage to children of lower-income families, to be funded in part by Medicaid, SCHIP, and a tobacco industry lawsuit settlement. The program, ARKids First, reduced the number of uninsured children to nine percent (compared with 12 percent for the nation) in 2003. Also in his first year as governor Huckabee signed a partial birth abortion ban and a $7.6 Million Smart Start program for primary school students to learn “the basic skills of reading, math, and character.”

He was also not too hard-line on immigration issues.

Huckabee supported a 2005 bill by Arkansas State Representative Joyce Elliott to make some illegal immigrants eligible for scholarships and in-state college tuition, while vehemently opposing a bill sponsored by Arkansas State Senator Jim Holt which would deny state benefits to illegal immigrants, calling it “un-Christian.”

All these actions were taken as signs of his lack of ideological purity and earned him the deep ire of the low-tax ideologues.

[T]he Club for Growth argues Huckabee increased state spending 65.3 percent (1996–2004) and supported five tax increases. . . Ernest Dumas of the Arkansas Times, a consistent Huckabee critic, responded . . . [that] Huckabee was “the biggest taxer and spender in Arkansas history.” Former Arkansas State Representative Randy Minton (R) has said; “[Huckabee’s] support for taxes split the Republican Party, and damaged our name brand.” The group has pointed out that Huckabee publicly opposed the repeal of a sales tax on groceries and medicine in 2002, signed a bill raising taxes on gasoline in 1999, and signed a $5.25 bed-tax on private nursing home patients in 2001.
. . .
The Club for Growth accuses Huckabee of being a liberal in disguise, saying Huckabee increased state spending 65.3 percent (1996–2004) and supported five tax increases.
. . .
The Cato Institute, a libertarian non-profit public policy research foundation, gave Huckabee an “F” for spending and tax policy in 2006.

And this is the main hidden fault line that is dividing the Republican party. For all their professed concern about religion-based social issues, this group’s fundamental allegiance is to an extreme form of free-market economics that serves mainly the interests of the very rich class. Any candidate that they approve of must support lower taxes (especially for the top echelons) and oppose any and all government programs that seem to benefit the poor.

These religious leaders have striven over the years to convince Christians that wealth is a sign of virtue and poverty is a sign of god’s disapproval. Hence, by eliminating government assistance programs, poor people should be left to fend for themselves, to prove that they are worthy by raising themselves out of their situation without any assistance from the government, while the well-to-do deserve to be rewarded for their obvious good character by being given even more tax cuts and other benefits. These Christianists seem to take literally Jesus’s words, “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Matthew 25:29)

They have partially succeeded with this message but they may be pushing it too far and alienating some of their base. Many Christians are not as callous as the Christianists are. They may think that they are entitled to a good life simply by virtue of being born-again Jesus lovers but they also believe in being their neighbor’s keeper and are not comfortable turning away from people in dire need. They take Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a prescription for action. Many are also concerned about the state of the environment and worry about the excesses of greed that have led to deep inequalities.

Huckabee’s understanding of Christianity seems to push him in the direction of being an actual ‘compassionate conservative’ even though he remains religiously extreme, and the low-tax, ideology-driven religious right leaders did not want to have anything to do with him. While Huckabee may have fit the bill as far as social issues goes, he was too pragmatic and lacked gut-based, ideological approach to decision-making and the steely-eyed determination of Bush, McCain, and Palin.

In their rejection of Huckabee, these Christianist leaders are revealing a major fault line within the Republican party and showing themselves to be out of step with the values of many of their followers. Their rejection of the Huckabee candidacy reveals clearly more than anything else that their desire to serve the very rich triumphs over their so-called religious values.

This major schism within the Republican party is compounded by the rise of neoconservative influence within it, and this is what has driven the party off the rails.

Next: The Republicans’ neoconservative problem.

POST SCRIPT: The Modern Apostle’s Creed

What liberal Christians really believe.