From Pat Buchanan to Rand Paul: What Have We Learned?


February 2, 2011

Last year’s congressional elections turned out better than conservatives deserved. Republicans grabbed back the power of the purse with the House of Representatives, giving them the ability — if they have the strategy and the nerve — to hobble the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency.

And on most issues, they should. For instance, Republicans should refuse to vote the funds to implement his catastrophic health-care plan, one of those massive and essentially irreversible expansions of government (a la Social Security and Medicare) that, once they entrench themselves, reduce conservative opposition to what it has become in Western Europe: arguing, essentially, for dimmer searchlights atop the Berlin Wall. Happily, the Republicans fell just short of winning the Senate, and with it the false perception that they shared equal power with the president — and hence equal blame for the performance of the nation’s economy.

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And that’s not likely to improve for many years to come; recessions are not diseases but symptoms, in this case of outrageously foolish investments (e.g., Internet boondoggles, crass real-estate speculation, and prodigal loans for “diversity” mortgages). All of these vices were enabled by decades of debased coinage — cheap money churned out of the Federal Reserve to keep the economy in a “permanent,” artificial high. America was snorting coke, and Alan Greenspan was our avuncular, genial dealer.

The bipartisan response to the crash of 2008 was a staggering dose of a “hair of the dog that bit us”: massive bailouts, futile regulations, and even lower interest rates to encourage still more reckless investing — the equivalent of an oncologist switching his lung cancer patients to smoking soothing menthol. (Can’t you see an episode of Mad Men, with Don Draper developing such a campaign?) However, the electorate largely ignored the official messaging piped down to them from the media — that the bailouts “saved capitalism from itself” — and turned with a pleasing savagery on many legislators who supported plans like TARP, the “Troubled Assets Relief Program” whose purchase of “toxic assets” was presented as absolutely critical to averting a new Great Depression. As Thomas Woods points out in his admirable book Meltdown, that program never bought up any “troubled assets,” but instead was poured into pork barrel programs around the country. Paying the salaries of professors at schools like LSU to offer even more seminars in lesbian lit crit (one way what came to be called the “stimulus money” was really used) inexplicably failed to spark a massive economic recovery, and the voters seem to have noticed.


This does them credit, as does the drubbing they gave Republicans in 2008 for squandering eight years of presidential power on George W. Bush’s children’s crusade. It turns out, after all, that you can’t bomb Iraq into the Space Age, or use Alabama National Guardsmen to transform Afghan tribesmen into the cast members of Seinfeld. Voters realized, and most of them still remember, what a tragic waste of American lives and treasure it all has proved — even as monthly reports trickle in of our Shiite or Sunni clients slaughtering still more local Christians. (I shudder to see what happens to the Coptic Christians when the “democratic transition” in Egypt replaces a secular dictator with the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of al Qaeda — as seems likely to happen by the weekend.)

In a perfect world, the Democrats could have played the antiwar card in 2010, reminding voters of the grandiose promises made by their opponents about the “transformation” of the Middle East and “pro-terrorist” regimes toppling like dominos, to be replaced by tolerant, prosperous democracies.

But the Democrats could not milk this issue for a stark and simple reason: the problem with the Middle East is Islam. Regimes in Islamic countries can either be tolerant or democratic — usually neither, but never both. What keeps Turkey from turning into a vast Saudi Arabia is the anti-democratic power of its generals, and as that dissipates, sharia will fill the vacuum. (That’s the reason anti-jihad expert Robert Spencer opposed the Iraq war; he knew that Hussein’s fall spelled certain doom for the region’s Christians, and that democratizing Muslim countries will only make them more Islamic.)

The multiculturalist elites who dominate the Democratic Party — led by a president whose childhood years were spent in Muslim catechism class — cannot face such facts. Nor could the neocons, whose fragile creed asserts that universalist, democratic ideology is a kind of natural law engraved on the human heart. President Bush essentially said in his second inaugural address that every human child is born believing in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and is only held back from putting them into practice by evil regimes, which America will depose. This fantasy mirrored Trotsky’s and Lenin’s dream in 1919 that the masses throughout Europe were already Bolshevik, and needed only a spark to send the Revolution all through the world.


We’re broke now, war-weary, and resigned to preserving capitalism in one country. All this is to the good, and if the right leaders — such as Sen. Rand Paul — emerge among conservatives, it could yield a prudent foreign policy our country can afford. The war spending we avoided could permit a modest economic recovery, which in turn might help middle-class families stay intact — generating less of the pathology that makes nanny-state socialism “necessary.” In America, at least, when families get a little more prosperous they can be counted on to have more children, which counteracts the demographic replacement of Americans by impoverished immigrants, whose natural political home is on the free-spending Left. The key to long-term national recovery, then, really is a prudent foreign policy, smaller government, and lower immigration. Achieving this depends on Republican elites’ not hijacking the agenda of the middle-class voters who elected them. And that depends on populists’ breaking the stranglehold that party hacks have long held on Republican primaries. Does any of this sound familiar?

To those of us who supported Patrick Buchanan in 1992, 1996, and 2000, it’s déjà vu all over again. Indeed, for all the philosophical gap that separates economic Austrians like Rep. Ron Paul from paleocons like Pat, their policy preferences have proved remarkably similar: a massive scaling-back of government spending; an end to foreign policy crusades; the enforcement of America’s borders; an end to statist, divisive affirmative action; and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The only major issue that divides the socially conservative libertarians who rallied around Paul from Buchanan’s consistent platform is protectionism, and on that one Buchanan’s political instincts proved mistaken; Americans’ sympathy for unionized auto workers really was outweighed by their impatience with their Chryslers. For better or worse, we vote not as producers but as consumers, and future attempts to save the jobs of lower-skilled Americans will have to center on reducing the number of low-skill immigrants who cross our borders to bid down wages for those jobs that cannot be outsourced. Since doing that also helps keep down the number of future voting Democrats and imported domestic terrorists, it’s three times as appealing as tariffs on Toyotas. Point conceded.

We survivors of the Pitchfork Brigades have many reasons to feel vindicated by the rise of the Tea Party movement. When we quixotically challenged a sitting president for the nomination of his own party in 1992, we were cast (as the media still tries to paint the Tea Party people) as malignant, futile cranks. The game in Republican primaries has long been rigged in favor of insiders and incumbents — a fact that flummoxed us in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford. The vigor of Buchanan’s candidacy forced the party to give him a speaking role at the 1992 convention, where he delivered one of the greatest speeches in U.S. political history. (I still have it on VHS and watch it through tearful eyes once a year.)

It shouldn’t have surprised us that Establishment watch-pugs like William Bennett jumped up to denounce Buchanan, even though all Pat did was say in plain, Anglo-Saxon words the same things about the “culture wars” that they themselves liked to say in long-winded, Latinate paragraphs. So why did they turn on Buchanan so fiercely, and even blame him for Bush’s defeat? (Pundits at the time openly pointed out that Bush was “phoning it in” and seemed resigned to losing months before Clinton’s victory.)

All the hysteria about Buchanan’s (short-sighted) disinterest in Israel aside, I think the hostility was institutional more than ideological; Buchanan had attempted to shake up the cronyist, insider-dominated world of Republican party politics, and this infuriated its numberless, overpaid apparatchiks. I’m not sure who really first said that the conservative movement began as a crusade, became a business, then turned into a racket. It’s truer than ever today, but this process had already gone far in 1992; it only got worse through the 1990s.

When Buchanan challenged Bob Dole for the nomination in 1996, the latter’s apparent rationale for leading his party was, “Because it’s my turn, dammit.” For all that Buchanan made political and personnel mistakes, Dole was only guaranteed success when the Christian Coalition, activated through back channels, mobilized on Super Tuesday to throw the Southern states to a lackluster Midwestern moderate. One group of insiders phoned up another group of insiders, who shepherded “their” voters to safe support of the Establishment candidate who’d been waiting his turn. Dole went on to run a passionless, dull campaign: I still remember when he unveiled his new anti-drug slogan. Instead of “Just Say No,” Dole instead would preach, “Just Don’t Do It.” I wondered at the time which slick suit on K Street had earned $750,000 for coming up with that line. When Dole read it from the teleprompter, he sounded like a frustrated substitute teacher berating high school students to put their hands on their desks and be quiet.

About the nomination of a one-term governor from Texas whose sole qualification was the fact that he was the legitimate heir of the last Republican king, the less said the better. Insiderism and oligarchy reigned supreme in Republican circles by 2000, and once Bush was in power he gave Karl Rove free reign to pour RNC money into primary races to quash the candidacies of insurgent conservatives — especially those who didn’t sign on to Rove’s von Schlieffen plan of flooding America with Mexicans, in the hope that they would gratefully vote Republican. Peter Brimelow wrote in National Review — back when John O’Sullivan ran it as a high-minded Tory journal — that such attempts to “abolish the American people, and elect a new one” were political suicide.

Soon enough, that very magazine was back in the hands of safe, predictable, pro-gay marriage mediocrities — one of whom helped moderate a Republican candidates forum up here in New Hampshire in 2008. When Congressman Paul tried to speak, this “journalist” chuckled loudly into the microphone, drowning out Paul’s answer. Outsiders need not apply. Instead, in a year when conservative voters were increasingly outraged over immigration, and voters of every stripe were sick of the futile war in Iraq, the front-loaded Republican primary system chose the most pro-war, pro-immigration candidate — who refused to use the ample political dynamite provided by Obama’s Marxist, black racist, and terrorist connections. Indeed, Sen. John McCain was too much the “gentleman” to mention the man’s middle name.


What made the difference in 2010? Why were the Tea Party activists able to unseat so many establishment Republican nominees — such as Charlie Crist in Florida, and Trey Grayson in Kentucky? Because this year, in a fit of desperation, the RNC kept its pudgy, pink fingers off the nomination process. The results were mostly positive, though there has been much hand-wringing about the loss of a “sure-thing” Senate race in Delaware because the Republicans there nominated the non-Yalie, non-witch Christine O’Donnell. But that’s the price of populism; it entails involving the populace. (My mother, solidly pro-life and conservative, never forgave the Chinese for Pearl Harbor. But she faced down Geraldine Ferraro when that faux-Catholic feminist came to our parish. I’m just saying . . . there are trade-offs.)

At the same time, Rove rose from the ashes, climbed out of his urn, and directed tens of millions to key Republican races; where those ended in victories, he is trying to take credit. The self-serving establishment has not retired to the golf links; at best, it slackened the leash a little, in the hope that the Tea Party movement would lend some native vigor to an almost-moribund party — after which the “3 a.m. types” (scornful insider slang for real conservative activists) could be led back to their kennels.

The real battle lies before us, as we fight off our handlers and insist on real results. Conservatives in Congress have the power to reject a lame-duck immigration amnesty and insist that the Obama administration enforce our too-lax laws. They can slam the door on Obamacare and filibuster judicial appointments. Those would be positive steps.

Still, the crucial fight over whether there’s a future for prudent government by conservative principles will not be against Democrats but Republicans. And it will center on foreign policy. When (not if) a Muslim terrorist manages to murder a large enough number of Americans, how will conservatives respond? If we follow the same grim, stupid script as in 2001, we will waste billions of dollars and thousands of lives trying to impose decadent secularism on fanatics in Yemen or Qatar. We will fail, lose another presidential election, and end up with more Supreme Court justices like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — and tens of millions more freshly minted affirmative action recipients and future Democrats flooding across the border.


How can we avoid repeating the same murderous idiocy? By coming up with a better rationale for avoiding foreign intervention than Buchanan was able to do. There are two emotive responses that arise in the heart of a conservative when he considers foreign lands with alien ways:

a) A bored apathy, summed up by Nancy Mitford’s line: “Abroad is bloody, and foreigners are fiends.” This is the instinct on which old-fashioned isolationism relies.

b) An arrogant impulse to take up “the White Man’s Burden” and reshape those unruly foreigners in our image.

The default position of most conservatives is apathy, but it only takes a terrorist attack or some threat to one of the many imperial outposts we planted (of necessity) during the Cold War to move most of us instantly to arrogance. In 1991, and again in 2001, Buchanan and his supporters tried to arrest this natural movement — and failed. That’s no surprise; as it’s typically phrased, position a) invariably sounds like cynical selfishness, and is prone to caricature as short-sighted and finally suicidal. Position b), on the other hand, is easy to dress up in the rhetoric of idealism and inflate with ambitious slogans that appeal to our “can-do” spirit. Gosh darn it, if we can put a man on the moon, we sure can . . . fill in the blank. Build a Great Society on the banks of the Mekong River. Democratize the Dar al-Islam. Turn Somalia into Switzerland.

What we need is to recast our opposition to foreign adventurism in principles that appeal to deeper strains in American culture — for instance, in the humility that is demanded of every Christian. (George W. Bush used such language in the 2000 campaign; the only problem was that he was lying.) Conservatives, even those who haven’t found God, believe in original sin, and that’s one tenet they share with those of us who sing “Amazing Grace.” If instead of casting ourselves as Machiavellian “realists,” or self-serving America-Firsters, we used the language of humility, we might be able to gain some purchase with voters the next time a foreign policy crisis emerges.

Imagine (I can dream, can’t I?) President Rand Paul addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress, responding to a terrorist attack. He could lay out the suitable measures for increased domestic security, the retaliatory strikes we would undertake against guilty parties, then end with a humble, Christian admission that even we Americans are bound by human limitations, that we cannot reshape thousands of years of culture with a few years of military occupation, and because of that, he will not commit our soldiers and our budget to open-ended attempts to remake other civilizations in our own, imperfect image. Such rhetoric has at least a fighting chance of avoiding another disaster like Iraq; it has the added advantage of being true.


Image: AP photo


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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