Friday, June 24, 2005

Less than appealing

Jonathan Rauch makes an interesting argument about Janice Rogers Brown, the newly-approved appeals court judge for the DC circuit: That Republicans were unwilling to defend her out-of-the-mainstream libertarianism (she has likened the post-New Deal modern regulatory state to the slave regime of the Antebellum South).

Not very defensible to the ear of the average American. But they could have made a go of it. Instead, they went out of their way to reassure people that she didn’t really mean what she had said:

Republicans ran away from Brown's ideas as fast as their legs could carry them. [Sen. Arlen] Specter listed, approvingly, government regulations she has upheld. [Sen. Jeff] Sessions: "She has ruled on hundreds of cases affirming government regulations, for heaven's sake." Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.: "While she would likely describe herself as a person who believes in small government and limited regulations ... Justice Brown has voted consistently to uphold economic, environmental, consumer, and labor regulations." [Sen. Trent] Lott: "She has consistently voted to uphold regulations in every walk of life." You would almost think she was Walter Mondale.

This reflects several, none-too felicitous trends for present-day conservatism. First, in spite of all the bile heaped upon it, the modern regulatory state is pretty popular. Most people don’t want to go back to the pre-New Deal days of unregulated workplaces, unmonitored pollution, etc. Various interest groups, however, do – or at least they want to roll back the rules that individually constrain them from making more money. So Republicans must advance this agenda not on principle but by stealth or misrepresentations.

Rauch focuses on another problem: In the latter-days of the Bush administration, conservatism’s intellectual coherence continues to break down. Small government conservatism is dead. Plutocratic, nanny-state, big government conservatism is alive and well and growing every day, but in many ways isn't conservative at all. Republicans can’t make a credible argument for small government, in part because it would sound ridiculous in an era of massive government expansion, in part because they just don’t believe in it any longer.

Finally, the last trend is cynical identity politics, something Republicans once deplored but now use shamelessly. The White House picked Brown as one of its “nuclear option” test cases in part because she is a black woman whose race and inspiring life story could be used to flog Democrats as racists or worse. Something we were mercifully spared when the nuclear countdown was stopped.

All of these things point to underlying political weaknesses in the Republican monolith.