The House


What Would Barry Do?

To be perfectly honest, I had turned off last week's election broadcasts by 9:30pm. My prediction that it would be decided by nine o'clock was only premature by half an hour. Instead of watching John McCain, my choice for president, get defeated by Barack Obama, I decided that the movie 300 would be a more entertaining lost cause to see played out. Based on what little of the coverage I did catch, including that high-tech news anchor hologram on CNN and those inane electronic touch screens that are more suited for weather reports, I think I made the right decision.

The combination of an incumbent GOP president with ever-declining approval ratings, Obama's near perfect campaign, an economic meltdown, and their own mixed messages, made the McCain/Palin ticket seem as over-matched as Greek King Leonidas' thin Spartan army against the Persian onslaught. Unfortunately for him, McCain didn't have his own campaign equivalent of the narrow pass at Thermopylae to funnel the odds in his favor.

While I'm still waiting to have my first "obamasm," I resented the notion suggested by my unabashedly liberal cousin that the electoral results had left me holed up in a bunker. I pointed out (perhaps a bit too defensively) that most of the blatant displays of emotional outbursts I witnessed after the Obama victory were exhibited by her side. I'll be fair and refrain from criticizing verklempt supporters who were savoring an historic moment as long as no one castigates me for remaining dry-eyed. In the same way that a lion tamer should never get too relaxed while in the cage, a real conservative probably shouldn't get choked up over ANY politician. There's something to be said for the dispassionate objectivity garnered when taking a healthy arms-length posture toward elected officials.

As they enter the political wilderness for an indeterminable period of exile, many in the GOP brain trust are thrashing about seeking to pin the blame for the loss on someone or something other than themselves. The most common conclusion held in Republican circles seems to be that McCain just wasn't "conservative" enough. Michael Medved takes issue with that stance in his column that asks the question: "Was the Maverick Too Moderate to Win?"

"In fact, the results from Tuesday show that McCain did better than his conservative running mates—and in some cases, much better. In New Mexico, for instance, the Presidential nominee ran three points ahead of the hard-line, anti-immigration candidate Steve Pearce, who ran for an open Senate seat. McCain also drew three points more than incumbent Senator Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, six percentage points more than Senator Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, five points more than re-elected Senate leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, two points more than Senator Roger Wicker in Mississippi.

"For instance, Senator Susan Collins of Maine beat back a well-financed Democratic challenge and drew an amazing 61% in her state—where McCain got only 40%. Likewise, Gordon Smith in Oregon (who may still retain his seat after the long tabulation process concludes) advertised his willingness to work with Democrats (including Barack Obama) and ran four points ahead of McCain."

On the other hand, the American University's Center for the study of the American Electorate reported that Republican turnout at the polls was down by 1.3 percent. So, the numbers Medved cites are probably skewed in favor of "moderates" because of the GOP dogs that chose not to bark and instead stayed home on November 4th.

Right now the Republican party finds itself in a large hanger like a team of FAA investigators arranging pieces from the wreckage of an airline disaster trying to determine exactly what went wrong. Certainly, crosstalk between Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld can be heard prominently over the black box. But that probably obscures a more serious rudder problem for the GOP.

I don't think it's as simple as suggesting that we're a more moderate nation now. The passing of Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage in California, for instance, would seem to belie that notion. This ballot proposal passed in a state that voted for Obama by a twenty-four percent margin. Obama did enunciate "gay rights" as part of his agenda. But, I'm being charitable when I characterize his stance on the gay marriage issue itself as very nuanced.

So, where to begin? I find the suggestion of a battle waging between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party an intriguing, if not flawed, concept. Flawed because I'm not sure I always agree with the current definitions of what a "moderate" or a "conservative" is.

From my bunker the following night, I continued my election recovery therapy by watching Mr. Conservative, HBO's documentary on Barry Goldwater. In 1964, he was arguably the very first "conservative" candidate for president and author of the ground-breaking The Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater famously said at his nominating convention that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and (bold added) "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

There's that word, "moderate," again. This time it's used as a pejorative to chastise those who refuse to take a definitive stance on issues and instead try to split the difference. Love him or hate him, I don't think Goldwater could ever have been accused of that.

No one's asked me and I sincerely doubt it will happen, but I can't help but wonder (or hope) that this downtime could be used to retool the GOP more into the image of Goldwater than the confusing quilt of contradictions it is now. Again, the definitive post-mortem on 2008 hasn't really been written, but my gut tells me that this would be step in the right direction (no pun intended).

It's important to point out that were he starting his career as a conservative politician today, Goldwater, would probably not pass muster with many of the current crop. For one thing, he was pro-choice. And, when confronted with the question late in his career, Goldwater supported gay rights as well. From a truly CONSERVATIVE viewpoint, he correctly saw these as matters of personal choice that a properly limited government simply had no business injecting itself into. Goldwater wasn't trying to be provocative or appease the other side. He was just being consistent.

However, one of the reasons for the ultimate success of conservatism as a movement in the late 70s and 80s was its alliance with the "Religious Right" who carried their very vocal stance on social issues into the center of the Republican tent. This has proven to be a two-edged sword as their agenda has often been at odds with the original premise of "conservative" governance.

Here's the thing. I'm an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Which is sort of like being a Roman Catholic without all the laughs. As such, I certainly understand church dogma on the aforementioned social issues and, truth be told, agree with most of it. However, when push comes to shove, I'm most comfortable following what I see as the founder of my religion's stance against the mixing of church and state inherent in his admonition to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

As described in the New Testament, Jesus made that statement while being duplicitously questioned by a group of men over the apparent conflict between church teachings and Roman tax law (it's always about taxes, isn't it?). The questioners were attempting to trick Jesus into committing a seditious act by getting the rabbi to preach against Roman taxation. Cleverly (he was GOD, after all), Jesus assessed their motives and effectively sidestepped the issue. Requesting to see a Roman coin, which one of the men produced, he asked them to describe it for him. The coin had a likeness of Caesar, a divinity in Roman culture, engraved on it. As their religious doctrine did forbid the possession of such a graven image, that alone probably caused Christ's questioners no small level of embarrassment. So, it was probably with a sort of shrug that Jesus uttered his often quoted answer.

To be sure, because it was a tactical, almost political, answer, many find it too ambiguous to be instructive. However, I agree with the interpretation of the incident as a caution to the faithful that the mixing of theology and politics is, at best, a tricky undertaking and should be avoided. Goldwater was a bit less ambiguous and said straight out that religious groups had NO business in the making of governmental policy. So, while I hold pretty strong negative feelings about abortion personally, I hesitate a bit when confronting how to legislate it. I'd hasten to point out that I find any argument against capital punishment that quotes the Pope is equally problematic for that same reason.

Of course, from the Left's perspective, it often seems that any conservative who takes a pro-choice stance is magically transformed into a thoughtful and reasonable person. I remember one particular Goldwater appearance on the Tonight Show where he was on a roll lambasting the Religious Right. The segment was intercut with shots of another guest that night, Rosanne Barr, who was shown beaming at the senator admiringly. The frequency of the cuts to the comedienne left me with the impression that the television director in the booth felt that Barr's approval somehow added epistemological weight to Goldwater's position.

I often wonder if those who now would label Goldwater as a moderate, or even a liberal, truly understand his classically conservative views on other issues such as gun control. Goldwater certainly didn't interpret the Second Amendment as moot because it strictly applied to state "militias" (whatever those are). Of course, based on a Brian Williams interview of Barack Obama that I recently saw, the President-elect interprets the Second Amendment as an "individual right" too. Or perhaps that was another nuanced position.

As I write this, the top economic story today is the question of what to do with the troubled American auto industry. Specifically, should the Detroit based automakers be bailed out, as the banking and mortgage industries were a number of weeks ago? The sight of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as part of Obama's financial advisory team (which strikes many of us in this state as laughable) would seem to indicate Obama's inclination toward such an action. Personally, this is a tough one for me. As a Michigander who drives past the GM building every day, it's my ox that's now being gored. But my free market inclination is just a bit queasy about using more taxpayer dollars (which haven't been collected yet) to prop up yet another set of corporations.

Indeed, the repercussions of a failed domestic auto industry could affect up to three million other workers nationwide. Or, as Stella (Thelma Ritter) said about nervous car company executives in Rear Window, "When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country's ready to let go."

I'm pretty sure that Goldwater would be against the proposed bailout. He didn't hold back from his criticism of management OR labor when he opposed the passage of the government loan for Chrysler in the 1970's:

"I think this is probably the biggest mistake that the Congress has ever made in its history. I think future historians will register this action as a beginning of the end of the free market system in America. The company was badly run."

This week, Thomas Friedman called for what would amount to a dramatic government takeover of the American auto industry. He correctly assigns blame to management for it's inability to make a profit on smaller, more fuel efficient cars, but mentions the culpability of labor and dealers in the domestic auto cost structure only in passing.

Friedman also fails to give the automakers any credit for their recent accomplishments, which, as pointed out by AP writer Tom Krisner, include "huge progress this decade in cutting costs, raising productivity, and building competitive cars while handling multiple government regulations and a powerful labor union."

Krisner further writes:

"As Honda and Toyota took over the small and mid-size car markets, Ford, GM and Chrysler put most of their resources into trucks and SUVs, which brought in billions in profits that covered growing health care, pension and labor costs...

"...When times were good, the automakers did not take on the UAW, which the companies say drove up their labor costs to $30 per hour more than Japanese companies paid their workers. The figure includes pension and health care costs for hundreds of thousands of retirees.

"When GM pushed for changes in 1998, the union went on strike at two key Flint, Mich., parts plants, shutting down the company and costing it about $2 billion in profits...

"...when the SUV and truck market started to fade in the mid-2000s, executives realized their business model would no longer work and began globalizing their vehicles, streamlining manufacturing processes and developing new and better cars.

"The UAW, realizing that the companies were in trouble, agreed to a landmark new contract last year that nearly eliminated the labor cost difference between the Detroit Three and the Japanese, shifting retiree health care costs to a union-administered trust fund.

"But just as the cost cuts started to take hold and new products were rolling out, gas prices rose rapidly to around $4 per gallon and Wall Street collapsed, virtually eliminating credit which 60 percent of car buyers need."

So, I'm reluctantly forced to choose between two options: a bailout, complete with all sorts of federally intrusive stings, that might make me feel good short-term, or to Darwinistically let free market forces work in the hopes that a stronger automotive organism will evolve. Taking my cue from Goldwater, I'm forced to choose the latter. I can't honestly see federal appointees doing a better job at running the Big Three if Friedman's vision were fully implemented. One needs only to look at the U.S. Postal Service, which currently is in the red, to understand my diffidence.

One of the best alternatives to a bailout I'm aware of is a proposal that would give the same sort of tax credits to people for buying American cars that were offered to those who installed more efficient home energy systems such as solar energy panels or up-to-date windows. At least then the cost of such a rescue could be tied more directly to some measure of success.

It's going to be a tough call and one of first tests of the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House. While I've tried to keep the focus here on the Republicans, I certainly have feelings (and misgivings) about what I see happening on the other side of the aisle. However, I'm honestly hoping that they do well. My family's future hinges upon their success (or failure) as much as anyone's.

As for the GOP, it looks like THEIR dream of "less government" has finally been fulfilled. Just not in the way they envisioned it.

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.

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