My wife says I try to say too much in one blog post. This will not be an exception.
I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile, and was originally going to call it “The New Rockefeller Republicans.” After serving as Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller ran for every presidential election in the 1960s, and was eventually Gerald Ford’s vice president. He had crazy amounts of money, and a kind of WASP-y (see my post four years ago on John McCain) noblesse oblige. He supported the arts, achieved real progress in environmental conservation, greatly increased transportation and public housing, was tough on crime, especially drugs, but also fought valiantly against racial discrimination, while taking a decidedly moderate approach on abortion. He was an enemy of ideology, ignoring the growing concerns in the 1960s and ‘70s that would become social conservatism, taking a friendly, accomodationist stance on foreign policy, and having a tin ear for questions of limited government. He worked (at least in his mind) pragmatically for a better society.
But he was only at the center of a major mid-century movement. Thomas Dewey, also governor of New York, ran for the presidency all through the 1940s, battling against the conservative wing of the Republican party, led by Robert Taft. Put simply, Taft articulated a philosophy in opposition to FDR, Dewey did not. Responsibility, pragmatism.
Dewey helped Eisenhower defeat Taft for control of the party in the 1950s. Eisenhower was a pretty decent president – but thoroughly middle-of-the-road. Central to Eisenhower’s presidency was the rising civil rights movement, in which Eisenhower fought hard for tolerance (not a bad goal) by sending federal troops into the states, while conservatives worried whether this goal was being achieved through destructively un-Constitutional means and an ever creeping federal State.
And Rockefeller passed the baton to George H.W. Bush, who condemned conservative philosophy as “voodoo economics,” ignored social concerns, and, for example with the Americans with Disabilities Act, continued to fight for a more pleasant easy-going world while ignoring concerns about the limits of government and the danger of perverse incentives. (As the father of a wheelchair-bound child, I can tell you all about the glories and follies of the ADA – another time.)
|New York mayor Michael Bloomberg|
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is surely in this class, with his truly ridiculous crusades for public health, his general fight to make New York more pleasant – like a luxury hotel, he says – mixed with his general insouciance about economics and the limits of govenrment
Mitt Romney, with his maneuvering on abortion, unwillingness to take a strong stand on economics, and defense of a health care policy that ignored the dangers of creeping government – not to mention his apparent support from a class of “responsible,” non-ideological, “establishment” types, and even his Northeastern pedigree – has been labeled as the inheritor of the Rockefeller tradition. But perhaps this new generation of Rockefeller Republicans has an important difference.
Please be clear: what follows is not intended as an endorsement (or rejection) of Romney, or of the movement of which he may be part. It is simply an observation. We must understand before making judgments.
Consider some of Romney’s peers. Example One: Chris Christie, the fabulous governor of our great state of New Jersey. Christie ran as a moderate; he was frankly dishonest with the people of New Jersey. Once in office he led a charge to get the books in order, cutting spending especially by standing ferociously against the spend-thriftiness of the unions. He has refused to raise taxes, but unlike the Reagan generation, who made tax cutting the prime concern and didn’t really worry about spending, Christie and his peers have refused tax hikes as an illegitimate excuse for runaway spending, but have kept their eyes on the bottom line, not on the philosophical goods of tax cuts. Christie appears to be a Catholic in good standing and a pro-life social conservative, and he is one of America's most exciting politicians when it comes to dealing with urban problems – but that is not his focus. He is just doing the responsible thing. New Jersey has been living beyond its means for way too long, and it has to be stopped. If Christie had to lie (or at least not tell the truth) to the voters in order to get elected, and if he has to ignore other good causes while fighting for these goals, so be it.
|Rep. Paul Ryan|
The same is true at the federal level. Consider Paul Ryan, the great congressman from my home state of Wisconsin, and the de facto leader of the Republicans in Congress. Ryan is a budget geek. Again, he seems to be a pro-life Catholic, and I think he is in favor of lower taxes, but that isn’t his focus. Ryan is worried about entitlement spending and how to get our books in order.
One of Christie’s closest friends is the governor of Indiana (and still my dearest desire from a contested convention), Mitch Daniels. Daniels is a Presbyterian, but also apparently very pro-life and otherwise generally a social conservative. But when contemplating a run for president last Spring (he decided not to run for personal reasons) he infamously called for a “truce” on social issues while we focus on the budget. Many conservatives have responded that there can be no truce – witness the last week’s events, with Planned Parenthood whipping a breast cancer research organization into line, the Obama administration demanding that people with moral qualms about contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs must pay for other people to get them, and the West Coast’s Ninth Circuit court ruling that there is a Constitutional right to define marriage however feels comfortable to social liberals. But obviously Daniels had a point: we can focus more or less on these issues, and use more or less firey rhetoric even when taking a firm stand on actual policies. Meanwhile, Daniels says, we face a new “red menace” – not Communism, but debt. As governor of Indiana, Daniels is famous for cutting spending, finding new ways to finance freeways, battling the ever-voracious unions, and (everyone’s favorite!) making the DMV more efficient.
The list goes on. Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, is a pro-life Evangelical focused on fighting the irresponsibility of the unions (both the educational policies of the teachers and the general spend-thriftiness of all the public unions). So is John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.
Mitt Romney can be read as part of this crowd. Of course (perhaps) he is pro-life, pro-marriage, socially conservative, etc. He has, after all, an exemplary family life, and is a leader in one of America’s most conservative churches. But like Chris Christie, his biggest political booster, he has set everything else aside to fight the Red Menace. Perhaps – I don’t know, but perhaps – he decided in Massachusetts that he would ignore all else, even lying about his position on abortion, in order to get the budget in order. He was not great (though not bad) on taxes, not great on jobs (though he helped), and his decision on health care reform was not the best (though, I have to say, it is defensible, was the majority-conservative position before Obamacare – note that this was a non-issue when Romney ran in 2008 – and may have been the best that could be done in uber-liberal Massachusetts). But he did balance the budget, taking Massachusetts from deep in red ink to a big rainy day fund.
Romney explains his position on abortion
Perhaps Romney is actually the Chris Christie running for President. Not running like Chris Christie was after the election, but running like Chris Christie was before the election. Keep the focus on the other guy (Christie was also up against an unpopular mis-managing liberal), just tell people you’re responsible, don’t tell them just how radical you want to be, get what mandate you can, and then kick butt once you’re in office, hoping that you can accomplish enough in your first term to help the country, and maybe even win people’s affection (as Christie has in super-liberal New Jersey) when they can support what you’ve accomplished, and not what you’re threatening to accomplish. Christie’s show-downs with the unions look a lot better in hindsight than in foresight.
|Gov. Chris Christie|
I’m not saying Romney has Christie’s skills – surely he does not have his pugnacity, for example. But perhaps these new Rockefellers are of a different type. Whereas Dewey, Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and Bush-41 just vaguely fought for a better, more welcoming world, without any sense of social or political philosophy, the new Rockefellers – Romney, Christie, Daniels, Ryan, Walker, Kasich, etc. – have a very strong social and political philosophy, but believe that this Red Menace is so dangerous that all else needs to be made secondary while we battle it.
One interesting corollary of this belief is the way they relate to politics. The old Rockefellers jumped on FDR’s bandwagon in thinking the way to get elected was to please everyone. The new Rockefellers – hardly fair to even call them by his name, given their important differences – agree that you need the support of the masses: How else to get elected in the states with the biggest problems, like Massachusetts and New Jersey, or, as Daniels has said, to get a big enough mandate to do the enormous heavy lifting required for entitlement reform at the federal level? But profoundly unlike the Rockefellers, these guys are not handing out goodies. In fact, the only thing they are handing out is the bitter medicine of fiscal discipline. The Rockefellers were popular for popularity’s sake. The Christie-Daniels Republicans are trying to appease enough people that they can whip us into order.
To close – and lest my wife relinquish her claim that I try to say too much in one post – I would like to make a wild prediction about the twenty-first century. I have previously argued a cockamamie theory that each century has its peculiar revolution and character – typically with foreshocks at the end of the previous century and the real avalanche in the second decade of the century. The eighteenth century had its somewhat unreasonable hopes for reason. The nineteenth century (focusing here on America) began with the Constitution, but settled in with the Virginia dynasty, and then especially General Jackson’s election in 1828. It was a century of “republicanism”: a belief that, rightly ordered, the common man could be defended by a proper constitution.
I recently attended a political science conference in which nineteenth-century-Americanists pointed out that the idea of democracy was anathema to the nineteenth century. Democracy is mob-rule. Everything in the Constitution – read the Federalist Papers! – is organized to prevent democracy, to make sure that the 51% cannot inflict their prejudices and self-interest on minorities of various sorts.
The twentieth century, with tremors in the late-nineteenth-century populism of William Jennings Bryan and real victory in the Constitutional Amendments of the 1910s, turned that consensus upside down. Now (yes, still now, for the twenty-first has hardly begun) most Americans cannot even conceive of someone being opposed to majority rule and direct votes. But we are beginning to wake up to the damage done by this way of thinking. The ravages of consumerism, to be sure -- of, for example, supposing that if everyone's enjoying the Super Bowl halftime show, it must be okay. But even more, the ravages of government give-aways, where pandering politicians sell the good of the nation short in exchange for a few more votes. Populism has had its day, and its successes and failures. (A post for another day: how rich are we really – when the bill comes due?)
And so, perhaps, the twenty-first century will be the age of the managers. Men like Chris Christie and Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan, who set aside populist rhetoric, set aside even a true portrayal of themselves to the voters, in order to better manage the country. Romney is portrayed by his opponents as wanting to “manage the decline.” But the belief of these new managers is that management is the only way to avoid decline.
The same kind of people have taken over my university – this is anecdotal, but perhaps significant. Our new president and provost have very little to say about education, but lots to say about management, including, above all, getting our books in order. (Even in the university, "books" now means finances.) As I recall, even when I was a grad student at the Catholic University of America – which was undergoing a profound rediscovery of its religious and intellectual mission – we got a new Provost interested not so much in education as in management. Consider the irony of schools changing this job’s title to “Chief Educational Officer”: on one level, it claims to be about education, but in fact, it’s a title out of management theory.
Good or bad? Well, a bit of both. It’s not my point to endorse it or condemn it, but to say, watch it come. These guys are right. The twentieth-century’s obsession with democracy left a major deficit of serious management. Perhaps the next century will see us give up on cult-of-personality populists trading handouts for votes, in favor of boring technocrats who let us ignore the grime of politics while they fix the problems. I think there are ways of defending this way of life – far from Big Brother, most of these technocrats seem also to realize, for example, the importance of the family, the local community, and personal responsibility, and might be expected to overrule the ever-expanding if-it-feels-good-do-it-ism of the twentieth-century. Super-manager Mitch Daniels insists that the goal is not more power for him, but less; his book is subtitled, "Saving America by Trusting Americans." There are abundant economic and social corollaries to a shift from mob-rule to management. But for now, I’ll leave it here.