Questioning Their Motives

Victor Davis Hanson has a piece out today that I suspect will be the first of many of its kind. Intermixed with some excellent points about the perception of McCain campaign negativity, the politics of race, and scandalmongering, he aims this cheap shot at Republicans who have expressed dismay at McCain or even endorsed his opponent.

Second, with Obama now with an 6-8 point lead, some in the DC/NY corridor these last three weeks figure it’s time now to jump or at least sort of jump, since the train they think is leaving the station and there might be still be some space at the dinner table on the caboose. They also believe as intellectuals that the similarly astute Obamians may on occasion inspire, or admire them as the like-minded who cultivate the life of the mind-in contrast to the “cancer” Sarah Palin, who, with her husband Todd, could hardly discuss Proust with them or could offer little if any sophisticated table-talk other than the proper chokes on shotguns or optimum RPMs on snow-machines.

This is such utter nonsense. Conservative intellectuals are, by definition, both conservative and intellectual. While many of us understand the practical realities of politics and campaigning, we are ideologues who are motivated by fundamental principles of governing, intellectual consistency, and the ability to coherently articulate the message. While we are “team players,” having generally chosen the GOP as the best vehicle for carrying those ideas into fruition, we’re not party hacks who will publicly adopt positions of convenience for our candidate at the expense of intellectual honesty.

Here at OTB, the authors have broad agreement on general principles but have different emphases and thus different preferences in this election. As is almost always the case with intellectuals, none of us is thrilled with the available choices. I continue to support McCain, albeit less enthusiastically than even a month ago. Alex Knapp continues to support Obama, although never with any great joy. Dave Schuler, a Scoop Jackson-Sam Nunn Democrat by inclination, hadn’t made up his mind as of last Wednesday evening. (The others haven’t, so far as I recall, weighed in.)

I don’t spend a lot of time discussing Proust. To the extent that I’m invited to dinners and parties with smart people, that’s not going to change based on whom I support in November. There are plenty of smart folks on both sides of this one. What would, however, ruin my credibility in those circles is carrying the water for my party in direct opposition to my previous intellectual positions.

I was never a McCain fan, having found his 2000 campaign self-righteous and off-putting. He has been flat out wrong on a number of issues, notably his signature issue of campaign finance “reform.” I came to admire him during this year’s primary campaign, though, for doubling down on Iraq and fighting his party on immigration at a time when both those positions appeared to be political suicide. Once it became clear that Rudy Giuliani was not who I thought he was, McCain became, as I expressed it in a June 2007 post, “my least unfavorite among the 2008 field.”

I’ve defended him against charges and “Outrage of the Day” scandals that I thought were dubious and noted that many things he was doing that I personally found distasteful were well within the bounds of the rough and tumble of the American political system. Then again, I’ve done the same for his opponent.

Yes, I’ve been pretty hard on him for choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. Not only did she undermine his core message of the importance of experience and “being ready on day one,” but she’s simply the kind of politician that makes me recoil. I object to Palin for the same reason I bitterly opposed the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court: neither was “qualified” by traditional standards for the exalted positions for which they were chosen. Miers and Palin were/are both nominally qualified and both probably had the tools to carry out their jobs but given the available talent pool, their selections made no sense.

George Will, Christopher Buckley, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, Kathleen Parker, and other conservative commentators who are criticizing McCain and Palin are doing so at a risk to their standing, not to bolster it.

So, while I agree with Hanson and others that, given the choices, the McCain-Palin ticket is more likely to preside over policies that conservatives like — or at least block those we don’t like — than the Obama-Biden ticket and, as a resident of suddenly-swing state Virginia will vote accordingly, I’m not going to pretend that it’s the second coming of Ronald Reagan and Morning in America, either.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James Joyner is one of many conservatives I respect (also David Brooks)

  2. Derrick says:

    Posts like this are why I like coming here. Your too kind in not just noting that VDH, Kristol and some of their brethren are nothing but political hacks, who would be making the same case if Ron Paul or Alan Keyes got the nomination. VDH would rather spend his time convincing people that Bill Ayers is the most important issue in this campaign rather than substantively explain why McCain would be better than Obama.

  3. sam says:

    I sometimes think VDH’s intellectual horsepower was exhausted in his books on ancient Greek warfare (which are extremely good and well worth reading). He certainly seems to me to have a better grasp of hoplite tactics than he does of modern politics (that’s partisan, course). And while I’m mostly on the other side of the room from James, I can’t help but feel some of his sense on insult at that passage. I think James is wrong to support McCain, reluctantly or otherwise, but I’d never say his reluctance is in hope of furthering his chances of invites to Washington dinner parties if Obama wins (I assume that’s the thrust of the “caboose” remark).

  4. John Cole says:

    Sure. But why do you hate America?

  5. SavageView says:

    Conservative intellectualism is dead, which is why this site will be fine.

  6. kouji says:

    i like this post. while i tend to favor obama (which doesn’t really at all matter, i guess, since i’m not american), i’ve been hunting around online for republican and other voices who still compose themselves with intellectual honesty.

    i’m a big fan of competition and choice, which is why i’m hoping that the republican party will find its way away from some of the uglier elements that have arisen in this election campaign, and return to some of the values i thought the republican party stood for, such as small government, and a reasonably free market.

    i found the palin choice choice rather underwhelming. your country and the rest of the world, are facing huge problems at this point in time, both economic and geopolitical, and i feel that as much as possible, we need heavyweights at the helm, people able to reason through the complex issues facing all of us today.

  7. Houston says:

    This from the self-described “conservative intellectual” who calls the Veep-nominated Governor of Alaska an “ignoramous.”

    Look, as you yourself indicated, these elections are all about picking the lesser of multiple evils. You pick your candidate and go with him/her, to the finish, warts and all. You don’t bail when things get difficult.

    This is exactly what the Dems did about Iraq. They were behind it until things got difficult, and then they were more than happy to stab the President in the back.

    VDH’s column is directed at those who now appear to be happy to do the same to McCain.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Part of being a team player is minimizing the complaints and not grousing about leadership. There’s a time and place for constructive criticism and a time to be quiet.

    VDH is pointing out those who openly complain undermine the party based upon their minor disappointments. Sure he’s over playing the stereotypes with Proust readers on one side but he counters with shotguns and snow machines on the other. Not accurate but illustrative none the less.

    Like fair weather football fans who cheer their team on the good days but boo the loudest when times are tough the intellectual conservatives seem to have forgotten how to properly support the team. Hanson’s pointing this out is what I would call a teaching opportunity.

  9. Billy says:

    Part of being a team player is minimizing the complaints and not grousing about leadership. There’s a time and place for constructive criticism and a time to be quiet.

    You’re confusing intellectual honesty with partisan politics. This is not an “either/or” proposition – true conservatives can remain ideologically pure and still be brutal in their criticism of the republican party (and the same can be said of liberals and the democrats). I, for one, think that James has consistently offered about the strongest case for McCain that intellectually honest individuals of any stripe can respect – that for all of the obvious weaknesses with the ticket, that its limiting effect on the passage of liberal policies is a net plus for the country. I happen to disagree with him, but that is an argument and a point of view that the most ideologically liberal person can appreciate and respect.

    On the other hand, to play the role of Bill Kristol, i.e., to throw yourself wholeheartedly behind a ticket notwithstanding its clear shortcomings and to provide any (any!) line of reasoning depending on what the issue of the day as to why your team is better than the other team, is transparently self-interested and does nothing so much as demean and discredit the speaker. It is this as much as anything else that has turned the American people against the republican party, and only those who are deeply invested in continuing the obfuscatory and disingenuous tactics of the current administration and its apologists fail to understand this point. From a tactical standpoint, Obama gets it; McCain clearly does not (or did not until it was too late to discard his poorly-chosen handlers).

    That said, seeing the writing on the wall (as George Will, et al, clearly have) does not equate with intellectual honesty. Nevertheless, it’s still a step up from Bithead-esque rantings about how the other guy is a terrorist.

  10. John425 says:

    For an “Outside the Beltway” contributor- your attack on Sarah Palin sounds mighty like an “Inside the Beltway” jab at someone who is not from the correct “Political Elite” circles of the ever-so-intellectual conservative pundit-ocracy.

    NB: You are starting to sound like the WaPo.

  11. Bithead says:

    McCain’s problem from the start has been a lack of reality. His arguments have invariably been that we should be reaching across the isle to the left and welcome them.

    What McCain forgets is Reagan’s lesson. Reagan never leaned so far left that the base rejected him. He stood up for something… conservatism, essentially saying’ here’s where I am. If you want to ride with me, the bus is going this way.

    I’ve been sayingt his should be the Republican attitude. McCain disagreed, so McCain has at best been getting half-hearted support from most Republican, and certainly enjoyed very little support from me, except as James defines it…’my least unfavorite’. As I said elsewhere:

    …if we regard government as a nessesary evil, and I think we should, then elections have always come down to which of the choices is the least evil.

    Such was the driver, for example of my choice to support W for POTUS. He’s at best a centrist, as I have been saying forever… but his is a far less evil choice than Kerry or Gore.

    By the same token, McCain, while I’m not overly happy about it, is a far less evil choice than is Obama.

    On the other hand, we have…

    to play the role of Bill Kristol, i.e., to throw yourself wholeheartedly behind a ticket notwithstanding its clear shortcomings and to provide any (any!) line of reasoning depending on what the issue of the day as to why your team is better than the other team, is transparently self-interested and does nothing so much as demean and discredit the speaker.

    Well, gee… you mean Obama’s supporters haven’t been doing that?

  12. Steve Plunk says:


    No confusion. Intellectual honesty has a place but giving talking points to the political opposition doesn’t make any sense. Between pure intellectual honesty and pure partisan politics there are plenty of reasonable positions to stake out.

    If one is dissatisfied with the candidate, the party, or the tactics the appropriate time for discussion would be early on or after the election instead of weeks before. Such talk weakens or further weakens your candidate while strengthening the opposition. It doesn’t matter which side you are on when election day approaches support your candidate.

  13. Billy says:

    It doesn’t matter which side you are on when election day approaches support your candidate.

    You posit that it’s better to keep your mouth shut than to point out what is clearly true in some instances. This is a tactical decision if one is wholly dedicated to a “side.” If, on the other hand, one is dedicated to ideals and principles, no such rule applies.

    Again, advocacy for a candidate does not require non-recognition of the obvious. I maintain that it is strategically wiser to acknowledge and address weaknesses and mistakes than it is to ignore them, or worse, to barrel ahead with a boatload of half-truths and flagrant lies in the hopes that you cross the finish line first. That kind of thinking gave us eight years of George Bush, but it has devastated the republican party in the long term.

    And whether individuals on both sides engage in small-minded thinkng is immaterial; it has been the stated policy of the republicans to engage in character assassination and confusion in order to bamboozle the voting public. Enough of that public have now become sufficiently cynical about politics so as not to buy into it again. Pretending otherwise will not restore the brand.

  14. od says:

    Actually I thought the team we were on was our country, not a particular party? If the party you’re supporting does things which you think is harmful for the country, being a team player requires you to criticize the party … this goes for people all across the political spectrum.