WINNING THE PUBLIC DEBATE

Kevin Drum observes,

[W]e liberals may be feeling pretty beat up lately, but if you listen closely it’s pretty clear that we’ve decisively won virtually the entire public debate with conservatives. The right wing likes to talk a lot of smack about how the country is going their way, but it’s really not true even after 20 years of the Reagan/Gingrich/Bush revolution.

To see what I mean, consider the conservative agenda as represented by major Bush administration initiatives. They want to make life less dangerous for big corporations by pushing tort reform and whittling away at environmental standards. They want to promote vouchers and private schools by implementing absurd standards for public schools in the No Child Left Behind Act. They want to reduce and privatize Medicare and Social Security. They invaded Iraq in order to install a friendlier government and give us a base of power in the center of the Middle East.

But that’s not what they say. What they say is that tort reform is designed to minimize frivolous lawsuits (though capping payments patently does nothing of the kind). The “Clean Air” and “Healthy Forests” initiatives strengthen our commitment to cleaning up the environment. NCLB will make our public schools better and more accountable. Their Medicare and Social Security proposals are designed to strengthen the system, not scale it back. The Iraq war was for humanitarian reasons — and we’re going to get out as soon as we can.

Later in the post, he issues some caveats and concedes the right has won parts of the argument, too.

My cynical initial reaction [Get outta here! -ed.], which I posted in Kevin’s comments, was, “Honestly, I think the worst of both sides have won out: Liberals have convinced everybody that the government is supposed to take care of them but conservatives have convinced them that they shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

There’s a lot of truth in that off-the-cuff answer but it’s of course more complicated than that. In a large sense, Kevin is right: The tide toward the nanny state been inexorable, with the right winning temporary battles here and there. If you compare the role foreseen for the government by even our most progressive Founding Fathers with the society in which we now live, it’s rather obvious that state is much closer to the Leviathan than the Liberal-utilitarian laissez faire vision most of them had. Clamoring for more intervention began with the expansion into the frontier and has grown ever since, with peaks during the Civil War, Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.

The more complicated and interdependent a society it is, the more demand–and legitimate need–there is for regulation. I’ve long contended, for example, that the reason our Western European cousins are so much further down the road to socialism than we are has less to do with our Constitution and pioneer heritage than our comparatively low population density. This also largely explains why the urban areas tend to be more liberal while the rurual areas tend to be more conservative. The specialization and division of labor that made industrialization and our tremendous wealth possible also made us all idiots in the Scott Adams sense of the word: While almost all of us are highly skilled at some things, most of us are helpless to do things our ancestors took for granted–growing/catching/killing our food, making our clothes, fixing our tools, and the like. We simply require constant cooperation with a much larger portion of humanity than was the case even two hundred years ago. We get things we need from people we don’t know–indeed, generally never even see–and require some external assurance that we don’t get taken advantage of.

In the more immediate sense, I’m less sure that I agree with Kevin. He says, for example,

When liberals talk about their goals they talk about what they really want. When George Bush talks, he hides his goals behind surprisingly liberal rhetoric.

For one thing, Democrats haven’t been able to call themselves “liberal” in national elections in over 30 years. Bill Clinton pulled the Democrats from the abyss at the presidential level–anyone remember the “Electoral College lock” the Republicans supposedly had?–by coming out as a “New Democrat” who explicitly rejected the rhetoric and indeed many policies of the past. He ran on “ending welfare as we know it” and, with a huge assist from Gingrich and Co., did just that. The only huge new liberal social program he trotted out was the great expansion of the health care system–and that went down in flames. Indeed, he famously–and it turns out, incorrectly–proclaimed “the era of big government is over.” It was Republicans doing the clapping for that one, not his fellow Democrats. Remember triangulation?

On the other hand, it’s true that the harshest of the conservative rhetoric has been toned down. But I think some of the examples Kevin cites are actually legitimate policy preferences of George W. Bush, who is not a Newt Gingrich Republican. Whether because his wife is a schoolteacher, because of the more liberal leanings of his mother, or whatever reason, I think Bush is genuinely much more disposed to federal intervention in education than most post-Reagan Republicans, for example. And while “Compassionate Conservative” was indeed a rhetorical device, Bush actually believes in much of it. He made some really bad choices in his youth, literally thanks his god that he’s survived them, and probably has more empathy for the down-and-out than many politicians who haven’t had that experience.

And I’m not sure what to make of this:

To hear George Bush talk, you’d almost think you were listening to the reincarnation of FDR, and the fact that he says this stuff is a tacit admission that talking about conservative goals openly and honestly would be an electoral disaster. Most people want cleaner air and water, they want strong public schools, they like Social Security and Medicare, and even after 9/11 they don’t want long wars or messy occupations.

Almost all Republicans have those goals, too!

We all want clean air and water. Most of us also recognize that there are trade-offs involved, too, with other things we want, like economic growth, employment, respect for the rights of property owners, and the like. But, really, the argument has always been about either precisely where to draw the line or who gets to draw it.

Who doesn’t want strong public schools? Most Republicans send their kids to public schools, after all. Do some of us want competition among schools to preclude stagnation? Sure. But wanting stronger schools to emerge from that competition isn’t rhetoric we use to get people to go along with the goal–it actually is the goal.

Conservatives opposed Social Security and Medicare at one point, and some oppose them in principle now for a variety of reasons. But virtually no mainstream Republican opposes ensuring that the elderly, poor, or disabled can sustain themselves; the debate is about how best to do that. Those of us who would like the option to invest our retirement money in something that actually grows, like the stock market, rather than operating a Ponzi scheme that passes the costs of our retirement off to future generations aren’t making that argument with the belief that most old people would thereby be homeless and digging through the dumpsters for dinner.

Republicans don’t want long wars or messy occupations! Hell, Republicans opposed entering World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Indeed, during the 1990s, Republicans opposed every intervention known to mankind while Bill Clinton was sending troops to places people had never heard of for no apparent reason. Many Republicans supported going into Iraq because, rightly or wrongly, they believed doing so would enhance our physical security and, not incidentally, free a society from arguably the worst dictator then in business. And we’re certainly anxious to get our troops out as soon as possible, since more are getting killed the longer we stay. But we don’t want to pull out until we have some semblance of a stable government in place and give the Iraqi people a fighting chance to make a go of it when we leave. And, incidentally, judging from the vote in Congress and the opinon polls, many Democrats want those things, too.

Update (2235): In the time it took between posting my intial comment on Kevin’s post (First!) and composing this longer version, things have gotten very interesting in his comments section! I’m especially amused by some of the less family-friendly entries such as,

anyone who thinks i’m trying to force faggotry upon anyone can suck my prick.

Classic!

FILED UNDER: 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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Donnie says:

    James:

    Check out UPDATE 2 here: http://aintdoneit.com/blog/archives/000604.html

    Hehe…

  2. nathan says:

    “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? No!”
    “Germans?”
    “Sh. He’s on a roll.”

  3. Paul says:

    Kevin apparently never heard of this guy named Clinton.

    No, not William Jefferson the President.

    Henry Clinton, the General.

    The British charged Breed’s Hill (aka Bunker Hill) twice and were completely ineffective. After getting reinforcements, on the third attack they finally “won” the battle of Bunker Hill. Out of 2400 British soldiers they lost 1054. The only casualties to the colonists happened during the retreat and that was caused by a lack of supplies and not British firepower. The colonists were so crushed by the “defeat” they sang songs about the battle and danced for 3 days.

    It was General Henry Clinton that put the event into perspective when he called it: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”

    To the extent Kev can claim victory it comes at a dear price. The Republicans are now in the center. (numerically undeniable look at the elections) Meanwhile the ideological pendulum is swinging back to the right. This bodes particularly poorly for the Democratic Party because the party had been taken over by extremists and they can not even see it. (evidence Howard Dean)

    All I can say is the conservatives are happy and positive right now and the liberals are bitter and angry to the point of becoming delusional. I’m not sure how that is a victory.

    But hey, if Kev wants to declare victory, let him have his moment.

  4. Dodd says:

    It always amuses me to see left-of-center types talk about Bush as if he’s some kind of arch-conservative. He isn’t and – as we right-of-center types who support him need to remember – he never was. I waited a long time in the primaries to make a decision to support him because even then it was clear he was no “Gingrich Republican.”

    You skipped over the really outrageous paragraph in Mr. Drum’s post – the one that says that Bush decided not to forge a bipartisan consensus on fighting terrorism and instead went war in Iraq to “drive a wedge” through the Democrats. As if internal philosophical disagreements among Democrats are his fault. By this logic, Bubba pushed NAFTA through to “drive a wedge” between protectionist paleoconservatives and free-market conservatives – which is plain nonsense; the divide was there all along, that particular policy merely brought it to the fore.

    One thing is clear: Even fairly reasonable liberals rarely, if ever, consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we Republicans (Bush included) propose the policies we do because we believe they are sound and good and will do what we say they will. No, Bush didn’t propose the Healthy Forests initiative to improve land management and reduce forest fires (which it will do), he did it to please corporations. He didn’t propose NCLB to improve our schools, it’s a nefarious plot to further destroy them so that vouchers will be more attractive (I guess that explains Ted Kennedy’s support for the bill). Likewsie, personalizing SS and a massive expansion of MediCare are designed to kill these programs, not ensure their long-term solvency. And he sure as hell didn’t go to Iraq for any of the reasons he gave; no, no, no, no, no – he just did it to divide Democrats.

  5. Paul says:

    ….and fer the oil of course.

  6. Steve says:

    Well actually I think Kevin was being a fatuous ass when he made the statement about what people want, don’t want and like. It was stupid and demeaning to those who don’t agree with him.

    As you rightly note those who disagree with Kevin want those goals too, the argument is about how to go about doing it. Even if you don’t want the government doing some of these things, but say the market, you still want people to better off than they are. This kind of crap cuts of at the knees those Kevin disagrees with. It immediately poisons the well and we have to argue against this baseless insinuation before going onto the policy issues.

  7. melvin toast says:

    I read an article once about C and M type arguments. Arguing the Consequences vs. arguing on the Motivation. When people are headed the wrong way, we tend to use C arguments. When people are headed the right way, but we don’t like them, we use M type. Bush is just trying to get Latino votes or Saddam was bad but we were just in it for the oil.

    Remember, at the end of the day, it’s C that you have to live with. So if you hear someone arguing purely on M, it’s probably not worth listening unless there’s a C involved.

  8. Well hell, let’s just give up, shall we?
    KEVIN has declared victory. I guess we conservatives should throw our hats at the hatrack, and hang our heads, since: “When liberals talk about their goals they talk about what they really want. When George Bush talks, he hides his…

  9. Joyner goes long
    James Joyner rarely posts lengthy pieces at Outside the Beltway. Usually, it’s an excerpt and a few bites of wisdom. Tonight is an exception, and a good one at that: Winning the Public Debate. He takes on Kevin Drum’s assertion…

  10. politX says:

    Who sets the tone?
    James at Outside the Beltway has an interesting discussion about whether the left or the right has won the battle…

  11. politX says:

    Who sets the tone?
    James at Outside the Beltway has an interesting discussion about whether the left or the right has won the battle…