Hammering Rusty Nails

Rusty Lopez has reacted to my post about Bush backing away from the Federal Marriage Amendment with this strangely myopic post. He says:

Speaking of venturing out of the "ghetto," Ed Brayton, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, seems to think that because President Bush is now not pushing for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, that he has somehow taken conservative Christians for a ride. Has the fact that constitutional amendments are extremely costly and time consuming evaded Ed's notice? If one can achieve a similar goal, without the expense involved in amending the constitution, wouldn't one be better suited to go that route?

I'm not sure how he managed to miss the entire substance of my argument, but he has. Of course I know that amending the constitution is difficult and costly (more in terms of political capital than financial, of course). But it was just as difficult and costly last year as it is this year and there was considerably less chance of it passing last year than this year. So what changed? Well, one thing obviously changed - last year he was running for president; this year, he's already won. Hence, no need to continue pimping for votes and high voter turnout among his core constituency. But Rusty has anticipated, somewhat, this response:

Sure, it could be argued that the cost involved now is the same as before the election, but the political climate may not be the same.

This is argument by vagueness. Of course the "political climate" has changed. The Republicans have picked up 5 more seats in the Senate, which means it stands a much better chance of passing now than it did a year ago. If someone was really wanted to pass the amendment, then by any rational argument it is better to try and pass it now than it was a year ago. The fact that they won't do that obviously indicates that the drive to keep that amendment on the agenda last year was driven by electoral strategy, not by ideological commitment.

Now, does that mean that I am claiming that Bush has "taken conservative Christians for a ride"? Only in the same sense that all politicians take all constituencies for a ride in every election. Despite the mindless blathering from the hopelessly naive that Bush "says what he means and means what he says", he is a politician. Most of the things he promised to do in 2000 while running for office, he did not do and likely never intended to do, just as he won't do most of the things he promised to do this time around (and if Gore had won, I could no doubt have said the exact same thing about his administration, as one could about all administrations). People who take campaign rhetoric seriously and think that they really really mean it are exactly the sort of sheep to whom the campaign consultants sell their focus group tested snake oil. In the few instances where campaigns actually take a specific policy stand (vague promises to "move the nation forward to greater opportunity" or "get American moving again" do not count as policy positions but only as politico-babble), those positions rarely find their way into actual policies advocated once in office.

Rusty then goes on to analyze my statement in terms of the "liberal agenda" - whatever that is:

An aspect of the liberal agenda that I must be missing something on, though, is their inconsistency with regards to just what they think Bush / Republican Party is up to. For instance, in closing his post regarding Bush / Republican Party stringing along Christian conservatives, Ed (from the link above) implies that Bush / Republican Party employ the use of fear to play on the emotions of Christian conservatives (you know them - those bigoted haters of everything liberal). But wait a minute, Bush / Republican Party is toying with the Christian Right simply to get votes? I thought Bush / Republican Party was supposed to be establishing a virtual Theocracy (what with his / their alliance with Christian conservatives)? So, if Bush / Republican Party is leading the charge to turn the government of the good 'ole U. S. of A. into a Christian "Taliban," why would he / they snub his / their most important constituency by "reversing" his / their position on a gay marriage ban? It must be because the Christian Right is comprised of uneducated, stupid people, who are easy to herd...but who are in control.

This is the sort of shallow, lazy, label-driven thinking that is constantly heard in the finer political chatrooms on the internet, but usually engaged in by someone not nearly as intelligent as Rusty. It works by assuming that my statement, and my views, are part of a "liberal agenda", then comparing them to other people he assumes are part of that "liberal agenda", finding that they are opposite statements, and then declaring that "they" are being inconsistent. It all breaks down if those initial assumptions are false, as they are here. I am not a liberal in any relevant political sense (I do regard myself as a classical liberal in the Jeffersonian sense, but that's not what Rusty is referring to here). Indeed, many of my criticisms of Bush's policies are from what Rusty would no doubt consider "the right" of Bush - his incredible growth of government, his total unwillingness to even attempt to restrain spending (he didn't veto a single bill in 4 years), his signing of the largest new entitlement program since LBJ (and deceit about the true costs of that program), his use of protectionist tariffs in the steel industry and other places, and his huge increase in federal control and funding of education.

I don't believe Bush is a theocrat, nor have I ever said he was. I do think that there is a fairly sizable constituency within the Republican party that are theocrats, and anyone who doesn't recognize that is either naive or clueless. And I believe that Bush's policies sometimes reflect a political need to throw a bone to that constituency to keep them happy. I don't doubt for a moment that Bush's religious faith is genuine and that he generally agrees with most of the religious right agenda, but when push comes to shove, politics tends to trump ideology, and there are other constituencies to worry about as well. Bush's main political adviser, Karl Rove, knows better than anyone that if the main policy goals of the religious right are actually enacted, it will greatly damage the ability of the Republican party to maintain a winning coalition in elections. Abortion is a perfect example...

An enormous number of surveys on the public's opinions on abortion over the last 30 years have shown very consistent results - about 2/3 of the public is pro-choice, while a portion of that group is willing to accept some reasonable restrictions on it. They're willing to go along with, and would even support, a ban on partial birth abortions, or notification requirements, or 24 hour waiting periods, but they do not want abortion to be made illegal. As long as Roe v. Wade remains the controlling judicial decision, abortion will remain legal. If it is overturned, then it becomes a legislative battle and the Republican leadership knows that if that happens, they will be in a pickle.

Their core constituency is strongly, even fanatically, anti-abortion and wants to ban it in virtually all circumstances, but 2/3 of the public consistently disagrees with that goal. If they move to get that agenda passed, the folks in the middle will be much more likely to vote the other way. The more libertarian-minded Republicans could very well leave the party. On the other hand, with an end to legal abortion a real possibility for the first time in thirty years, there's no way the religious right core group is going to accept a half-hearted effort to make it a reality without revolting. The Republican political leadership knows this, of course, they've seen all the same polling data. They know that as long as abortion remains a judicial issue only, it helps them politically. It allows them to rail against "unelected judges" and "judicial activism" and pose as the defender of everything good without actually being able to get do anything in the short term to make it happen. It's the perpetual carrot on the stick in front of the race horse. If the horse actually gets the carrot, the plan doesn't work.

This isn't a hypothetical projection on my part. I've been told this directly by Republican campaign consultants, including one of my best friends. The Republican party, like any party, is a mishmash of different groups with different objectives. And my position before and since the election is not that the Bush campaign is the "taliban" (though some parts of his support group are a lot like the taliban in many ways) seeking to impose theocracy, but that theocrats are one component of the coalition that backs him and got him elected. I've even pointed out situations in which I thought the theocrats were overreaching in their attempt to consolidate their power, as in the Arlen Specter situation. That whole situation was about how much control the religious right would have over the party as a whole and the religious right lost that battle. The politicians tested the winds, made some noise, but in the end it was a 10-0 vote to make Specter the chairman. The hard right component of the Bush coalition lost that battle to the more moderate components of the coalition. So when Rusty compares my far more reasonable position to the position of those who think that the Bush administration is all theocrats, he is merely caricaturing my views and beating up a straw man. The fact that my views expressed are inconsistent with the "liberal agenda" that he imagines it to be a part of has far more to do with his indiscriminate application of the label "liberal" than it does with any rational consideration of my views.


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As long as Roe v. Wade remains the controlling judicial decision, abortion will remain legal. If it is overturned, then it becomes a legislative battle and the Republican leadership knows that if that happens, they will be in a pickle.

Very true. Indeed, if President Bush has an abortion "litmus test," I'd be willing to bet it is this: any potential nominee who he knows or has reason to believe would vote to overturn Roe is disqualified from nomination. He'll talk about judges who are not "activist" or who respect "family values" or the "sanctity of life," but in reality, he can't risk putting on the Court any judge who is committed to getting rid of Roe.