Recent polls show support for Republicans is still declining, and President Bush's approval ratings are the lowest for any president other than Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter in the past fifty years. The New York Times summed it up well last week:
Americans have a bleaker view of the country's direction than at any time in more than two decades, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. Sharp disapproval of President Bush's handling of gasoline prices has combined with intensified unhappiness about Iraq to create a grim political environment for the White House and Congressional Republicans.
This decline is basically not a matter of PR or press bias but of policy, as I note in my Tech Central Station article of today, "The Crash of Big-Government Conservatism." Bush and the Republican Congress have had a difficult time selling themselves to the public because their policies have not been appealing. They have had a philosophy, big-government conservatism, that alienates nearly everyone. The War on Terror delayed this alienation for several years, but ultimately the Bush administration's errors and Congress's addiction to big spending, which was based on this big-government conservative philosophy, alienated both those outside the party, first, and then a great proportion of Republicans themselves.
Big-government conservatism has a few main aims: to preserve the welfare state while mitigating its ill effects, to preserve the sexual revolution while mitigating its ill effects, to preserve the present American culture while mitigating its bad effects, to preserve the present international order while mitigating its bad effects, and to preserve the present system of national politics while mitigating its bad effects.
The economic premise of the Republicans is that the welfare state benefits from free markets and is not in natural conflict with them. Their social premise relies on the same utilitarian calculus as that of their opponents on the Left, but the Republicans hold that antinomianism is not good for people but that nothing can really be done about it except to try to ease government restrictions on religion. The international affairs premise is that liberal democracy is the best thing for all nations and imposition of in on other nations is the solution when they become a threat to U.S. interests.
The Democrats, by contrast, say that the system of free markets and human welfare are in inevitable conflict, and the latter must always be the higher priority. They believe in expanding the sexual revolution. They believe that the moral problem with America is not antinomianism but the intractable intolerance of monotheists. And they believe that the real problem with the international order is that war is inevitable when people don't see residents of other nations as being of equal importance as oneself and one's family, neighborhood, and nation.
The Democrats have a definite philosophy that creates a vivid picture of a good world, and that is appealing. The Republicans' present philosophy is simply a watered-down version of the Democrats'. For a party in power, that is disastrous, as it lets the opposition set the agenda and measure success.
The solution for the Republicans is to embrace classical liberalism, not forgetting its crucial components of individual rights, personal responsibility, the belief that human life in general and every human life in particular has meaning, and respect for the reality of nationality.
Such a vision provides a truly comprehensible, consistent, and sensible view of the world and the nation. In this worldview, the nation is a society of free individuals brought together by a common heritage, living under laws that free people to achieve the best that they can and prevent them from unfairly exploiting one another, that respects the need for personal morality regardless of one's religious background. Classical liberalism provides a way to find clear answers in all policy matters by asking the following question: Which policy approach will create the greatest amount of both individual liberty and social order?
Such a vision is by no means a theocracy; it is in fact based largely on utilitarianism. However, it also includes a respect for religion because the latter is part of mankind's perpetual search for truth and meaning and because it encourages personal morality and social charity and gives great comfort and purpose to individuals in times both good and bad. In its great and abiding respect for the good things religion brings, however, classical liberalism never allows the two kingdoms (in Martin Luther's great distinction), the City of God and the City of Man, to be conflated or confused with each other. Classical liberalism holds that the Christian religion is good for society because it encourages the intellectual foundations for an orderly society of free individuals. Whether a particular religion's claims are true or not is a matter for the Church to decide, as Luther pointed out, not the state; and whether a particular policy or political philosophy is good is a matter to be decided by an emprical calculus, not religious laws developed for a very different group of people six thousand years ago. Encouragement of religion, yes; imposition of religious-based laws, no.
This philosophy is much more likely to appeal to Republicans and others on the Right than the watered-down postmodernism now offered by the Republicans. The one positive element for Republicans at this point is that they are learning today, almost six months before the coming elections, that their philosophy has run its course. There is time for them to change. Whether they will in fact do so is another question entirely, but one thing is certain. They have nothing to lose, and their hold on Congress and state legislatures and executive mansions to retain.