Friedersdorf v. Hawkins: Round 2

Round 2 of the debate on the future of the American Right between John Hawkins of Right Wing News and Conor Friedersdorf is up.  It is again quite civilized even as both participants remain unapologetic and honest about their positions. 

Hawkins opens with a couple of haymakers, but also throws some straw men into the debate when he treats “moderates” as indistinguishable from “reformers.”  He notes, correctly, that few of the Bush Administration’s worst abuses were “conservative” in any meaningful sense, but also makes the unsupportable statement that these policies were “a case where conservative politicians were convinced by people of Conor’s ideological temperament to abandon conservative governance, and it led to disaster.”   The reality of course is that the advocates of many of these policies came from both the movement and what is now the reformist camp.   They were in large part the result of political strategists (who, again, fall into both camps) filling the policy void left in a party without any kind of unifying positive agenda, as I’ve argued before.  Indeed, many of the reformist criticisms of the Bush Administration are precisely the same as the criticisms by the movement – specifically, that the Bush Administration pursued an un-conservative agenda. 

After missing this right hook, Hawkins then lands a doozy in discussing why movement conservatives don’t trust the reformers, noting that the reformers often seem more interested in throwing personal jabs at the Right, disowning conservatism, and supporting the Left than in actually working with the Right.  This is followed with a right-left combination, as Hawkins asks “Why do the people who get accused of being racists, xenophobes, and too dumb to understand politics always have to be the ones who forgive while the same blockheads who never learn from their mistakes insist on getting their way again?”  The first punch in the combination on racism and xenophobia hits home hard – it’s tough to earn someone’s trust if you’re making claims like that about them.  The second punch – “learn from their mistakes…” – misses because it again ignores that the mistakes of recent years came from strategists from both camps running the show rather than wonks or the base itself.

Notably, Hawkins sprinkles in a few successful blocks by conceding that the base exhibited too much partisan loyalty to Bush throughout the first term and that there needs to be more open discussion of ideas in the conservative media (though he tries to throw a gratuitous cheap shot that the Left is less willing to openly discuss ideas than the Right – obviously Hawkins doesn’t read many liberal blogs). 

Conor, however, comes back swinging, wearing Hawkins down with some strong blocks and dodges.  He opens his part of the round by narrowing the issues beautifully, conceding a number of Hawkins’ best points from Hawkins’ first post.  Then he goes on the attack with a magnificent roundhouse, writing “As a conservative, I presume you believe, as the Founders did, that political power tends to corrupt. Indeed, long experience teaches that all political and ideological movements sooner or later tend to become corrupted, intellectually lazy, blind to internal weaknesses, captive to orthodoxies of thought, and forgetful of their ostensible ends.

How can the right mitigate these ills so that when Republicans return to power, they’ll govern effectively? You’d think answering that question would be an urgent priority, especially for movement conservatives who regard today’s Republican Party as out of touch at best, and corrupt at worst, even as they pine for its return to power. But I can’t recall ever seeing the matter addressed, except by folks who are dismissively derided as “conservative dissidents.” This analysis applies whether the Republican Party moves to the right or to the center, whether or not it more successfully wins minority voters, etc.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  This is in many ways exactly the point that I’ve been trying to make for weeks now.  This little flurry brings the crowd to its feet, shouting “Conor! Conor! Conor!”

And Conor isn’t even done.  He follows this punishing sequence with some very hard truths about the policy issues facing this country: welfare isn’t the problem, middle class entitlements are; the looming pension crisis; defense cuts; and the fiscal limits on our foreign policy. 

This sequence puts Hawkins on the ropes, and Conor looks poised for the knockout.  But just before the bell rings, Conor runs out of steam and throws a few weak punches denigrating the quality of the conservative media as compared to the quality of the explicitly liberal media.  This series of punches misses because it’s not clearly tied with the theme of the rest of Conor’s argument and Conor lacked the time at the end of the post to set this line of argument up properly.  The truncated resulting argument thus comes off as unconvincing and quite likely as a gratuitous shot at conservatives that Hawkins will no doubt use heavily to his advantage in the final round. 

Still, the first 3/4 of Conor’s round were near-flawless and landed some clear haymakers, where Hawkins’ round was inconsistent despite landing some solid blows.  Friedersdorf wins the second round of a tough fight.  After two rounds, I have it scored 19-all.  However, had Conor left out the last paragraph, Hawkins may well have suffered a knock-down that would have left the round 10-8.

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12 thoughts on “Friedersdorf v. Hawkins: Round 2

  1. I have a bit of a problem with Hawkins’ assertion that “Why do the people who get accused of being racists, xenophobes, and too dumb to understand politics always have to be the ones who forgive while the same blockheads who never learn from their mistakes insist on getting their way again?”

    and your own claim that…
    The first punch in the combination on racism and xenophobia hits home hard – it’s tough to earn someone’s trust if you’re making claims like that about them.

    Given that there’ve been significant strands of both racism and xenophobia among the movement conservative “base”. At some point they’re going to need to own up to the fact that yes, a great many of their reflexive positions on everything from welfare to immigration are couched in explicitely racial terms and that they need to come to grips with such things if they’re going to be a viable political movement again given the demographic changes occuring in the US.

    Until that fundamental issue is addressed, “movement” conservatism is a dead end, and the holier than thou defensiveness that these people display needs to be taken on head on. Don’t like being called a racist? Then stop being one. Saying that it’s unfair that you’re being denigrated as racist when there’s so much empirical evidence that in fact you are one is a bit ridiculous.

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  2. This debate is interesting in the abstract, but in practical terms, I’m not sure how relevant it is to “the future of the American Right.” The future of right-wing MEDIA, yes, but so what???

    Where’s any mention of John Boehner or Eric Cantor, the most prominent Republicans on the national stage? What about Governors Rick Perry, Arnold Swarzenegger, Tim Pawlenty, and Bobby Jindahl? What about Michele Bachmann? What about John Cornyn, Chris Bond, Sam Brownback, and Jim Bunning? No mention of even Michael Steele, the chairman of the RNC?

    Am I to believe that the reformists have nothing to say about them? And if we were to successfully reform conservative media don’t we STILL have a huge hill to climb when it comes to reforming the conservatives that actually hold office and all the power and influence that entails? (Sure, Rush Limbaugh makes a lot of people say, “yeah, what he said, ” so he is definitely influential, but it’s not like he’s proposing –or even voting on– actual legislation.)

    It’s almost like we’re debating reforming the NFL, but instead of talking about Michael Vick, we’re too busy dissecting the merits of the latest Peter King or Tony Kornheiser column.

    In the link above, Conor seems to sense this (urging the finger-pointing away from “opinion journalists” to the politicians who deserve it) but he seems fixated on the Bush administration’s (past) errors.

    Which seems a bit strange in a debate over the “future” of the American Right…

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  3. “Herb” is right on every point.

    People who dissent from the Official Idea in this country are left with the Republican Party as an electoral vehicle faux de mieux. John Hawkins is correct that a selection of the commentariat are properly regarded with considerable skepticism, but they are of scant importance to begin with. Neither commentator calls attention to the following:

    1. Candidates for public office should be persons of a certain calibre. This applies to both parties. One of the agreeable aspects of the recent contest in the 23d district in New York is that the Democratic and third party candidates were men in late middle age who had performed creditably in serious endeavors for decades; the Republican candidate driven out of the race is aptly described as an Albany hack with no discernable vocation other than electoral politics. People who have ready alternatives to electoral politics and lobbying as ways of earning a living and who can reasonably be expected to serve three or four terms and then go home are to be valued. For years, the Republican Senate caucus was led by Trent Lott, who was on the payroll of the U.S. Congress from 1967 to 2006 and then opened a lobbying business; the ideal number of such men in Congress is zero.

    2. People whose social research is informed by and motivated by normative committments other than what you usually seen on liberal arts faculties and college administrations are a declining breed (if not a dying breed – see Stanley Kurtz on this point). Think tanks are a poor substitute. The sum of fellows on the staff of the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, et al likely does not exceed in number the faculty of a pair of ordinary liberal-arts colleges, and these institutes are more adept at adapting extant research for manufacturing and selling policy than they are at generating original research. The think tanks also employ too many who are publicists rather than researchers. A long march through institutions, the erection of alternative institutions, and the improvement in the quality of extant institutions is much needed.

    3. Republican politicos need to be very cognizant of how the opposition has turned public institutions and professions into sandboxes, and to work to dismantle, castrate, or cleanse them. The state university campuses, the public school apparat, the county welfare department, and miscellaneous professional associations would be examples.

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  4. Conor asks:

    How can the right mitigate these ills so that when Republicans return to power, they’ll govern effectively?

    There’s no doubt in my mind that Republicans want a return to power. I’m not so clear on the second part — that they want to govern effectively. Rather, they want to govern as if government should go away.

    The first part of an answer to Conor’s question requires defining “effective government” from a Republican perspective. Right now, the party seems so consumed with the “government’s bad” mantra to ever have hope of governing well.

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      • Perhaps; folks do like job security, and I’m sure legislators — with all their efforts at re-election — put more effort into promoting their job security then most.

        But “starve the beast” rhetoric doesn’t exactly inspire faith in effective government, does it? Saying government is bad is not a replacement for articulating how to govern effectively and then winning elections based on those notions of effective government.

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  5. Oh, pish tosh. We had Republicans in power for the past eight yeas and they’ve fed the beast quite handsomely. Liberals won the social argument years ago, and all the GOP does when it gets in power in cut taxes without lowering spending. Remember, W was a “compassionate conservative,” which means your tax dollars. Sorry, but there won’t be small government any time soon. The big balloon will swell and swell until it bursts. Pop! The real question is: where will you be and what will you be doing and using for money when we go belly up?

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  6. I was struck by Hawkin’s point that “it was not the conservatives who were arguing for deficit spending…”

    Yes, in fact, they were, and still are. The Tea Party conservatives are clamoring for more, not less military spending, and simultaneously lowering of taxes; They are not putting forward any semblence of an argument for a balanced budget; they are ignoring the issue entirely.”Fiscal conservatism” is invoked like a mantra, or a verbal placebo; There isn’t any intention of taking it seriously.

    Can anyone name one- even one- single conservative leader, pundit, or heck, even a blogger who has made a serious plan for a balanced budget?
    There is always this vague talk about cutting social welfare spending, but never any real proposals; because this would entail making unpopular cuts in things like defense or Medicare. These would be as unpopular at a Tea Party as they would at an ACORN rally.

    I agree with Conor’s point that we need to pay attention not to the red herrings of welfare (does anyone realize what a microscopic fraction is spent on AFDC?) but to the much more popular middle class entitlements (and I would add corporate welfare like ag subsidies).

    But this is being ignored precisely because the solutions are difficult and painful and don’t lend themselves to a single sentence on a painted piece of cardboard with a hammer and sickle over it.

    The debate the conservative movement needs to have is not detente between the moderates and conservatives, but What Would The Conservatives Actually DO if in power.

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  7. I was struck by Hawkins’ comment that “it wasn’t the conservatives who were arguing for budget deficits…”

    Yes, they were, and still are; The Tea Party true conservatives are arguing for massive defense spending, lower taxes, and have no seeming concern about the yawning chasm in between.

    Show me one- even one- conservative who has a serious plan to balance the budget. The phrase “fiscal conservatism” rolls off their lips easily and always gets applause, yet there is nothing behind it.

    Conor makes an excellent point about not chasing the red herring of welfare but instead focusing on middle class entitlements. I would add agricultural subsidies and defense spending and government contracting to that list.

    This is why the debate seems to center on media and image- actually governing will require hard choices and painful sacrifices; I have yet to see any pundit or politician make this case.

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  8. Since real healthcare reform, even if passed, wouldn’t take effect unti 2013, Republicans should propose a plan to raise taxes and cut spending at a rate where the budget is balanced in a certain amount of time, then revisit healthcare reform, starting first with free market solutions — selling insurance across state lines, tort reform, relaxing licensing laws, tax breaks for individuals, challenging companies to develop healthcare savings plans, charity hospitals — then re-evaluating after two years to see if other changes are necessary.

    A spending-cut commission could be selected from the private sector to come up with spending cuts recommendations which would then be voted on, and the tax hike takes effect after the spending cuts take effect, with the condition that taxes are lowered if the spending cuts don’t take place as planned. Once the budget is balanced and the government reduced to its proper size, and the economy is roaring, eliminate income tax and create a consumer tax to pay for government services.

    The 2012 Government Reduction Plan

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