Monday, March 20, 2006

The Conservative Republican Theocracy

I come from a long line of flaming liberals, but have had the good sense to leaven my loaf with conservative voices. The first of these was the inestimable Barry Goldwater, while the longest term has been Kevin Phillips. George Will and William F. Buckley are a close second and third.

Phillips, whose books and commentaries I have soaked up for probably 30 years, predicted the Republican ascendancy to long-term power because of population shifts to what he called the "Sun Belt" (yes, he coined that oft-used term) and saw this as a great thing. My attraction to his views are in no small measure because he also is an historian of repute and builds his case on the historic record, not whims of the moment.

Well, Phillips is older and wiser, and in "American Theocracy," his 13th and latest book, he now sees those powerful Republicans as greedy, corrupt and fiscally irresponsible extremists. Me, too.

Writes Alan Brinkley, the Columbia University historian, in a New York Times review:
In an era of best-selling jeremiads on both sides of the political divide, "American Theocracy" may be the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years. It is not without polemic, but unlike many of the more glib and strident political commentaries of recent years, it is extensively researched and for the most part frighteningly persuasive.

Although Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policies of the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad and related trends — none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes, exacerbated by this administration's policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillips sees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is the
astonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.

. . . There is little in "American Theocracy" that is wholly original to Phillips, as he frankly admits by his frequent reference to the work of other writers and scholars. What makes this book powerful in spite of the familiarity of many of its arguments is his rare gift for looking broadly and structurally at social and political change. By describing a series of major transformations, by demonstrating the relationships among them and by discussing them with passionate restraint, Phillips has created a harrowing picture of national danger that no American reader will welcome, but that none should ignore.
FYI, Phillips is sitting in this week at the TPM Cafe Book Club to discuss "American Theocracy."


Bruce Bartlett, an economist and former Reagan administration official who was turned out of the conservative Republican temple for criticizing President Bush, takes blogger-commentator Andrew Sullivan to task for saying that Dubya is famously loyal:

Bush is loyal only to toadies, suck-ups and sycophants. Anyone who shows an ounce of independence — or loyalty to the country above loyalty to him — is punished or dispensed with. You mention Paul O'Neill, but a better example is Larry Lindsey. His estimate of the cost of the war was mildly embarrassing back in 2002 because it was higher than the absurdly low estimates being peddled by the White House at that time. So they threw him overboard, even though he may have done more to get Bush elected than anyone else, including Karl Rove. Now, as you know, Lindsey's estimate looks absurdly low. As I say in my book, loyalty with Bush is strictly a one-way street: total loyalty is demanded, but none is ever really offered in return.

Given that this is the case, I have never understood why so many people — both inside and outside the administration — continue to give Bush so much loyalty. I can only conclude that it is borne more from fear than agreement with his policies. I think there is genuine fear of crossing the president, although I have never been able to uncover the precise mechanism through which it is communicated — even in my own case. Nevertheless, it is real — just as fear of the unknown is real. I think somehow he communicates to everyone he comes in contact with that they will suffer if they go against him. And his obsessiveness about leaks — combined with Patriot Act powers — has shut off back channels that have previously existed in every presidency.


What set Bartlett off was a reference to Bush loyalty in a Sunday Times of London column by Sullivan. Andrew believes that there is a simple explanation for the administration's repeated stumbles.

They're pooped:

[Bush] is famously loyal; and expects the same. And so he has created a bubble of people who love him, who rarely challenge him, who defend him, and who represent a circle of ideology out of which the president makes sure he rarely treads.

There are two problems with this. The first is that people who make mistakes often find it hard to admit them; and so errors are not corrected. It’s hard to put Abu Ghraib behind you when its chief architects — Cheney, Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general — are still defending their own complicity in sanctioning torture.

In fact, the only significant figures who have left this administration are those who got things right. Paul O’Neill, the Treasury secretary, worried about deficits in the first term. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, worried about the Iraq war and opposed the decision to legalise torture. Both are gone.

The rest are always right, and tell the president he has never made a mistake. And they are exhausted beyond belief. At some point, one surmises, the president will have to make a change, won’t he? He’ll have to reach out at some point. He’ll be forced to bring in people who aren’t half-dead with exhaustion to run the country, won’t he?

And then you remember you’ve been saying the same thing to yourself for three years. And you wake up and smell the coffee the administration now needs just to keep itself from slipping into a coma.

I felt a brief twinge of sympathy as I read this. Perhaps we should pass the hat and send the gang some Ambien. But then I snapped back into reality. These people have made an enormous mess of things, and feeling sorry for them is dead wrong.

They have earned our scorn, not our sympathy.


You know that things are bad when the syncophantic Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard, says that it's time for his idol to clean house. Trouble is, Barnes doesn't go far enough in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece today, and his solution more resembles moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Concludes Barnes:

Of course, there are risks and problems in trying to revitalize a flagging administration. The most worrisome risk is that Mr. Bush would look weak and desperate. Mr. Carter did in 1979 and became a laughingstock. That could happen to Mr. Bush. Also, it may be difficult to persuade outsiders to join what looks to them as a hopelessly lame-duck administration.

The president could lose a lot more than face. But the potential upside of a stunning facelift of his administration is great. It could make his presidency productive and enjoyable again rather than stymied and disheartened. Achieving the aura and feel of a new presidential term is not farfetched. Mr. Bush fooled everyone by becoming the president of big ideas and bold plans. He could fool them again.

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