AMERICAN CONSERVATISM

Left Behind
Liberals imitate the retro-right.

BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Monday, December 8, 2003

Divided government was long the rule in Washington; between 1969 and 2002 the president's party controlled both houses of Congress less than 20% of the time. Is this a new era? Has the Republican Party achieved a durable governing majority?

We'll be closer to an answer next November, but here's a possible leading indicator: Democrats and liberals are beginning to sound like a beleaguered minority. They are employing many of the same complaints and tropes that Republicans and conservatives used during their decades in the political wilderness:

Media bias. Left-wing authors like Eric Alterman, Al Franken and Joe Conason have done quite well with books arguing that the media actually slant rightward. On its face, this claim seems risible. Sure, conservatives have Fox News Channel, talk radio, the editorial page of this newspaper, and a variety of small magazines and blogs, but liberals have almost everything else: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the New York Times and most other major newspapers, not to mention (your tax dollars at work) PBS and NPR.

Yet the left's anxiety is well founded. While liberalism still dominates the media, it no longer monopolizes them. Both commercial and journalistic competition are likely to push the media to the right. The success of Fox News Channel has shown that there is a demand for conservative-friendly news, while talk radio and the Internet have given voice to the right's longstanding frustration about media bias. Publishers, editors, broadcast executives and producers can't help but notice the erosion of their market share and public esteem.

At the same time, Republican power in Washington means that reporters, whatever their leanings, have to cultivate GOP sources in order to get the stories that matter. The journalists who are most successful will be those who best understand the reigning political philosophy, and they can be expected at least to treat conservatives and Republicans with fairness and respect.

The deficit. Newt Gingrich's Contract With America promised "to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress." But the GOP majority has been far from frugal. In fact, it was Senate Democrats, joined by only a few Republicans, who successfully filibustered a pork-laden energy bill last month, and who tried but failed to stop the GOP's vast expansion of Medicare.

This role reversal leads one to think that a party's attitude toward spending is a function less of ideology than of political power. All else being equal, the party that controls Congress will be far more free-spending than the minority party, because the party in power gets to decide how to spend money, and it gets the political credit from the beneficiaries of government largesse. This is hardly cheering to those of us who would like to see government shrink, but it does appear to be a political fact of life.

Isolationism. Why did the bipartisan unity that prevailed immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks prove so short-lived? Partly because of legitimate differences of opinion over whether to expand the war on terror to Iraq, but also in part because the Democratic Party's minority status has strengthened the hand of the party's McGovernite isolationists.

Democrats since Vietnam have always had difficulty dealing with national security, but between Sept. 11, 2001, and Nov. 5, 2002, they mostly kept their differences with the Bush administration within the bounds of reason. On the latter date, however, the Democrats lost their last redoubt, the Senate majority, either because of or in spite of their accommodationist approach.

The loss of the Senate stoked the frustrations of the Democratic left and lent plausibility to the argument that foreign-policy bipartisanship is a losing strategy for Democrats. Howard Dean became the presidential front-runner by tapping this anger, and the other candidates, to varying degrees, have followed along, becoming harsh critics of U.S. foreign policy.

The political calculation seems to be that military victory will help the president, so the Democrats' only chance is to hope for quagmire or even defeat. Yet even if things go badly in Iraq between now and November, it's not clear that this will redound to the opposition party's benefit. George McGovern, after all, ran against an unpopular war and carried one state. If the Democrats had actively opposed President Bush on foreign policy, they might have done even worse in 2002 than they did. By doing so now, they may be setting themselves up for a big loss in 2004.

Judicial activism. Democratic hostility to the Supreme Court in the wake of the Bush v. Gore decision was so intense that it called to mind the "impeach Earl Warren" movement of the 1950s and '60s. But the cry of "judicial activism" had been heard from the left before, in response to Rehnquist Court rulings vindicating property rights and limiting Congress's power vis--vis the states.

Yet these rulings were rather narrow, and it's obvious that what really scares liberal Democrats is the prospect that the court will roll back past liberal judicial activism. They're right to worry. Had the Democratic Senate confirmed Robert Bork in 1987, it's a near certainty that the Supreme Court would have overturned Roe v. Wade five years later. Nor would a Justice Bork have written two sweeping opinions in favor of gay rights (Roemer v. Evans in 1996 and Lawrence v. Texas this year), as his understudy, Justice Anthony Kennedy, did.

Liberal Democrats portray conservative jurists as ideological extremists, but if abortion rights and gay rights are "mainstream" positions, wouldn't they ultimately prevail if left to the democratic process? Perhaps, but social liberals would no longer be able to impose the more extreme and unpopular elements of their agenda, such as the legalization of partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage. This explains the Democrats' desperate rearguard tactic of filibustering conservative nominees who command the support of a majority of senators.

All this will change, of course, if President Bush loses or the Democrats retake the Senate. But if Mr. Bush is re-elected and his party extends its congressional majorities, we can expect the liberals of tomorrow to sound ever more like the conservatives of yesterday. The only question is whether they can continue calling themselves "progressive" and keep a straight face.

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