"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

6/27/2009

An Opportunity for Libertarian Conservatives

Disgraced Senator John Ensign of Nevada and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina have shined a new spotlight on the role of social conservatism in the Republican Party. Social conservatives form a critical part of the GOP, given its support of traditional marriage and a greater public role for religious values. Because the Republican Party has branded itself as the party of "family values," charges of hypocrisy in light of Ensign's and Sanford's infidelity are inevitable.

Democrats are obviously happy because the more the Republicans identified themselves as the protector of "family values," the more they implied that Democrats had no values at all. While "family values" should have no political ideology, Republicans unwittingly set the bar so low for Democrats that Barack Obama was able to easily shatter these perceptions simply by taking his wife out on dates and spending time with his children.

This post, however, is not about hypocrisy, Democrats, or the impact Sanford's affair will have on his possible presidential ambitions. Rather, it is about a new path for Republicans that would take them back to a Barry Goldwater brand of conservatism that may be a better fit for the country in 2009 than its current more religious brand. Turning to Goldwater would allow Republicans to reposition themselves without abandoning their conservative principles.

The modern Republican Party largely consists of an awkward marriage between Southern more religious-based social conservatism and Western more libertarian-minded leave-me-alone conservatism. (Moderate Republicans that hail from the Midwest and Northeast are an endangered species.)

Social conservatives have tended to wield a larger influence in the GOP, an influence that has only increased as the party became increasingly concentrated in the South. Their power is expressed in the Republican Party's platform, such as seeking a constitutional ban on gay marriage, advocating prayer in public schools, and restricting abortion.

As noble as social conservatives' intentions may be, however, the moral failings of Republican and Democratic politicians alike should make it clear that morality cannot be easily legislated. This is where libertarian-minded conservatism stands to fill the void left by hypocritical social conservatives.

Libertarian conservatives support limited government not just in financial affairs, but also personal and social affairs. A social conservative may oppose gay marriage because it goes against biblical teachings. A libertarian conservative, however, may support the right for adults to enter any consensual relationship they wish, even if they are personally opposed to gay marriage.

A social conservative may frown on marital infidelity because it weakens the family unit and is a sin against God. A libertarian conservative may frown on infidelity as well, but will not penalize the guilty party as severely because that person made a private decision and should live with the consequences.

Libertarian conservatives believe in free will, so long as the rights of others are not violated. Social conservatives believe in free will as well, so long as their actions do not contradict biblical teachings.

But there are two problems confronting social conservatism in addition to the difficulty with legislating morality:

1. The United States is slowly becoming less Christian and more tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles. This does not excuse moral failings such as infidelity. But it does suggest that such failings are no longer as shocking to the public as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago. Many of us are guilty of the exact same failings and therefore look with suspicion at politicians who claim to be the paragon of virtue.

2. The United States is slowly becoming more liberal because of the influx of immigrants and the growth of liberal demographic groups. Blacks already vote Democratic by a 9 to 1 ratio, but the real danger for Republicans lies in the Latino population. They voted for Obama by a 2 to 1 ratio and are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. This was devastating for Republicans in Florida, North Carolina, and the Southwest in 2008. Could Georgia follow in 2012 and Texas in 2016? If Republicans lose any of these states, it would seem virtually impossible for a Republican to cobble together enough electoral votes to win the White House, as I argued shortly after the election.

Also, while Blacks and Latinos may harbor some socially conservative views (i.e., gay marriage and abortion), they are highly suspicious of the Republican Party and its commitment to their communities. So it will take more than social conservatism to earn these groups' votes.

Libertarian conservatism allows Republicans to reconnect with voters by coming across less piously and removing the hypocritical position of advocating limited government unless it pertains to private matters. And if the libertarian conservatives had a greater voice in the Republican Party, it is quite possible that voters would look at Sanford's actions as a personal failure rather than "yet another hypocritical 'family values Republican' who doesn't practice what he preaches." But because the party has come to be seen as the party of social conservatives, Sanford's and Ensign's dalliances tarnish the entire party.

6/23/2009

Iran's Political Crisis: On Politics vs. Governance

What many casual political observers and even a few respected political analysts lament about modern politics is a lack of purpose and seriousness. There seems to be too much of an emphasis on political tactics at the expense of meaningful political leadership.

The civil unrest after the recent presidential election in Iran has sparked an intense debate about President Obama's response and the United States' role in international affairs concerning rogue nations. So far, Obama has been fairly cautious in his response so as to not "meddle" in Iran's internal affairs. Recent polling suggests that a bare majority of Americans support his response so far.

However, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, and other conservatives have criticized Obama for his handling of the political crisis in Iran. They are criticizing him for not speaking out forcefully enough in support of the Iranian protestors and for not engaging in meaningful "action" regarding confronting this crisis.

Unfortunately for Graham, Pence, and other political figures who are hammering Obama for not speaking out as forcefully as Ronald Reagan did during the waning years of Communism in Eastern Europe, their rhetoric crumbles when confronted by reality. And unfortunately, few journalists have challenged them on this.

What "actions" do Republicans want Obama to take? Their rhetoric is as vague as the aspirations Obama espoused on the campaign trail (which they roundly criticized as well). The three most apparent "actions" available to Obama are military confrontation, condemnation, and sanctions. But are these realistic options? It appears not.

Military confrontation: Perhaps Republican critics want Obama to send American tanks to the Iranian border and drive them all the way to Tehran. But the American public has almost certainly soured on military adventurism, as they rendered their verdict in last fall's elections. And in light of the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the rising tensions with North Korea, there simply aren't enough troops left to accomplish such a mission.

And more importantly, the Iranian protesters' hatred for their own political leaders and ruling clergy should not be equated with a love for the United States. Iran is a country with which the United States has had no diplomatic relations for 30 years. The previous American president referred to Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil." And John McCain infamously joked during last year's presidential campaign that the United States should "bomb bomb bomb Iran."

The Iranians may resent their current government, but they are also quite skeptical of the United States, given its history of interference in their domestic affairs. Disregarding Iran's sovereignty and sending in the tanks would be a surefire way of taking the Iranians' current outrage against their ruling corrupt government and redirecting it towards the United States. In turn, this would give the Iranian rulers a scapegoat that enhances their own legitimacy.

Iran is a young country. The embassy hostage crisis happened 30 years ago. There exists a unique opportunity for the United States to gain the trust of a new generation of Iranians who are not as hostile towards the United States as previous generations may be. Sending in the tanks would squander this opportunity and set a dangerous precedent for other nations who may not like the electoral and political processes of other countries and wish to "help."

Expressions of condemnation and support: Detractors argue that it would be easy for President Obama to make a statement expressing his support for the Iranian protestors while making clear that he condemns the government's actions. Such a statement, they argue, would let the Iranian people know which side the United States is on and that they have America's full support. This sounds great in theory, but could be disastrous in practice. It also presupposes that the Iranian protestors don't know which side the United States supports, which is ludicrous.

To start, the second Obama injects himself and the United States into this confrontation, it will immediately shift the focus away from the demonstrators and the disputed election and turn it to the Americans' interference in Iranian affairs. The United States has no diplomatic ties with Iran, so any rebuke from Obama would have little punitive power. And even if the United States were to condemn the Iranian government, what would happen next? Is the United States supposed to send weapons to the Iranian populace? Is the Iranian government going to apologize simply because Obama condemned their actions?

The Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting for years. Anytime there is an Israeli government raid, a missile strike, or a Palestinian suicide bombing, there is plenty of condemnation from all corners of the globe. But these condemnations are meaningless in that they do not stop the violence. In this context, it seems that condemnations are designed more for domestic political purposes (e.g., taking a stand for freedom, not siding with dictators, etc.) rather than the purpose of altering foreign policy with nations that the United States (and other nations) has no ties to.

Imposition of sanctions: Perhaps the United States could weaken Iran by damaging its economy via sanctions. But these sanctions would require approval from the United Nations. Would the Russians (who have veto power) be on board with this course of action?

Putting aside the fact that the Iranians have been sanctioned for years, the risks here are similar to the ones posed by sending in military troops. Increasing sanctions may hurt the Iranian economy, but would they be more damaging to the general population than the actual government? And would sanctions not provide the Iranian clergy an immediate scapegoat they can use to unite the country against the West which is once again meddling in its affairs?

This is not to say that President Obama can do nothing regarding the Iranian situation or that his current course of action has been the right one so far. However, it is very revealing that the very people who criticized Obama for not being specific enough about "hope" and "change" on the campaign trail are now not being specific enough about the "action" they are calling for when it comes to responding to the Iranian political crisis.

This debate is emblematic of a larger problem in modern politics. It seems that there are many politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, who are not taking their responsibilities as public leaders and national lawmakers seriously. Rather than offering meaningful solutions to advance the country in any particular direction, it seems that too many of them are more preoccupied with engaging in opposition for opposition's sake. It's all about bombast and posturing. Consequences and serious debate don't seem to matter so much as long as one political party can win the daily news cycle and emerge with new talking points they can use as a weapon in a future election.

Herein exists an opportunity for a smart politician to tone down the political rhetoric and seize the mantle of responsible governance. Obama has remained popular in the polls, but he would be wise not to forget that many Americans are yearning for a more mature government that is more pragmatic, more prescient, and more responsible than they are. In Obama's case, gaining the voters' trust in this regard may make it easier for him to accomplish the rest of his agenda. After all, clamoring for vague "actions" with no regard for the consequences is a good way of delegitimizing one's own credibility.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.