This speech was delivered on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at CPAC 2013
Thank you, Steve. Good morning, CPAC.
You know, something kept occurring to me as I saw some of the, shall we say, unpleasant commentary about this conference and about this movement.
Isn’t it interesting that the same establishment that claims so piously that it wants more civility and tolerance in our politics has no problem degrading and demonizing Americans who just happen to be conservative?
They want desperately to put this cause in some graveyard; I’m told the president’s inaugural speech had the working title “the country I would build if half of America would just disappear”. They try so hard to paint the beliefs in this room as some quaint, outmoded brand of ignorance.
So this needs to be said: there are about 43 million of us who answer to the name “conservative”; we don’t own any Hollywood studios, the mainstream media may think we are out of fashion, but this is the single biggest voting bloc, this is our America too and we are not going anywhere.
Deriding conservatives may be the last acceptable prejudice, but sneers can’t erase the truth: first, you don’t lift up people at the bottom by pulling other people down, and every place that has tried that path has turned out its own moral lights and gone down into the darkness.
We cannot own our future when we live off the credit of countries who want to dominate us; and freedom is neither tired nor exhausted: it is just tired of not being defended.
So, can we bring to a close this season of pundits who don’t want Republicans to win telling Republicans how to fix this party?
Now that does not mean that we don’t need to be frank with each other. So, I want to be blunt about what we did and did not do in this last race: first, for voters who look at the world the way we do, we made an impeccable argument.
For most people who have had the blessing of building a business from nothing, or who have found a way to punch through Washington’s obstacles to make their companies work, we made an effective case that no government in the modern era has ever fought harder to put a penalty on success.
For those who share our sense that winning an election does not entitle a president to burn a hole in our constitution, we made the case that no president in our lifetime has ever pushed up harder against the bounds of that constitution.
And for 43 million conservatives, we made the case that no president has ever ended up driving America more decisively to the left on domestic and social policy.
There is only one catch: you can add up all of our fellow citizens who are succeeding or building a business, and add all the voters who judge government by how closely it hews to the framers’ original constitutional vision, and then add all the voters who judge government primarily by whether it fits every tenet of conservative doctrine, you get a lot of good people but you still don’t get to a majority.
And the ones who are left, they are not some island of fools, they are our neighbors and our fellow citizens and a lot of them think like us, they just needed to hear that our values will work for their lives and their circumstances.
I want you to think about this: there are over 21 million families who have children enrolled in colleges: that happens to be one of the largest groups in the electorate, and they are trying to pursue one of the most inherently conservative values in this society, the notion that you ought to prepare yourself so that you can rise without depending on anybody.
But four out of five of those kids can’t finance college without taking out significant loans that will burden them for much of their work-life. How often did they or their families hear us talking about the fact that the conservative, responsible act of getting a college education is getting harder and costlier than it has ever been?
What about the 12 million Americans who work with their hands, and whose backs and legs hurt at the end of the day? Their wages go no further today in pure earning power than they did when the Supremes and the Beatles were at the top of the charts and Ronald Reagan was an actor giving speeches at Lincoln Dinners.
The most these men and women merited in Barack Obama’s inaugural manifesto was one half-hearted sentence. But even though many of these so-called blue collars are as conservative and faith oriented as anybody in this room, just how often did we talk to them?
You know, this will shock you but sometimes I do get asked why we didn’t do better with minorities given what the last four years have done to them; you may remember when the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus famously said that if another president had matched Obama’s record, that there would have been marches in the street.
Yes, we did talk about jobs, but guess what, black and brown Americans are no different from anybody else and as much as they worry about what’s missing in their lives, they worry most about whether their kids can do better, and they know that question turns first and foremost on the quality of the schools their kids attend.
They live through what some of the rest of us hold seminars about: tenure laws that privilege bad teachers, the promotion of kids who can’t read, not having enough money to move your kids to a better school district or to afford private schools. But just how much did we talk about any of that?
I know some of us like to lament the fact that anyone might look to government to do anything other than get out of the way, but please realize this: the Americans I am describing aren’t takers, they aren’t living off the government dime; they are helping fund this government as much as anybody at our dinner last night, the difference is that when Washington takes their money from them, they feel it even more deeply than any of us do.
And there is something we should appreciate as conservatives who crusade for low taxes: the Americans I describe are invariably sending one dollar out of every three they earn to Washington in federal income or social security taxes; if they don’t owe anything at the end of the year it is because they have already had it taken out of their pay-checks. They don’t live on dividends and their accountants can’t game them out of their liability. Is it really so odd that they expect the government they help subsidize to align with their interests?
So, we just spent a billion dollars, more than our side has ever had to tell its case, and we still couldn’t find the language to tell enough Americans why our conservative policies would work in their lives.
We became the first Republicans since the thirties who didn’t talk about middle class tax relief, the first Republicans in my lifetime who didn’t have the self confidence to talk about how our polices reduce poverty and lift the poor out of dependency, the first Republicans since WWII who didn’t seem to get that in this competitive world, education is part of promoting the common defense.
So is it any surprise that we are the first Republicans in the modern era to see the number of conservatives fall, and the number of liberals rise, on our watch?
Now here’s the good news, I think this loss hurt bad enough that we are going to fix it. And fixing it begins with some simple principles: First, if your vision of conservatism is so small and so cramped that it only works in certain places and for certain people, you are entitled to believe that.
But keep your lack of confidence to yourself, get out of the way, let the rest of us try to build something that will work for everybody, that can travel not just to the high places but the shattered places, not just inside our gated walls but in the places we don’t go.
Second, being conservative doesn’t mean being blind to how our policies affect families: this world is not a theory, it’s made of citizens who deserve a politics that will speak to their aspirations. Ronald Reagan didn’t win 49 states by telling people he had a philosophical objection to helping their families.
Lastly, never lose sight of the essential difference between the political left and right in this country: they think that to struggle and to be poor is to be so weak that you can never rise as an individual. So they argue that government has to build a web of collectivism and dependency around people; that American has to wrap a racial or gender identity around someone to recognize them.
We think that there is nothing a man or woman can’t do if we give them the freedom to rise on their own: we have always known that a child who has difficulty reading can one day grow into a heart surgeon named Ben Carson, that a father who waits tables can raise a son to be a senator named Marco Rubio, that a black nurse who works 16 hour days in South Carolina can set a son on the path to being a senator named Tim Scott.
They think individuals are weak, we know individuals are strong.
So what we believe works. This conference is not just a collection of conservatives; it is a gathering of men and women who have seen the American dream work magic in our own lives.
And if we order our cause around these simple principles–people are strong, they deserve our concern, and our values are big and spacious enough that they work for all of us and not just some of us–not only will we earn power again, we will deserve power again.
Please click below to view Rep. Artur Davis’ speech in-full, filmed live at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, March 16th.
“When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society.”
It is unlikely that any major American political figure would say anything like the statement above: to be sure, its terms would seem much too opaque to trust to the dissection of the press or the blogosphere. But its skepticism about liberty for its own sake would be even more disturbing than its loftiness. For example, a Democrat would find the implications dangerously ambiguous for the socially libertarian philosophy that flourishes on the left. A Republican would see any caveat about the value of freedom as potentially at odds with the right’s propensity for describing freedom as the commodity most at risk from Barack Obama’s brand of liberalism.
Then, for good measure, consider these two quotations:
“Faced with the tragic situation of persistent poverty which afflicts so many people in our world, how can we fail to see that the quest for profit at any cost and the lack of effective responsible concern for the common good have concentrated immense resources in the hands of a few while the rest of humanity suffers in poverty and neglect. Our goal should not be the benefit of a privileged few, but rather the improvement of the living conditions of all.”
“The promotion of the culture of life should be the highest priority in our societies…If the right to life is not defended decisively as a condition for all other rights of the person, all other references to human rights remain deceitful and illusory.”
If the initial quotation seems unusual terrain for an American candidate, it is literally impossible to imagine in our political culture that the last two quotations could come from the same source. A wrenching description of economic inequality would be the province of an Obama style liberal who would never venture into the sensibilities of the pro-life movement, while it would be just as implausible that a social conservative would spend time blasting the wealth gap.
All three of these quotations happen to be words uttered, and echoed constantly, by Pope John Paul II, the pontiff whom a substantial number of Catholics would be happy to recreate in the form of Benedict’s successor. Of course, they (combined with the equally unlikely blend in our campaigns of entrenched opposition to both gay unions and militarism) are also the established positions of every single contender for the papacy in the coming weeks.
This amalgamation of viewpoints that American politics renders incompatible calls to mind a recent column by the New York Times’ Ross Douthat. He argues that the decline in the ranks of American Catholics prefigured the disappearance of Catholicism as a domestic electoral force. It’s an indisputable point that can be enlarged into a broader set of observations: first, rather than being just a symptom of that decline, the fact that the elements of Catholic orthodoxy are such an imponderable mix to American voters has contributed to its weakening.
Arguably, today’s versions of the left and right tend to be organized around mutually reinforcing bogeymen. Liberals regard social conservatism as a species of the exclusionary policies that they associate with Republican free market rhetoric. The right links the dependency that it fears from big government liberalism with the permissiveness of a rights-based culture. Viewed from either lens, the Vatican mix of Tony Perkins and Elizabeth Warren sounds weird and contradictory, and American Catholics steeped in the ecosphere of the modern left and right must see Catholicism as just as irrelevant to politics as church doctrine against divorce and contraception is to their sex lives.
Second, I generally agree with Douthat’s point (and Rick Santorum’s intuition) that a socially conservative, populist toned coalition, what he calls the “Catholic synthesis”, would actually resonate with a considerable swath of the electorate. It’s a conclusion worth pondering for liberals whose presidential victories in recent years haven’t lifted the ranks of self identified liberals much beyond 25 percent, and who have written off appealing to downscale white southerners who lean populist on economics but right on social issues. The same goes for social conservatives who are unable to make inroads in territory that ought to be friendlier, like the Hispanic parishes and black churches where Bible based social policy and economic redistribution are typical sermon material.
The point is not that either camp might plausibly trade its economic and social guideposts, much less that a candidate could ever fund or organize a race that adopted wholesale the Catholic vision: but in the persistent gridlock that is contemporary politics, Democrats and Republicans missed chances to consolidate their victories with overt movement toward the traditions they currently ignore. I’m considerably more skeptical than Douthat about a comprehensive worldview emerging but there is ample space for both camps to expand by assuming more modesty about their ideological certainties.
Democrats need not become official skeptics of gay equality or abortion to acknowledge the legitimacy and the continuing public appeal of notions of morality that conflict with their own views; or to admit that personal freedom detached from responsibility is corrosive; or to show much greater tolerance for the proposition that, say, abortions based on gender or occurring in the third trimester are morally indefensible.
Republicans need not morph into class warriors to show greater sensitivity to the fact that free markets do sometimes leave behind human wreckage, and that some of the losers are morally upright people whose responsibility still hasn’t kept them afloat.
And the parties could shore up a weakness that afflicts them both, the suspicion that their respective economic and social libertarianism is just the sum of their donor bases’ self-interest, by taking to heart John Paul’s warning about a culture of freedom that is not anchored in a larger sense of public purpose.
The reality is that there occasional nods on the part of each party toward the other’s priorities, but they are invariably short-lived (the flurry of interest Democrats showed a decade ago in tying economic egalitarianism to biblical principles) or minimal, like fleeting asides about black poverty at the end of the standard Republican indictment of Obama’s failings. Neither set of gestures has seemed enough of a real conviction to earn much credit for sincerity. But it’s worth noting as the American Catholic church sheds members that a durable political majority might reconcile some of what sounds to our ears like Catholicism’s breathtaking ideological contradictions.
This article originally appeared on ricochet.com on March 1, 2013.
Chris Christie has conservative admirers left, and I’m hardly the only one. The Christie following on the right includes much of the audience that heard him at the Reagan Library in 2011, delivering what stands then and now as the sharpest, best rhetorical critique of Barack Obama’s contribution to Washington’s divided ways.
It takes in social conservatives who know the isolation of living inside hostile lines in the Northeast, and who have relished a voice that defends unborn life and opposes same sex marriage and can do so without resorting to condescension or seeming stuck in a time warp.
The camp also includes critics of what public sector unions have done to bloat state budgets, and what teachers unions have done to make teaching the least accountable public service, and who recognize that Christie has tamed both forces in a state where they traditionally make politicians cower.
I will claim conflict of interest on the question of whether Christie ought to speak at the upcoming CPAC event (full disclosure, I am one of what an MSNBC reporter called the developmental league of lesser talents who will speak at the convention: it’s a chance to hone our meager skills before a small intimate gathering!) But the broader question of whether Christie helps strengthen the Republican coalition is not really close. While lacking Mitt Romney’s capacity to write a $3800 check, I’ll cast the same vote in favor of Christie’s relevance and his potential.
To put Christie’s appeal in perspective, it’s worth noting that conservatism’s main challenge lies not in a sea of particulars on issues that will fade, but in the ability to outline just how and why collectivism and top-heavy bureaucracy diminish the public good. Obama just overcame a litany of broken promises on unity and economic recovery by caricaturing conservatism as a narrow defense of privilege that doesn’t bat an eyelash at that larger public interest. To minimize his success as pandering or slick talk misses the degree to which Obama has put the right on the defensive.
Christie at his best (see the Reagan library speech) counters by describing the weak foundations of Obama liberalism: the low respect for individual capacity, the fecklessness on debt, the timidity in defending democratic values abroad. He matches the case we all can recite on slow growth and overreach with a strike at the softness and emptiness of Obama’s philosophy.
There can’t be enough advocates on the right who talk that way. It is why a liberal press is so eager to read Christie out of the Republican conversation. He puts too many points on the board for us to play into their game.
This article originally appeared on ricochet.com on February 27, 2013.
The Supreme Court may be on the verge of striking down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates federal approval, or “pre-clearance”, of any changes to election procedures in states under the Act’s jurisdiction (mostly Southern, but some scattered northern jurisdictions, primarily in New York). It could be a mixed triumph for conservatives—a blow against a regionally discriminatory rule of law that limits Virginia and South Carolina from passing statutes that are perfectly legal in Kansas and Indiana—but a victory that will only fuel the impression that the political right is bent on suppressing minority voters.
Conservative legal activists would have been better advised to concentrate on doing away with or revamping the other elements of the Act that actually do much more damage to the proposition of a color-blind politics. Ending Section 5 would be explosive, and still won’t alter the Act’s evolution from an instrument of black voter participation in the South to a prescription for rigged districts that look exactly like spoils and quotas.
The VRA is a textbook of generally worded terms that subsequent courts and career bureaucrats have reshaped. It’s entirely appropriate command that covered states refrain from passing election laws that discriminate against their minority citizens has been swollen into a requirement that minorities be aggregated into legislative and congressional districts that are overwhelmingly dominated by their race. Even a slight rollback of the percentages, say, from 65 percent to 58 percent is prohibited on the theory that such a contraction “dilutes” the minority vote.
The effect is that in the Deep South, black voters influence politics solely inside their centers of gerrymandered influence: the numbers that remain elsewhere are not substantial enough to create authentic swing districts where Republicans might have to seek black support to win. In the same vein, the nature of nearly seventy percent black districts is that their elected officials are just as un-tethered from the need to build coalitions with conservative white voters.
Not surprisingly, black Democrats and southern Republicans have not complained. The South that results is the single most racially polarized electorate in the country and its African American politicians are hemmed into a race-conscious liberalism that marginalizes them statewide. In addition, more conservative black Democrats and Black Republicans are rendered unelectable in minority districts that leave no room for a non-liberal brand of candidate.
Conservatives ought to recoil from an anti-discrimination principle shifting into a mini political apartheid. Rather than condone a de facto spoils system, they should be trying to undo an arrangement that is more bent on electing a certain kind of black politician than on empowering blacks to engage the democratic process.
The New Republic’s recent piece on Andrew Cuomo’s presidential ambitions will rankle most conservatives at first glance: its description of the New York Governor as a centrist seems like an ill-fitting label for an unabashed champion of gay marriage, sweeping gun control, decriminalizing marijuana possession, and lately, eroding restrictions on third trimester abortions. But the article is important for a variety of reasons. First, of all the likely Democratic possibilities should Hillary Clinton stay on the sidelines, it is Cuomo who comes closest to Barack Obama’s raw skill and resilience, Cuomo who is best positioned to match either Clinton or Obama as a fundraising machine, and it is the governor who is most likely to reprise Obama’s strength with the metropolitan professionals and suburbanites who are crucial in the big state primaries that will decide the nomination. Short term, the article is illustrative of two points that might explain why extending the Democratic run for another presidential cycle is a more dicey proposition than the gloom about demographics and infighting on the right suggests.
The first point is the extent to which the 21st century brand of centrism in the Democratic Party omits even a scintilla of social conservatism. Cuomo’s stances on social issues may be decidedly to the left of the ground Obama staked out in two presidential campaigns (was it just five ago that Obama was declaring his religious reservations about gay marriage and soft-pedaling his views on abortion?) but they are already orthodoxy among the activists who will dictate the outcomes of caucuses and primaries in 2016 (even in states like South Carolina and Alabama, where the steady migration of conservative Democrats has left primary electorates not much distinguishable from an Iowa or a Maryland).
It’s a shift, though, that will produce a platform and more importantly a nominating campaign that will not resemble the calibrated positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control which Democrats relied on for a generation. Much as 2012 was an object lesson in the Republican shift to the right on subjects like immigration and the distrust in grassroots GOP ranks of every element of Obama’s agenda, the 2016 Democratic race will be a template of what liberal politics sound like when their base has a monopoly on the primaries.
And the reframing of the Democratic Party as an unrestrained defender of social liberalism will have uncertain consequences for the white working class share of their coalition—the share that actually accounted for Obama’s 2012 wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, after all four states had elected Republican governors just two years earlier. As Ruy Teixera, who is ordinarily bullish on the prospect of an enduring Democratic coalition, has pointed out, socially progressive politics may no longer be toxic, but they also have no demonstrated appeal to white blue collars who prioritize the manufacturing jobs and wage growth that Obama barely touched in his inaugural speech or State of the Union.
And it is possible that as liberals assert themselves on themes that they barely mentioned in the economy driven environment in 2008 and 2012, that working class voters will be the leading edge of any gathering cultural backlash around, say, guns or reviving third trimester abortions. In addition, the next election will happen against one of two backdrops, either of which could end up disadvantaging Democrats. Either a worst case, another four years of tepid growth accompanied by continued angst that specific policies like Obamacare haven’t slowed premiums and may have cost jobs, or a best case that has its own risks: a return to robust growth would only divert attention from 2012’s focus on economic fairness. Both scenarios will mean that the thorough-going social liberal who emerges as the next Democratic nominee, either Cuomo or someone who has managed to outflank him, will have to fend for blue collar whites (including conservative Catholics) without the competitive edge Obama enjoyed in running two surrogate campaigns against George W. Bush’s record.
At the same time, as the New Republic suggests, the reformer impulses that have distinguished Cuomo’s record in Albany and given him a genuine claim to the political center, may well end up not influencing a Cuomo presidential platform in any real manner. For example, it will be hard for Cuomo to win his party’s nomination by assembing a combination of national positions akin to his budget reforming, cost-cutting maneuvers and his toughness on public sector unions, both of which have enabled him to garner, until recently, eye-popping approval numbers with Republicans.
Reining in spending nationally would require engaging entitlements, which is a more complicated political beast than reworking pension contributions and trimming fat in Albany. As commentators like Ross Douthat have pointed out, there are major differences between the space for reining in public-sector unions and the tougher terrain of selling reductions of entitlements that are universal. Taking on, for example, federal employees is a non-starter for a Democrat who will need to replicate Obama’s strength in the suburbs of northern Virginia, and the issue has never gotten much national traction anyway. There is certainly no substantive or rhetorical evidence that Cuomo is inclined to challenge the liberal consensus that entitlements are foundations of the social contract that should not be seriously disturbed.
Nor is there much likelihood that any serious Democratic politician will trade blows with the teachers unions on the national level. It would be an unusual gamble for Cuomo, whose boldness in New York is eased by a dearth of any credible Democratic rivals, to hand an opponent the one issue that could undercut him with a prime element of the Democratic base. Instead, it is probable that Cuomo would mimic Obama’s middle ground of soft funding incentives for local school reforms, some enthusiasm for charter schools, lock-step opposition to vouchers, mild sympathy for tenure reform but only when it is blessed and watered down by the unions.
It would not at all be surprising if the exigencies of winning his party’s nomination meant that the centrist aspects of Cuomo’s gubernatorial profile, the ones that might stamp him as something other than a standard interest group liberal, ended up being shelved in the same way as Mitt Romney’s fear of the Tea Party surge motivated him to ignore his governing successes in Massachusetts.
So, the upshot is that even a genuinely compelling politician like Cuomo would offer a Democratic politics that is a dangerous inverse of Obama’s formula. More unabashedly liberal than Obama on social issues, without the benefit of an electorate having strong memories of a financial meltdown during Republican rule, and in a context where the Republican nominee in 2016 will almost certainly be running on a stronger reform agenda. The odds that it will work are much weaker that today’s Democratic cheerleaders assume.
My guess is that if the Netflix political drama “House of Cards” had improbably gotten the backing of a network, it would have swiftly drowned at the hand of Nielsen ratings, and that hiatus or cancellation might have set in before Frank Underwood got to offer his sermon on the nature of forgiveness in a South Carolina church. There is no pop heroine like Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope (“Scandal”) for a particular audience demographic to root for. And there is no precedent for ratings behind a plotline that doesn’t just include but hinges on the minutiae of governmental details. There may be the requisite sex and adultery and prostitution but they are for major stretches overshadowed with much grayer material: a would be secretary of state whose nomination unravels over his reference as a college newspaper editor to “illegal occupied Israeli territories” and an impasse over performance metrics in an education bill.
So, this is a show that is destined to be read about more than it is actually watched (the number of viewing souls who know the toxic nature of testing standards for teachers unions and who get that the combination of illegal and occupied are fighting words is, thankfully, small). And then there is the inconvenience for a subscribed series depending on buzz that much of its fan base will not shout their allegiance from the rooftops, or the cultural equivalent that is Facebook: the show’s core of politically engaged people is culturally disposed to deny that it has time to watch television, much less engage in the binge viewing that a simultaneous download of the whole season invites.
But for the politically obsessed collective of Hill staffers, journalists, campaign operatives and ex politicians who have already watched, a decisive verdict: for all of the clichés it spouts about politicians, for all of the little implausible plot engines it relies on (of course, nothing so fanciful as the idea of a first lady enduring a presidential sex scandal and making her own run for president or a black state senator riding a speech to the White House in four years time) this is uncommonly good stuff, for the risks it executes and the vivid story it tells about things that are not inherently vivid.
The central figure, an oily Southern congressman named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is nothing new, nor are his penchants for lowball tactics and outwitting his peers by playing to their vanity or weaknesses. But the novelty is that for all 13 episodes, Underwood stays an unredeemed rogue–not the morally ambiguous striver who starts noble and turns bad, not the hero who has a dark side that he is trying to suppress, but an unmitigated, blissful damager of people. There is a deliberateness to the fact that for all of the specific policy detail that embroiders the narrative, there is never a moment when Underwood shows a flicker of interest in any of it for its own sake. And if David Fincher trusts his audience to wrestle with an array of shifting events and relationships (that would blur had these episodes been laid out over three months) he ventures even more faith in its capacity to stay absorbed in a villain whose only source of suspense is how low he will descend.
Underwood is not the only character whom the audience has to engage while being turned off by their sins. All of his intimates are caught in their own level of moral vacancy: Underwood’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), who cashes in on her husband’s status to run a not-for-profit whose agenda she will sell out without much compunction, just for the thrill of a score; the loyal chief of staff (Michael Kelley) who is Underwood’s henchman and whose only prize is a place in the orbit of a boss who keeps him at arm’s length and calls him by his last name; a young congressman, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll, brilliantly erasing the memory of a weak stint on a failed “Law and Order” remake), whose past is ridiculously compromised and whose only real interest in his career is that it seems to provide an organizing principle for his day; the young reporter (Kate Mara) who entangles herself professionally and sexually with Underwood to fuel her own career, and whose snideness and ethical carelessness make her almost as unsympathetic as Underwood. The relative paragons of decency: a young aide to Russo who tries to save him from his spiral, is still framed as a staffer covertly sleeping with her boss to climb the office ladder; another, a high level aide to Claire Underwood who acknowledges lying about the terms of her dismissal to exact revenge for her boss’s horse-trading with a lobbyist.
What producer David Fincher assumes is that a group of people wallowing in dirt and dysfunction are still watchable. Of course, he is right about that, as television routinely establishes, but Fincher’s gamble is that for most of this series, his characters’ routines are their own contained universe with no one to root for, no mystery to solve, and none of the contrived simplicity of a single narrative conflict.
In that way, “House of Cards” takes a chance that even the notably risk-taking “Homeland” doesn’t: for example, for 11 episodes of the show, there is not an obvious end in sight that Underwood’s machinations are meant to achieve (and when it materializes, it seems accidental); and for about the same stretch, most of the other characters have no endgame of their own. (Unless you fell for the unlikely scenario of Peter Russo’s continued sobriety, and Fincher squashes that rooting interest in some of the series’ few heart-wrenching moments). Imagine if “Homeland” were just a story about the torpor of a deceitful, embittered, returning POW instead of a spy saga about a sleeper terrorist. It is doubtful it would have lasted. Fincher, with great audacity, assumes a show about unappealing people climbing career ladders can work as a dramatic force and it is a large feat that he pulls it off—and doubly impressive that his material is the stereotypical vista of Washington vice, not the relatively exotic venue of mobsters in the “Sopranos” or the creative twist of everymen turned drug dealers in “Breaking Bad”.
What follows in the already planned second season of “House of Cards” may be infinitely more conventional. As we leave Underwood, he is a politician on the verge of both a dramatic triumph and catastrophic exposure: presumably, that element of cat and mouse will dominate over the more leisurely story-telling and insider angles in season 1. And in the process, the show will be tempted to morph into more standard hero v. villain melodrama. But to get to that place, Fincher had to navigate terrain that when it has been tried, usually turns either into tedium (Starz’s “Boss”), or soap opera (CBS’s steadily declining “Good Wife”) or cheap thrills (“Scandal”). His triumph is the intelligent, cleverly wrought production that is the “House of Cards.”
Karl Rove has been spectacularly right about one big thing in his far-flung career: his calculation that Republicans in the late nineties and early 2000s needed to be rebranded as problem solvers, who had a formula to compete on Democratic terrain like education and health-care, outflanked Clintonian centrism when it was on the verge of realigning American politics. Rove was just as spectacularly wrong on another front, his blind spot on the risks of conservatism “going corporate” and turning into just another patchwork of special interests and powerbrokers.
It’s worth keeping the dual nature of Rove’s Bush era legacy in mind as he plots an ambitious effort to intervene in primary fights on behalf of Republicans who are…well, that part remains vague, but excludes at least candidates with a history of dabbling in witchcraft or who have a penchant for philosophizing on gynecology.
If Rove’s version of influence merely takes the form of injecting one more source of shadowy cash into races, then he has already misread recent campaign cycles. Deep-pocketed front-runners from Charlie Crist to Bill Bolling never made it past the starting gate, and it is the insurgents who have cleaned up in GOP state primaries who have been chronically under-funded. The missing element for the losers in these fights has not been a lack of cash to sustain ads or phone banks, but an inability to mobilize rank and file primary voters with either a policy vision or a rhetorical message beyond inside baseball about electability.
In an era where the activists who dominate party primaries award no extra points based on time served in office, or chits from funneling checks to local party committees, the populist, anti-establishment wing of the party has filled a void. In blunt terms, their fears are not getting outflanked with swing voters, but getting trammeled by a government that serves every agenda but theirs. They distrust “reform” as a code for more mandates. They are corrosively suspicious of political power because it seems too subject to being rented or bought by corporate power. And many of them have adopted a Manichaen view of politics that genuinely considers constitutional liberty and fiscal stability to be in some degree of jeopardy.
To date, the establishment of the party has been neither creative nor effective in countering this Tea Party/ libertarian wing. Assembling a conventionally conservative record on social issues has not done the trick, nor has the standard blue-print of touting a pro-business platform. In fact, at times, more mainsteam Republicans have been infatuated with the rituals of talking up their successes in passing obscure legislation or crafting bipartisan compromises—tokens of good governance a short time ago, that currently seem ill-suited for the more cynical mood of hyper-partisan primary electorates.
Frankly, Rove has his own share of accountability for the weakened state of establishment Republicans. It was under his distracted watch (too unwieldy a set of responsibilities under George W. Bush, and a constant need to calibrate policy with the demands of assembling a war-chest) that Republicans veered off into a legacy that was ripe with contradictions: a war effort that was massaged to avoid disturbing the business climate; farm bills and energy bills that spun money in the directions of the industries they purported to regulate; and a wink and a nod from “fiscal conservatives” at spiraling deficits and swelling bureaucracies. Those inconsistencies between rhetoric and performance demoralized the Republican base, and that base’s disengagement from the 2006 and 2008 elections helped install the Washington of Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.
If Rove is to have a hand in reversing these trends, it will be with his tactical acumen and not his donor rolodex. As much as today’s conservative grassroots despises the term “compassionate conservative”, Rove’s rebranding operation made his party competitive with professional women, Hispanics, 18-29 year olds, and dominant with blue-collar downscale whites. Had Mitt Romney compiled the same vote shares in each of these segments as Bush did in either 2000 or 2004, he would have defeated Obama, even with the changed demographics of the 2012 cycle.
While Rove’s fusion of conservatism with middle-class populism and reform-minded initiatives couldn’t be recreated in a budgetary climate of trillion dollar deficits, the instinct that the political right can engage ordinary economic anxieties is a necessary proposition if Republicans are to reclaim the frayed parts of the coalition that dominated the last political generation. And it is relevant to the equally pressing question of how at least some of the conservative base can be courted in intraparty struggles.
To a degree that is not well understood, the conservative grassroots is an overwhelmingly middle class, wage earning constituency that sometimes resents government as much for its ineffectiveness as its excesses. At the core is a sense that their premiums will continue to rise in spite of (or because of) the Affordable Care Act, that the tax code insulates the brackets above and below them, that schools that educate their children are a poor return on their taxes, and that both parties are too entangled with their own favorite interests.
The Rove of a decade ago, before he held the keys to the kingdom of Republican money, understood the unease that fuels conservatism activism. But absent a compelling alternative vision from the establishment, much of that activism has been redirected to what Ron Paul biographer Brian Doherty describes as a “philosophy…that government exists only to protect citizens’ lives and property from assault”. A philosophy that, as inspiring as it is on the right, falls dramatically short of what a majority of Americans of all ideological stripes have come to expect from the government they fund.
If Rove’s intervention reflects his handiwork of the late nineties, it will reintroduce elements like education reform and won’t shrink from tough reforms of the insurance industry and the maze of federal largess that has earned the epithet “crony capitalism”. It’s a strategy that would strengthen the hands of conservatives who want to reclaim their label from a purely negative conception of public purpose. If his latest effort simply evokes the big business, trade association sensibilities of the last five years, more good money is about to be wasted.
The following is the prepared text of a speech Artur Davis delivered at the National Review Institute on January 27, 2013
Rich Lowry, thank you. Rich said that he wanted to get together a few friends for lunch after the campaign, and now I see what he means. And thank you for letting me be the warm-up act for Bobby Jindal, whom I deeply admire, and whom I served with in the House of Representatives.
I want to begin by saying something that needs to be said: I am not going to tell you that we have the luxury of feeling good about where we are as a movement, or that we don’t have lessons to learn. But this is the movement and the cause that rescued this country 30 years ago, when serious people thought we were too complex to be governed anymore. This is the movement and the cause that refused to believe freedom was exhausted; only that it was tired of not being defended. And you held up freedom and made it so vibrant that prisoners in Prague and shipbuilders in Gdansk and freedom fighters in Managua and dissidents in gulags in Russia saw it and were moved by it.
And not only have you been right about these large cosmic things, you have been right about more basic things: we can’t grow an economy by making audacity cost too much, we can’t strengthen people by penalizing them for work, we can’t own our future by living on the credit of countries who want to dominate us. Those values are as right today as they were yesterday, and may they always define us. I have not always been with you but I am with you now and I am proud to stand with you to wage this fight.
So, about this election. Yes, we have learned that we the American people can trust us to do a better job on the three things they said mattered the most to them, the economy, healthcare and spending and still not vote for us. We learned that 5 million fewer people can vote for the president and that he can still get reelected, the first time in 120 years that an incumbent has won and gotten fewer votes than he got the first time—in contrast, 12 million more people voted for George Bush in 2004 than 2000. How is that we lost when so many Americans agreed with our broad principles, and when 5 million people abandoned Obama?
I want to be candid with you. My belief is that we have found a way to make a case to people who think like we do, and have what we do, and that we need to learn to start making a case to the rest of America.
We find it very easy to make a case to our own, and that is human nature. There is no sweeter sound in politics that the one of men and women agreeing with each other that they are right. If you are an American who is steeped in the tradition of limited constitutional government, we have a case for you. If you have the capacity to do one of the hardest things in America, which is to start a business and keep the books in the black and not the red, and have enough to sustain your family, we have a case for you and for good measure, we will keep telling you that that yes, you did build it.
But I want you to think for a moment. Today, tens of millions of Americans will gather around table for a meal, except they won’t call it brunch, they will call it Sunday Supper. They will eat at tables in their homes, not in lofty hotels like this one or the equivalent in their communities. And to be blunt, they love this country as much as we do but they do not believe its freedoms are at stake. But they do wonder if they can bear the cost of college for their 18 year old child. Many of us wonder about where we will send our kids to college, they wonder if they can send their child to college. Many of them work with their hands, and their back and legs and feet hurt at the end of the day. They worry not about freedom but about the depleted state of their savings. They don’t carry around a pocket copy of the constitution but they know that too many of their tax dollars go to Washington and is it such a quaint thought that they want a return on their investment and want government to work for their interests?
What do we have to say to them: the people who work with their hands, who give their 35 percent to the government because their accountants can’t make it disappear to 15 percent? They watch our cable shows and they know that we conservatives are angry. But they want to make sure that our anger is not about our powerlessness but about their powerlessness.
They want to know what really bothers us about these times.
So, we need to ask ourselves, if we are serious about gaining the chance to lead, does it bother us as conservatives that 75% of children in some public schools today don’t read at their grade level? If it bothers Barack Obama, I never heard him say so in his inaugural progressive manifesto last week, the one with the working title “The Country I Would Make if Half of America Disappeared.” Does it bother us as conservatives that the median earnings in this country, if you control for inflation, go no further than they did in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was keynoting conferences like this and the Supremes were at the top of the charts and the Beatles were first appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show? Does it bother us that the number of able bodied men who are working is 15 percent less today than in 1982? Does it bother us that the number of people with college degrees is no higher statistically than in 1979?
Does it bother us as conservatives that the level of public trust is the lowest it has been since Richard Nixon’s top aides were doing perp walks? Does it bother us that we are fragmented to the point that we are increasingly two cultures, equal but separate?
I think we must care as conservatives. You know, one of the central problems with liberalism is that liberals don’t trust individuals. But isn’t it also true that if they don’t trust what we can do as individuals that some in our ranks don’t trust what we can do when we come together?
We ought to be the party that trusts people. You are about to hear from Bobby Jindal, the governor who has spent the past year fighting for the families in his state who can’t buy their way out of the public school system and are trapped in failing schools. And yes, he has relied on the power of the state and the tax dollars those families send to their state capital to give them the help they need in the form of vouchers and in so doing, he is trusting those individuals to make the right choices for their children. That doesn’t just make him a smart Republican; it makes him a conservative Republican to the core. And we as conservatives ought to be waging that kind of fight on behalf of parents all over this country.
Ladies and gentlemen, to be a conservative is also not to be blind about how our values affect people’s lives. There are so many good hard working people who can barely see water’s edge, and they vote, in Ohio and Virginia and Florida and Colorado, and we can win their votes if we stand for a conservatism that lift up people who want to advance, that can change people’s lives.
-I want to leave you with an image. Some of you may not know, but I have an interesting relationship to Denver: I was there when Obama got nominated, I was there at the debate when Obama got exposed. Both times coming into town, I passed the same town square. In 2008, that square was full of families with their kids. This fall, it had a section full of homeless men, and yes, they were mostly black and brown. Barack Obama’s reality has given them a T-shirt to wear, and to his credit, he has given them a politician to care about. But he hasn’t lifted their lives. The world that Obama does not see in his progressive manifesto, the world that he barely acknowledges or address, it is the space that we can occupy as conservatives if we will only claim it.
May we build a conservatism that can reach valleys and not just mountaintops; that can reach the hollows and the shadows and not just inside the gated walls; that understands that in the shining city, as Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, that there will walls but that the walls must have doors for the willing and that we can help people walk through those doors? If we can, not only will we have power again, we will deserve power.
This article also appears at Ricochet.com
The consensus about Barack Obama’s inaugural address is right. It is the most fulsome presidential defense of liberalism we have heard since 1965, and the most programmatically specific inaugural speech since the thirties. This was also the rhetoric of a partisan who believes his opponents are losers and fools, who won’t have much threat left in them ten years from now.
But before liberals feel too deep a thrill, they should consider the following proposition: Obama’s words will be paired with a second term resume that could be the thinnest since Richard Nixon. Given the alignment in the House, and the number of Red State Democratic senators on the ballot in 2014, there is no viable chance Obama can actually enact a single item on the liberal wish list. Not one, from an assault weapons ban to an overhaul of corporate deductions, to cap and trade, to comprehensive immigration reform, to a government financed infrastructure plan, to a recalibrated war on poverty, to campaign finance reform.
So, Obama Part 2 is more about the tactical work of isolating conservatives than classic presidential legacy building: in other words, not so different from the stalemate of the second half of Obama’s first term. Of course, for liberals, the president’s middling results have had the perverse consequence of providing a rallying cry without a record of accomplishments that are susceptible to backfire (the backlash at Obamacare is a window into how vulnerable Obama might have been if he had managed to pass legislation on immigration or climate change).
This entirely unpredictable element–that gridlock has spared Democrats the consequences of their policies floundering–plus shifting demographics which Republicans have struggled to adjust to, have left an altered political landscape. If not quite the liberal dawn that some Democrats are prematurely celebrating (as they did four years ago), the terrain is changed enough that major stretches of Obama’s speech already seem more boilerplate than visionary.
And in that shifting space, Republicans have lost ground. For example, there will still be a robust immigration debate, but the goal of deporting large-scale numbers of undocumented immigrants is a political non-starter. The Affordable Care Act will remain controversial, as premiums rise, and its taxes and mandates touch real lives and businesses, but the baseline of the fight will be an acceptance that universal healthcare is a contemporary social value. Republicans will contest the inevitable new taxes Democrats propose, but with the burden of having conceded that not all raised taxes kill job growth.
And the final thought? The sad recognition that we are really are two cultures now, with fewer shared ideals than ever. There are the Americans who wept happily yesterday at Obama’s survival, and the Americans who wanted the speech turned off at eating establishments. We are now practicing equal but separate.