Glenn Reynolds makes some interesting observations on a piece by Bill Kristol, who argues that “You fight an election with the politicians you have,” and reactions by Bill Quick: “No, you fight an election over the principles you hold. When you are reduced to fighting an election with whatever politicians come to hand, you are admitting you – and your party – no longer have principles, and that you are merely engaged in a squabble for power at any cost.”
Lamenting the third-place showing of Fred Thompson in South Carolina, Quick complains, “In essence, the GOP has rejected the one real conservative in the race, and will now pick from a NYC moderate, a “maverick” RINO, a budding populist theocrat, and a Massachusetts country club Republican in the Rockefeller/First Bush vein.” I think that’s too harsh; the length of this campaign shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it’s still early. Fred has barely begun to fight, and Rudy, who is more conservative than Quick allows, hasn’t really begun even now. We shouldn’t count their late-start strategies out before they have a chance to develop.
But Reynolds puts his finger on the key issue: “if you want to make things better, party politics is probably not your best focus. Politicians are weathervanes, and the winds they respond to come mostly from forces in the culture and the media. If you want to turn them around, work on that. Change the culture and the politics will follow.” I think that’s right, which is why I’m a humanities professor rather than a politician.
I do worry, however, about the short-term perspective that democracy encourages, especially when voters have little historical perspective. I’m starting to think there’s something to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 30-year cycle theory, simply because each generation has to relearn the same hard lessons. I see echoes of the 1970s all around me, and so far it looks as if those who are succeeding in this campaign are those most likely to repeat its mistakes.