»  National Review Online

May 23, 2008

  Amid th'Encircling Gloom

Are you excited yet? About this coming presidential election, I mean. It only comes round once every four years, you know. The person who represents us to foreigners, who manages the federal government, and who is a key player in new legislation and the appointment of senior judges, will get replaced. Who will the new one be? Are you excited to find out?

No, me neither. The dispiriting thing is, there is no conservative dog in this fight. Of conceivable candidates, there are those who will give conservatives a lot of what we don't like, and there are those who will give us a bit less of what we don't like.

To be sure, I speak as a particular and perhaps peculiar type of conservative, an irreligious "National Question" Tory pessimist. But what's in this election for any other type? What's in it for Movement conservatives?

Tax cuts? With the boomer-entitlements balloon just snapping its last moorings, anyone who thinks tax rates aren't hitched to it by a fairly short cord, is dreaming. To stand athwart demographics crying "Stop!" is a fool's game. So much for reducing taxation.

Evil empires? The Soviet Union's long gone. With it, according to many observers (including the founder of this magazine, according to Sam Tanenhaus, according to George Packer) went the raison d'être of the conservative movement. Attempts to elevate some sect, or sects, of cave-bound Muslim assassins, or the burned-out Savonarolas of Tehran, to a Soviet-scale existential threat, strike most of us as deeply unconvincing. I have just finished reading, with great pleasure, Robert Ferrigno's Sins of the Assassin, a fast-paced thriller set in a part-Islamicized North America of the near future. (And in which I have a walk-on part! — p.148.) It is a tribute to the author's skill that he makes that setting plausible, when in fact nothing could be less likely. Guys, the U.S.S.R. is dead. Get over it.

While I'm on religion, what's there for a theocon to root for in this contest? The two current leading contenders are both observant Christians, but I wish you luck in wringing any really convincing piety out of that "observant." In the penumbra of presidential just-possibles and vice-presidential hopefuls you might spot the odd born-again, but that hardly seems worth walking to the corner store for.

What else do Movement conservatives care about? Reducing the size of the federal government? Ha ha ha ha ha! Patriotism? Take your pick: A candidate who sits mute in his pew while his minister and friend damns America, or a candidate who places so little value on citizenship, he favors giving it to anyone who walks uninvited into our country and asks for it.

In the matter of character and credentials, there is something to choose. I was chided by one of my readers for referring to the candidates in a previous column as "lackluster." If John McCain's Vietnam War record wasn't lustrous, protested my reader, what is? I concede the point, and put that record in the other balance pan against McCain's many defects. I'll even add to it the other thing to be said in McCain's favor, often noted: his utter inability to pretend. "Sincerity — if you can fake that, you've got it made!" goes the old political adage. McCain can't, and I honor him for that. That balance pan just won't drop, though.

It wobbles downwards a bit when I contemplate Barack Obama. Back when I was an office worker-bee, building computer systems for grateful (well …) users, to help them do useful work more efficiently, I used to grumble about how lawyers and accountants were sucking all the oxygen out of American enterprise. Well, we have moved beyond that comparatively mild stage of parasite infestation. The people calling the shots now, and widely considered to be just the ticket for managing our national affairs, are Community Organizers and Diversity Consultants, people who do not merely retard and constrain productive work, but actually despise it. Hey you lawyers, you accountants — come back, please, all is forgiven!

Still and all, there is nothing here to stir the blood of a conservative, any conservative. There is stuff to be talked about, of course: health-care adjustments, environmentalist scaremongering, how to get out of Iraq. That's dry wonkery, though; or in the case of the last, acknowledgment of a gross blunder by … us. Hardly inspiring.

P.J. O'Rourke says that if you want to latch on to a consequential, going-places political movement fired by real passion, follow the babes. Where there are pretty young women cheering and clapping in droves, there is politics with a future. By this standard, this campaign has offered us two inspirational political futures: Barack Obama's, and Ron Paul's.

Obama has nothing for a conservative to like, and the passions he has aroused are inexplicable to me. I suppose they have something to do with Transcendentalism, and I shall go back to my Teaching Company course on that baffling topic to see if I can divine the roots of Obamaist frenzy.

The fire lit by Ron Paul, and the masses of young people who have flocked to warm their hands at it, are easier for a conservative to understand. I might agree, as some of my colleagues murmur, that some updating and culling is in order, but Dr. Paul's main message is heartily, full-throatedly, unapologetically conservative, in a way we have not seen for a long time. It's not going anywhere this season, nor likely the next, but the Paul campaign offers proof that conservatism is still alive and can still find converts among the thoughtful young. In the gathering gloom of failure and despair, that's something to lift the spirits a little.