Friday, January 27, 2006

Wiretapping and conservatism

The American Street offers some Points to Ponder:
The time has come for people calling themselves “conservatives” to make a choice — either you believe in small, unobtrusive government, “strict construction” of the Constitution and fiscal restraint — as the Right has been claiming for several years — or you admit that your political affiliation has devolved into a cult of personality “erected around the person of George W. Bush.”
Conservatism is no longer a unitary concept, if indeed it ever was. Conservatives include small government types who object to a state's Board of Education imposing religious dogma on every school district and teacher, but the Board members who vote for that proposal are invariably seen as "conservative."

The desire for a single powerful executive, easily found among conservative commentators in modern America (or Germany, Italy, or Spain of earlier eras) marries uneasily with the gradualism of Burkean conservatism, and pairs quite badly with the brand of libertarianism which has swept through the far right, inspiring ultra-conservatives like the Freemen in Montana or Tim McVeigh here in Kansas to radical anti-government activities, including violence.

People in general, especially in times of danger and change, respect power. And that tendency can sometimes blind us all to the real problems caused by removing accountability from that power. This is not a partisan swipe, everyone of every party does it.

After 9/11, Democrats and Republicans were united behind the President. Over time, it became clear that anything a Democrat did to support a Bush proposal would be used as a cudgel to go after the ones who expressed concern. And time and time again, a Bush proposal would address issues everyone felt needed consideration but would be fatally flawed in its execution. Democrats who backed the policy felt burned for having supported the issue and being stuck with an incompetent policy.

And that's why this spying issue has legs. Democrats have learned to take nothing at face value, to look for the loopholes the President leaves himself. In this case, advisors who can't seem to work out what the 4th amendment says are implementing a policy which, at its most generous, tapdances right around the edge of the 4th amendment, and at its worst, guts that amendments protections to no clear end.

Conservatives recognize that. They agree that gun violence is awful, but insist that any proposed solution not get too close to the 2nd amendment. It isn't that they think gun rights are more important than saving lives, but they know that if you can't see a way to preserve liberty and safety, you don't belong in power.

The domestic spying is the same situation, and conservatives of many stripes are having to confront that. Since the details are secret, no one quite wants to defend the Program (Senator Roberts has contented himself with arguing about etiquette). It's not that they can't, they just aren't sure they want to be stuck with the bag when it's time to lay blame.

And Paul Glastris is entirely right that competence is an issue that is in play, between Katrina, ignored warnings before 9/11, the incompetently designed Medicare drug plan, a Social Security plan so ill-conceived it never got off the ground, an education program which adds bureaucracy without improving schools and the failed promises of a road to Baghdad paved with roses, to name a few memorable failures. Even if we might trust a competent government to run an unaccountable, checkless, balance-free spying program, we may not be prepared to place that confidence in this particular executive, or in some hypothetical future band of incompetents.

Since conservatives see government as inherently incompetent, I'd imagine this is an argument with legs.