Stealth Conservatism: A Silver Anniversary Appraisal
While President Bush and his assorted apparatchiks in Congress and the media issue dire warnings about Social Security's imminent bankruptcy (sound familiar?), the true purpose of the Republican plan was laid out by Rove deputy Peter Wehner in a January 3rd memo that was leaked. Wehner wrote that "[f]or the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country." Hmm, this doesn't seem consistent with the stated goal of "saving" Social Security, right?
Anyway, Wehner's memo is important in that it offers the latest example of the quarter-century campaign of stealth conservatism that has guided the Republican Party. Stealth conservatism kicked into high gear during the 1980 presidential campaign, with Reagan's fabled supply-side/trickle-down economic policy (hence the title of this post). However, Reagan's OMB director, David Stockman, let the cat out of the bag in the summer of 1981 when, in an interview with Bill Greider, he admitted that Reagan's supply-side policy "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top [tax] rate" for the wealthy.
Cutting taxes for the rich had long ago been coined "trickle down economics" - and it was an unpopular concept with the middle class. "It's kind of hard to sell 'trickle down,'" Stockman told [Greider]. "So the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really 'trickle down.' Supply-side is 'trickle-down' theory.
Of course, the Reagan presidency offered other examples of stealth conservatism in action, most importantly that little Iran-Contra episode, which was so stealthy that, had it not been for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Sharaa, the public may have never found out.
After a brief interregnum during the Bush Sr. presidency, stealth conservatism returned with a vengeance during the Clinton Administration. Remember Bill Kristol's infamous 1993 memo, in which he exhorted Congressional Republicans to kill the proposed health care legislation not because it was bad policy, but because its passage would "revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining government."
Another egregious example of stealth conservatism during the heady days of the ill-fated Gingrich Revolution is term limits. Prominent Republicans, such as Washington's George Nethercutt, have reneged on their promise to serve a set number of terms. Of course, the stealth purpose of term limits was revealed when Idaho became the first state to repeal its term limit law in 2002. Republicans, who "once supported term limits as a way to end the careers of liberal Democratic members of Congress" were no longer willing to play along with this outdated rationale for term limits now that they were entrenched in power.
During the Bush administration, stealth conservatism has reached its zenith, which is ironic, when one considers the Republicans' political dominance. Of course, this merely reinforces just how unpopular the conservative agenda is in the harsh light of day. Examples of stealth conservatism include:
-the Bush tax cuts, which are merely a reprisal of the "Trojan horse" strategy that Stockman fessed up to in 1981
-"starving the beast," i.e. purposely running up astronomical budget deficits as a pretext for slashing social welfare expenditures, which is now bearing fruit
-the "K Street Project," which essentially blackballs Democrats from lobbying positions in order to give Republicans the exclusive spoils of the lobbying game
-the Iraq war, and in particular the PNAC crowd, which was gunning to remove Saddam throughout the 1990s. As Paul Wolfowitz admitted, in a Stockman-like moment of honesty, weapons of mass destruction was merely the "bureaucratic" reason for going to war with Iraq
The unstated campaign to eliminate Social Security, which Wehner outlined in his memo, is merely the latest case of stealth conservatism in action. The common thread among all these examples is the tacit realization by conservatives that, if the true nature of their schemes is revealed, they would never pass muster with the public. Thus, there's a Straussian (as in Leo, not Levi) need to construct elaborate fictions to disguise the actual purpose of the conservative agenda. The challenge for those of us in the center-left is to expose this stealth conservatism without coming off as tin-foiled conspiracy theorists. How do we accomplish this? Er, I'll get back to you on that one.