Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His latest book, The Future of Liberalism (Knopf), will be published in early February.
Barack Obama has not even waited until he assumed the formal powers of the presidency before putting into practice a key campaign promise: improving civility in Washington. George W. Bush generally preferred the company of conservatives; supping with anyone who voted for the “Democrat” Party was not for him. In a move meant to symbolize how inclusive he intends to be, Obama has already reached out to Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and other conservative writers not especially known for crossing ideological divides.
I rarely agree with Pat Buchanan, but watching him on Chris Matthews the other day, I think he got it right. The dinner invitees are all “neo” conservatives, Buchanan pointed out; they sniff out power and always position themselves close to it. The fact that Obama reached out to them does not mean much; if anything, Buchanan speculated, David Brooks, one of those at the dinner, in all likelihood voted for him.
In his own way, Buchanan reminded viewers that many conservatives and Republicans, unlike the neo-cons, are, as he called them on the Matthews show, “revolutionaries.” If you want to know what Buchanan meant by the term, you have to ask him; I interpreted him to mean that these are the kind of people that want to overturn pretty much everything in this country that has happened since the New Deal.
Unfortunate for Obama, Buchanan’s term accurately describes one prominent group of conservatives: pretty much the entire Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. As they demonstrated during the bailout vote last year, and as they will no doubt prove many times over in the next four to eight years, these are hard-right activists not especially interested in bipartisanship, policy, or responsibility. Being in the minority has liberated them. Forced to toe the line under Bush, they will move the line under Obama. Expect from them as much mischief as they are capable of imagining.
Will Obama’s call for inclusiveness include them? Should it? If Obama does reach out to them, I can understand his motives. We have been engaged in a culture war at least since Patrick Buchanan--there he is again--caught the ear of Richard Nixon and helped him appeal to white working class voters. Thirty years of endless talk about how Democrats are elitist and Republicans in touch with ordinary people are enough. Were Obama to bring it all to an end--to help kill off Palinism in the Republican Party by bringing Republican politicians into Washington’s great game of politics--that would be accomplishment enough. This play has been running longer than The Phantom of the Opera and it is time for it to close.
Yet why would the Republican revolutionaries, even now, be receptive to overtures from Obama? They are permanent campaigners. Hating government, they have no interest in governance. Insurgents don’t compromise. Free to shout, why should they leash themselves to anyone, let alone a Democrat? Obama has about as much chance of winning their cooperation as he does of carrying Wyoming in 2012. He can have Bill Kristol to dinner every month and not make a dent in their determination.
It may make more sense not to confront the Republicans in the House, for that would keep the culture war alive, but to ignore them. Let them vote against policies for dealing with the financial crisis that have widespread support. If they want to bring the Terri Schiavo business back to life, clear the space for them to do so. Let them be the wreckers of every effort to restore America’s moral standing in the world--so long, of course, as they fail.
In the best of all worlds, the culture war will end because both sides will sign a peace treaty. Given the extremists representing the Republican Party in the House, that is never going to happen. Let the culture war, then, end in a different way: One side should stop arming itself and let the other flail around until there is nothing left to fight.