Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The preposterous Christopher Buckley

By now you may have heard that Christopher Buckley, son of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and until yesterday a columnist for his father’s magazine National Review, has declared himself an Obama supporter and resigned his position at the magazine. His reasons? McCain has “changed,” Buckley tells us, having become “irascible and snarly” in the course of a failing campaign; “his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises,” and his attack ads are “mean-spirited and pointless.” Buckley also dislikes McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate.

This is very odd indeed coming from a man who tells us he cast a write-in vote for George H. W. Bush in 2004, and who supported Bob Dole against Bill Clinton in 1996. I recall the younger Buckley telling some interviewer after one of the Clinton-Dole debates that year that he thought Dole had done well, when he quite obviously had not, and was at that point running a pathetic and inept campaign notable for a desperate last-minute tax cut proposal that went nowhere - and which was transparently politically motivated given his reputation as the “tax collector for the welfare state” (as Newt Gingrich memorably labeled Dole). (I say all this, by the way, as someone who voted for Dole, or at least against Clinton.) Bush Sr., of course, is the man who chose Dan Quayle as his running mate and ran some famously harsh ads against Dukakis in 1988. (The “Willie Horton” ad was not among them - that was run by another group, not Bush’s campaign – but Bush ran similar ads.)

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that we should accept the usual liberal tripe about Quayle, the “Willie Horton” ads, etc. But neither should we accept the current tripe about the alleged “mean-spiritedness” of McCain’s ads, which is equally groundless; and those ads are in any case pretty tame compared to the (perfectly defensible) “Willie Horton” type stuff. If Buckley had no problem with Bush's ads, what's the big deal with McCain's? If he thinks Dole was worth supporting despite his desperate flip-flopping, why not McCain? If he thinks Bush’s choice of Quayle – who, despite the injustice of the standard liberal caricatures of him, was certainly no better a VP candidate than Palin is – did not cast doubt on Bush’s judgment, why does Buckley think McCain’s VP choice casts doubt on McCain’s?

There’s got to be more to Buckley’s switch than this, then, no? And so there is. In his latest piece he (quite rightly) decries the explosion in federal spending that has occurred under the current President Bush, and the corruption represented by the likes of Jack Abramoff, regarding all of this (again quite rightly) as a departure from true conservatism. “I haven’t left the Republican party,” he tells us in a Reaganesque flourish; “It left me.” (One wonders how long he’s been saving up that line.)

Yet McCain, who is acknowledged even by liberals to be a budget cutter and foe of corruption (or at least was so acknowledged by them before it became politically expedient to deny it) is in Buckley’s view not the right man for the job. Rather, true conservatism, and in particular smaller government, restrained spending, and lower taxes, can in Buckley’s view be secured by electing… Barack Obama. And the Democrats, the party of ACORN, will give us honest government. Buckley reminds us of his father’s support for drug legalization – fittingly, given that Christo has obviously been smoking something.

Buckley’s true motives, I would guess, are hinted at by his recourse to the standard leftist smears against religious conservatives, referring as he does to the “fatwas” directed against him and to the “Right Wing Sanhedrin.” It is even more evident in his passing acknowledgment (in his first piece) that “on abortion, gay marriage, et al, I’m libertarian” and his evident disgust (as expressed in his second piece) with the efforts made by some Republican politicians to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case (that is, to keep her from being starved to death by her husband – a little detail Buckley leaves out, swallowing the camel of cold-blooded murder that he might strain out any gnat that might taint his doctrinaire “federalism”). All of this coming from a man who claims that it is the Republicans who have abandoned true conservatism, and whose father – a devout Catholic and the man who more or less defined modern American conservatism – emphasized, from God and Man at Yale onward, that the defense of the moral and religious heritage of Western civilization must always be a central part of the conservative project. Without that (I would add) contemporary “conservatism” is really just libertarianism, which is itself just a riff on liberalism and not conservative at all.

The irrationality of Buckley’s position is only accented by his frivolous appeal in his defense to how “unpredictable” and “fun” his own father was, the elder Buckley’s sometimes eccentric positions having “tend[ed] to keep things fresh and lively and on-their-feet.” The country is in the middle of two wars and facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression, and Buckley decides the thing to do is “mix it up” a bit and have some laughs. This is the true conservatism the Republicans are to be condemned for abandoning?

It seems to me that if Buckley were honest, he would acknowledge that his true reason for bolting the Republican Party and backing Obama is that he has himself abandoned (if he ever truly believed in) what conservatism has always been, and on top of that decided that his social libertarianism trumps his economic libertarianism. For there is, I submit, no other way plausibly to explain his actions: Obama is far less conservative than McCain on economics, to say nothing of the Democratic majority he would have at his command; but Obama and the Democratic mainstream are perfectly simpatico with Buckley’s views on abortion, “same-sex marriage,” and euthanasia. And it is hard not to wonder whether Buckley’s greatest beef with Gov. Palin is that her ascendency ensures that the social conservatism he apparently despises will remain at the center of the conservative movement, whether or not McCain wins in November. (Perhaps this is what he truly regards as McCain’s most unacceptable “change,” for McCain has, after all, long been distrusted by social conservatives. That he has now single-handedly revived their fortunes must be particularly galling for anyone devoted to Buckley’s brand of “conservatism.”) But then, emphasizing these things would hardly have allowed Buckley to depart from the fold with a self-righteous “more conservative than thou” flair.

But perhaps this credits Buckley’s decision with greater coherence and rationality than actually lay behind it. Perhaps there is nothing more here than what meets the eye: an ill-considered, muddleheaded, ungracious exercise in bandwagon punditry by an unserious man.

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