The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Not Only Wrong, But Dangerous’

Posted on | March 23, 2011 | 208 Comments

Now I see where it started. In the process today of updating readers on his long-running feud with Patterico, Jeff Goldstein linked back to the Nov. 5, 2008, post that started it all. Goldstein linked and quoted Patterico’s post-election assertion that Barack Obama “is fundamentally a good man and a patriot who wants to make this country a better place.” And then Jeff wrote:

Precisely the kind of self-righteous civility that fried McCain. Want to be clapped on the back for your decorum? Fine. Just say so.
But let’s not pretend you are being honest or principled. Graciousness is one thing; praise is another.

You can read the whole thing, including Jeff’s assertion that “Patterico’s position is not only wrong but dangerous.” Leave aside for a moment which side you may take in this feud — my recent post about it drew 115 comments, so obviously it’s hotly contested by both factions — and concentrate on what was originally at dispute.

The question on Nov. 5, 2008, was: “How do we oppose Obama?”

Because the conservative blogosphere had no experience at opposition.

That is the nub of it, you see. The conservative blogosphere came into existence and flourished during the Bush presidency, particularly in the wake of 9/11. Its operative principles were the pursuit of two closely interrelated prime directives:

  1. To support the war on terror; and
  2. To defend the Bush presidency.

Remember that the Bush presidency had begun in the wake of the most bitter electoral controversy of our time, the five-week Florida recount. Democrats never recognized the legitimacy of Bush’s election and, we can see in hindsight, not even the unprecedented crisis of 9/11 sufficed to suppress their resentment of the “selected not elected” Bush.

Such was the toxic political atmosphere in which the conservative blogosphere arose, so that anyone who shared the prime directives — win the war and defend Bush — was welcomed to the cause.

The amateur vibe of the blogosphere meant that almost none of the participants had any prior experience in public political discourse and, for seven years, the conservative side of the ‘sphere had no reason to develop a discourse of opposition. (The 2006-07 uprising against GOP support for illegal-alien amnesty, spearheaded by Michelle Malkin, was a notable exception in both regards. Malkin had been a syndicated conservative columnist before there was a blogosphere.)

So here it was, Nov. 5, 2008, the day after the election. Barack Obama was the president-elect and the conservative blogosphere — which had spent its first seven years defending the Bush administration — suddenly found itself challenged to develop a new rationale, a new discourse.

Patterico saw fit to begin this new era by publicly stipulating that the president-elect was a patriot, a good and decent man who aspired to good and decent things.

Hell, I wouldn’t even say that about John McCain, one of the most selfish two-faced backstabbing sons of bitches ever to befoul the U.S. Senate (which has never had any shortage of two-faced sons of bitches). If I did not feel obliged to credit the Republican candidate with bona fides, why would I feel it necessary to extend that courtesy to the Democrat? But I digress . . .

Jeff Goldstein’s response certainly looked like an insult to Patterico, seeming to accuse him of self-righteousness, dishonesty and a lack of principle. And so the feud began, continuing down to this day, with no end in sight.

Prior to today, however, I had not seen that November 2008 Patterico-Goldstein exchange. I just checked the archives, and I never wrote anything about that at the time. My first notice of the Patterico-Goldstein conflict was more than four months later, in March 2009.

I’d spent Election Night 2008 at the headquarters of the National Taxpayers Union, where I filed a column for The American Spectator called, “You Did Not Lose”:

Many conservatives will inevitably feel rejected and dejected.
Try not to take it personally. You did not lose this election.
Perhaps the most important statistic for conservatives to keep in mind today — as pundits pore over and pour out exit-poll data to tell us What It Means — is this: 53 percent of Republican primary voters did not vote for John McCain. . . .
Conservatives who sought to prevent McCain’s nomination cannot be blamed for his defeat. And it is his defeat, not yours.

This is just it: Every conservative for whose political judgment I had any respect was opposed to John McCain as the 2008 nominee, but none was more opposed than I was. In addition to being short, bald and old (which ought to disqualify anyone as a presidential candidate in the television age), John McCain was temperamentally unfit for the job. His Sept. 24 freakout — “Holy crap!” — demonstrated his unfitness and was the decisive event in the campaign, as I explained (“How John McCain Lost,” The American Spectator, Oct. 7, 2008) nearly a month before the election.

Well: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Bob Barr.”

All of this I recount not merely to remind everyone of my astonishing prophetic insight — although my uncanny knack for always being 100% right is perhaps worth noting in this context — but to explain why I didn’t notice when the Patterico-Goldstein feud began Nov. 5, 2008.

This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, so I knew damned well what was coming next: The media would begin its post-election analyses, and the GOP elite would begin a search for scapegoats.

The Great Scapegoat Hunt is a phenomenon so predictable you can set your watch by it: Whenever Republicans lose a presidential election, it is never the fault of the nominee and the party leaders who supported him. No, the problem — from the perspective of the GOP elite — is always that uncouth right-wing rabble, the conservative grassroots of the Republican Party. After the 2008 debacle, the Great Scapegoat Hunt fixated early (even before Election Day) on Sarah Palin and her supporters. And many in the conservative blogosphere — who had no experience publicly analyzing a Republican presidential election defeat, which hadn’t happened since 1996 — bought into that GOP elite version of the story.

Sic semper hoc.

I’d seen it all before. After the defeat of the hapless Bob Dole in 1996, two voices most prominently expressed the GOP elite view: David Brooks in “A Return to National Greatness” (Weekly Standard, March 3, 1997) and Christopher Caldwell in “The Southern Captivity of the GOP” (The Atlantic Monthly, June 1998). If you believed these analyses — articulated with all the eloquent persuasion that two of the most eminent “conservative” journalists could muster — then the problem with the Republican Party was two-fold:

  1. The GOP was too committed to limited government; and
  2. The GOP was too beholden to those gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’ hicks in Dixie.

Easy enough to believe, if you were willing to ignore a couple of obtrusive facts:

  1. Bob Dole had never been an advocate of limited government. Indeed Dole’s enthusiasm for big government was such that Newt Gingrich once called him “the tax collector for the welfare state,” while others mocked him as “the Senator from Archer Daniels Midland” (a reference to Dole’s support for such things as the federal ethanol subsidy that benefitted ADM).
  2. Bob Dole is not a Southerner. Kinda important to note this, as it is likewise important to note that Dole had almost zero rapport with the Bible-thumpin’ hicks of the Religious Right.

It is amazing to examine the extent to which John McCain’s campaign of 2008 was a replay of the Dole campaign of 1996. Both Dole and McCain had previously run losing GOP primary campaigns. Both won the nomination based on the GOP’s stupid “It’s His Turn” approach to presidential politics. Both were elderly veterans of long-ago wars.

And both lost badly.

By losing badly, I refer not merely to the final margin of defeat, but also to the fact that both Dole and McCain were compelled, by the inexorable logic of partisan politics, into transparent insincerity, as they were obliged to pay lip service to conservative principles during the campaign. They did so half-heartedly and were not persuasive advocates, because their rhetoric did not match their records in office.

“Well, what’s your point here?” asks the increasingly impatient reader, “How does this relate to your ostensible topic, the origins of the Patterico-Goldstein feud? We’re already 1,300 words into this thing, and you seem to be wandering farther and farther afield.”

My point is that I viewed the 2008 election in historical context, and foresaw that the critical battle in the wake of John McCain’s defeat would be to control the explanation of McCain’s defeat within the conservative movement.

If conservatives bought into the GOP elite’s Blame-Palin-First explanation — conveniently exempting from critical scrutiny the party elite, including John McCain himself — then the movement’s strategy going forward would be founded on a false narrative. This was why, a week after the 2008 election, I aimed a shot at such elite pundits as David Brooks:

The self-interest of intellectuals demands that they portray every election as fraught with existential significance, an honest-to-goodness Hegelian shift in the zeitgeist. Divining the zeitgeist and integrating the latest paradigm shift into our weltanschauung is the stock-in-trade of intellectuals, and if all that elevated cogitation could produce an extra 207,000 Republican votes in Ohio, maybe I would give a damn. But it can’t and I don’t.
The economy sucks, the war in Iraq is costing us about $5 billion a week, the deficit’s out of control, and every time you turn on the TV, another giant corporation is either declaring bankruptcy or getting a bailout from the taxpayers. You don’t need an intellectual to tell you why this was a tough year to be a Republican, but that’s not going to stop the pointy-heads from explaining What It Really Means.

Why the hell should the pointy-headed author of “A Return to National Greatness” be permitted to tell conservatives What It Really Means? The causes of Republican defeat were not really complex, and the over-intellectualization of the explanation was merely an attempt by Brooks & Co. to assert their prerogative as explainers. But David Brooks had never been part of the conservative opposition to John McCain’s candidacy, and he had been one of the first to scapegoat Palin (a “fatal cancer to the Republican Party“). Brooks was part of the problem, and therefore by definition could not be part of the solution.

Based on historical perspective, then, in the aftermath of Election ’08, I was keenly focused on pushing back against the blame-Palin/blame-conservatives explanation that I knew would be offered by the voices of the GOP elite.

This was why I paid no attention to the Patterico-Goldstein argument of Nov. 5, 2008. “How Should We Oppose Obama?” was an important argument, but one that was not an immediate priority. No, what was immediately important was the pushback against the Great Scapegoat Hunt and false explanations of defeat, which was why on Nov. 5, I took aim at another target:

Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs has apparently decided that the problem with the conservative movement is that it needs more purges, and Pam Geller at Atlas Shrugs seems to be his designated scapegoat. . . .
Pam is a good person and I would suggest that this guilt-by-association “urge to purge” is antithetical to the best interests of conservatism. You can’t build a movement by the process of subtraction.

That was what I saw as the most important argument in the blogosphere the day after Election Day. Within little more than a year, Johnson would declare that he had “parted ways with the Right.” That was not something I’d predicted on Nov. 5, although Johnson’s making the resumption of his war on Geller his top priority that day was, we can see in retrospect, highly significant.

And, I think, Johnson’s “parting ways” is significant to the Patterico-Goldstein dispute, perhaps directly so. Johnson began attacking Geller in October 2007, and I think it would be interesting to know on whose side of that dispute Patterico and Goldstein arrayed themselves.

In the three years since I began full-time blogging in March 2008, I have from time to time sensed what I call “a disturbance in the Force,” detecting evidence of tensions among conservative bloggers that I could not explain. It has long seemed to me, as a latecomer to the ‘sphere, that there must be unseen communications among bloggers which account for this phenomenon: “Poison pen” campaigns conducted via e-mail, wherein bloggers seek allies in their private disputes with rivals. (Dude, I spent 10 years in the newsroom of The Washington Times and have the knives in my back to prove it. I know very well how that game is played.)

By a process of psychological projection, practicioners of the poison-pen method assume that others are employing the same devious methods against them, and that’s when paranoia sets in. This is why we might reasonably assume that Charles Johnson, in addition to his many public attacks on Pamela Geller, was always also privately attacking her by means of e-mails to other bloggers. Johnson’s subsequent descent into paranoid frenzy — lashing out at Michelle Malkin and others, while consorting with sycophants to relentlessly purge LGF commenters — displayed his personality as a very familiar type.

So while Nov. 5, 2008, marked the public eruption of the Patterico-Goldstein feud, I strongly suspect there was some private antagonism that predated that eruption. Furthermore, I’ve got a gut hunch that this antagonism bore some relation to the Johnson-Geller conflict, and that the (perhaps now forgotten) influence of Charles Johnson somewhere behind the scenes must explain this.

We shall see, in coming days, whether either Patterico or Goldstein (or perhaps even Charles Johnson himself) confirms my suspicion. But this ongoing blog-battle is the tip of a much larger iceberg — “a disturbance in the Force,” as I say — and therefore I apologize to readers for this lengthy examination.


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