Chris Caldwell gets off to an inauspicious beginning his (attempted) defense of conservatism topping the New York Times book review this morning. He complains about court decisions blocking the implementation of, respectively, the Arizona immigration law and the California gay marriage ban. "The two decisions," he intones, "imposed liberal policies that public opinion opposed." By recreating the agenda of the "Impeach Earl Warren" decade, Caldwell deftly deprived himself of the right to criticize the biggest recent choke on majority sentiment--Citizens United, which effectively turns the election processes over to the moneyed elite.
It's a shame, really, because Caldwell was trying to hard to turn this into a people-versus-pointyheads showdown, and nothing seemed to be going right for him. The threshold problem is that Caldwell, who is no dummy, made it clear that he understands that we've got at least a tripartite division here--one, the pointyheads (if you must); two, the pitchfork-and-tarbucket-wielding multitude that we bracket, for lack of a better name, as "the Tea Party;" and three, the segment to which he seems to think he belongs that we bracket, for lack of a better name, as "the conservatives."
One might think, probably Caldwell does think, that this third segment deserves the name of "a school of thought," or "a tendency," or "a movement," or perhaps even "a political party" (the Republicans?) but it is clear that for the moment they are something less grand than that: they are a tiny beleaguered remnant, clinging together for their dear life and scared witless of the monster they seem to have unloosed.
Clearly, Caldwell as a thinking-man's conservative is horrified--scared witless--by the populist Yahooism that people of his ilk did so much to create and seem to powerless to control. Indeed, it might be the one point of consolation for Democrats in this miserable election season--of Sarah Palin scares them, she scares Caldwell and the other half dozen or so remaining thinking conservatives far worse. Their whole game--a fairly common one in politics--has been a version of "which way are my people going so I can run out in front and lead them," sicklied o'er with deflating recognition that they may not be able to lead them any place at all.
Caldwell ends with what I'm sure he thinks of as statesmanship but which sounds more to me like a stitched-together vision of blind optimism. He says that "the Republican party" (sic), assuming it wins in November, must not mistake "as protest vote for a wide mandate." Rather, he says, they must focus on "the larger goal," which he defines as achieving "a citizenry sufficiently able to govern itself to be left alone by Washington" For "the Republican party" to hang onto power after the election, he says, its "leaders will need top sit down respectfully with the people who brought them to power and figure out what they agree on."
Savor that last sentence. I think what it means is that the mass of Tea Party leadership will have to shut up and listen while Caldwell and his remnant tell them what's what--if he tries that with a room peopled by, say, Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell, and of course her Sarahship herself--if he tries that, I hope I get to sell the popcorn.