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The new progressive party

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 11, 2005

“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

C.S. Lewis penned this quote decades ago, though its insight could not be more relevant in today’s political geography. Surprised to find themselves with a majority in Congress and the White House, Republican leadership now faces the real prospect of its ideas taking permanent hold and transforming the country and the broader world. The party of Reagan still holds its recently deceased grandfather in mind like Obi-Wan to Luke Skywalker, but today’s conservative progressives now hold the reins to determine our future.

The self-proclaimed progressives of the past, or liberals by any other name, now rush to the defense of traditional institutions borne of the New Deal of FDR and Great Society of LBJ. With grandest irony, we observe MoveOn.org mobilizing against any plans for reform until the letter “D” follows the signatories’ names (for the record, the web domain StandStill.org remains unclaimed). Conservative and liberal leaders alike ponder the question “are Democrats out of ideas?”

In a sense, the charge is unfair because every election leaves the minority party facing the distasteful choice between soft or hard obstructionism, as Republicans of the middle-twentieth century can attest. Still, the buzzwords emanating from Democratic party leadership focus on “repackaging” or playing George Lakoff-inspired language games, rather than pondering whether their premises conflict with the broader public will.

Until the 2006 midterm elections, liberals who grew comfortable with Republicans as mere defenders of the status quo now recoil in horror as conservatives push in another direction. Though conservative grand strategies on the domestic and global scale are barely adjusting to the light as they emerge from the annals of think tanks, grassroots support for positive change is swelling. Before the November election, many political analysts assumed that the high percentage of Americans who claimed the country was on the wrong track would stick like a thorn to President Bush’s side. Instead, Bush won a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.

The most likely solution to this conundrum, aside from discredited claims of electioneering, is that Americans are slowly reaching the conclusion that we’ve missed the turn miles ago, and we’d better find a shortcut back to the right path or reverse course entirely. Whether the impetus happened to be a terrorist attack on American soil, or a single judge bypassing the legislative process to proclaim the legality of gay marriage, the practice of standing athwart history and yelling “stop” failed to be sufficient.

Hence the rise of conservative progressives: proponents of tax reform, welfare reform, social security reform, neoconservative foreign policy, and Paul Wolfowitz. Their premise is relatively simple: shatter the unacceptable status quo. President Bush witnessed years of broken promises from Yasser Arafat and alienated him from the playing table, and Palestinian support for a militant PLO eroded. The United Nations devolved into a fa̤ade of cooperation as its failures grew to outweigh its successes Рnow Bush will appoint the diplomatic equivalent of Dr. Phil to ensure its overdue reform.

President Bush understands that his legacy of the future will not be determined by his approval ratings of the present. Washington insiders grow skeptical about the prospects for various reforms, just as it will when Democrats shut down Congress before accepting another open pro-lifer to the federal judiciary. Yet these beltway politicos thrive on conventional wisdom, which is written only after someone defies and thus redefines earlier conventional wisdom.

As conservative progressives turn in the opposite direction and move forward, liberal progressives must drown out the status quo Democrats who appear too close to “Bush-lite” and increase their pull in the political tug of war. Consequently, the 527-groups who claim broad support like an overzealous, soon-to-be-dethroned monarch now mold the Democrat identity as traditionalists. Years of failure under centrists followed the Clinton jackpot years, and the 2006 midterm elections will provide evidence of whether Americans buy the new repacked stance. Should Republicans repeat their success and tilt the Congress further in their direction, a liberal unraveling may occur that only can be stopped by the rise of New York’s junior senator.

In the mean time, conservative progressives will march on, testing the true boundaries of national contentment with their ideas, and hopefully initiating the public withdrawal from countless entitlement programs that cannot be sustained. More foreign nations may topple their oppressive regimes with or without our direct aid but knowing that Washington ideologically and perhaps militarily supports democratic reform. As today’s status quo political analysts attempt to paint Bush’s portrait as one of failure, he will pursue conservative progress as far as politically viable, leaving tomorrow’s historians to measure his actual success.

Bill Rinner is a senior economics major. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at wrinner@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.