By Steven T. Jones
As the Republican presidential candidates debate one another tonight (Thursday), they're all likely to try to position themselves as "Reagan conservatives," as distinguished from the corrupt and incompetent conservatism of George W. Bush. Republican political operatives have worked hard to transform Ronald Reagan into a mythically important figure that brought conservatism into the political mainstream and saved the country from the commies. More recently, they have worked to de-link conservatism from the failed Bush presidency, even though W has pushed more consistently conservative policies than the hallowed Reagan.
Enter Campaign for America's Future, which has kicked off its The Big Con project to argue that conservatism has failed in the U.S. In a conference call with reporters this morning, the campaign laid out its strategy for convincing Americans that they've been fooled and lied to and that the most serious problems facing the country are caused by conservatism.
"We tend to focus on the incompetence and corruption, but it's about conservatism," said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future. The Iraq War, global warming, tax cuts for the wealthy that create hardships for the poor and middle class, skyrocketing debt and trade imbalances, the deteriorating health care system, corporations shouldering a declining share of the tax burden, rampant consumer anxiety, government's inability to effectively regulate industry or respond to disasters like Hurricane Katrina -- all are direct result of conservative policies and priorities.
"Government isn't the solution, government is the problem," is the central conservative tenet, first pushed in the early '60s by Barry Goldwater and then popularized by Reagan, self-interested corporations, pandering politicians, and propagandists like Rush Limbaugh. The campaign now intends to confront that premise head on, starting tomorrow when Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect (who was also on this morning's call) will debate William Kristol of the Weekly Standard at the National Press Club.
"We're throwing down the gauntlet," Kuttner said. And from there, the strategy is to confront conservatism on the airwaves, in the statehouses, or wherever it rears its ugly head. They think they can be successful, largely because polls are starting to show a majority of Americans voicing increasing support for progressive values and policies, even those who still call themselves conservatives. So now is the time to win the argument and discredit conservatives with the same vigor that they used in the '80s and '90s to attack liberalism.
E.J. Graff of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University explained the fight will turn on the campaign's ability to convince people that government needs to be part of the solution to big problems like global warming, the health care crisis, and war. People need to begin to realize that these are shared problems, not individual ones, and therefore they require the kinds of cooperative, collaborative, international, forward-thinking approaches that are the antithesis of conservatism.
Frankly, if they can get the mainstream media and political systems to listen, it shouldn't be a difficult case to make. We wish them luck.