Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Fighting for the future of conservativism

Nicholas Wapshott
May 13, 2014 03:15 UTC

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech to placard waving Conservatives during an European election campaign rally at a science park in Bristol

Establishment Republicans have been delighted by the victory of Thom Tillis, their favored candidate in last week’s North Carolina primary. After expensive advertising campaigns by establishment bagmen like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, mainstream conservatives believe they have a candidate who can beat Democrat Kay Hagan to win a valuable Senate seat in November.

Some commentators see Tillis’s triumph as a sign that other impending GOP primary races will also deliver electable candidates. Having watched the Senate slip from Republican grasp in 2012, as Tea Party candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Richard Mourdock in Indiana depicted the party as too extreme, they say the Tea Party is in retreat.

Not so fast. The experience of conservative parties elsewhere suggests that when pragmatists triumph over dogmatists, the dogmatists either regroup and go on to overwhelm the moderates, eventually making the party their own. Or they set up their own party — and trounce the moderates at the ballot box.

ThatcherThat is happening in Britain. The Conservatives, once Britain’s natural governing party, find themselves about to be pressed into third place in the European Parliament elections. They will be runners-up not only to the Labor Party but also to the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, their ideological nemesis. Like the Tea Party, the Independence Party has set itself up as the true conscience of conservatism.

There was a time when the European left was riven over dogma, with middle-ground Social Democrats jostling with hard-line Socialists. In Britain through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a three-way split, with middle-of-the-road Labor candidates noisily fending off assaults from the far left as well as Social Democratic reformers. This left Margaret Thatcher’s Tories free to win three elections in a row.

Rand Paul: The pied piper

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 24, 2014 19:35 UTC

The warm welcome that Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) received from an audience of mostly young Americans at the University of California, Berkeley, last week should send a shiver down the spines of Democrats.

Paul was in the Bay Area ostensibly to complain about the National Security Agency’s snooping on Americans. He described “an intelligence community drunk with power, unrepentant and uninclined to relinquish power.” The crowd applauded as he said, “What you do on your cell phone is none of their damned business.”

His real purpose, however, was to demonstrate to Republican primary voters that he alone is capable of extending the party’s reach beyond its current narrow boundaries. He likened the Republicans to a tarnished brand that had finally turned itself around. “Remember when Domino’s finally admitted they had bad crust?” he said. “Think Republican Party. Admit it. Bad crust. We need a different kind of party.”

Message for Clinton: Look before you leap

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 28, 2014 16:26 UTC

There seems to be a rush to get former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare her run for the presidency.

Two magazine covers last week heralded the arrival of the fully fledged Clinton campaign-in-waiting, outing the nation’s worst-kept political secret: Clinton is considering a run for the presidency. Both tacitly urged her to jump in soon, before the excitement about the inevitability of her run becomes stale.

It all seems a little hasty. The New York Times piece, picturing Clinton’s beaming face imposed on a planet like the man in the moon in vintage children’s books, appeared to take for granted that before long –  the sooner the better, if you don’t mind — Clinton will launch her presidential campaign, win the Democratic nomination, shaking off anyone who dares stand against her and, assuming that Republican candidates remain in disarray, assume her rightful place in the Oval Office.

The end of budget scare politics

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 23, 2013 15:57 UTC

“Are you kidding me!” The cry of anguished disbelief from House Speaker John Boehner has brought down the curtain on a five-year-long battle over public debt that will not be lifted until the presidential election of November 2016.

There may be scuffles and there will be a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but members of the Republican leadership have concluded their attempts to pay down the massive federal government borrowing will be put on hold until they have control of the presidency and both houses of Congress.

This has been a long journey. America already owed a great deal when the financial freeze of 2008 sent the economy over a cliff. To save the nation — and the world — from penury not seen since the Great Depression 80 years before, George W. Bush’s Treasury team ignored the advice of many of their fiscally conservative supporters and proposed that $800 billion more be borrowed and spent without delay.

Enlightening the puzzled Republicans

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 31, 2013 18:00 UTC

Moderate Republicans cannot fathom what has happened to their party.

Once a happy band of no-nonsense, pro-business conservatives, cautious in everything from money to marriage — including their wary response to the onward march of 1960s liberal social values — they were prepared, within reason, to trim their policies to match the voters’ mood. After all, to achieve anything in government you first have to win elections.

But that was before the revival in fundamental conservatism that has turned the GOP from a pragmatic party to a collection of inward-looking ideological tribes. Republicans puzzled by the rise of dogma and division in their party can find answers in a new survey that explains how large the factions are and what they think. They will be surprised by the findings.

The GOP has long been considered a three-legged stool: big business, Southern evangelical Christians and anti-government Westerners. But, largely since the world financial panic of 2008-9, these three have been joined by two new aggressive, popular movements: the Tea Party and the libertarians.

Can Tea Party afford the shutdown cost?

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 23, 2013 20:35 UTC

Victories come in many sizes. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, for example, at first seemed an overwhelming win for the Sioux. But it soon became clear their success would not last. Who really won the Alamo? The Mexicans? Try telling that to a Texan. So, who won the Battle of the Shutdown 2013? The conventional view is that the Tea Party Republicans were seen off by the congressional leadership in both parties. Having made their protest, disrupted the nation and cost Americans a great deal in anxiety, time and treasure, they lost the battle — but promise to resume the war another day. Perhaps as early as January.

While moderation appears to have triumphed and dogmatic extremism held at bay, the 800,000 federal workers and those who need their services were the obvious losers of the budget and debt ceiling battle. But so were those who hoped to derail the Affordable Care Act, freeze federal government spending and balance the budget.

A complete audit of the shutdown, however, shows the Tea Partiers suffered a more profound setback than they would like to admit — or perhaps even know. The exact philosophy of the Tea Party is hardly clear, but in as much as there is a manifesto it states: the government is too big and should shrink; government borrowing is out of control and the nation should live within its means; big business executives are unfairly propped up by government even when they make sizable mistakes; the government should stop manipulating the dollar through quantitative easing, and taxes should be reduced but never be raised.

The GOP’s age of unreason

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 10, 2013 21:00 UTC

If the federal government fails to pay its bills and the interest on its borrowing by the middle of the month, it is the overwhelming verdict of the nation’s smartest economists that financial mayhem will ensue.

Until this week, no one on either side doubted that. In fact, it was implicit in the Republican case for using the debt ceiling as a lever to cut public spending. Only with the threat of Armageddon in the markets and the prospect of a return to the Crash of 2008 did the Republican bartering made any sense.

Now the looser cannons on the GOP deck have changed their tune. At last count, seven House members and six senators have suggested the government can remain shut down in perpetuity and America can fail to make interest payments on its borrowing and nothing much will happen.

Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 20, 2013 14:44 UTC

As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president’s blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president’s bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. “I’m in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare,” he said.

On Syria, Obama shouldn’t text while he’s driving

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 17, 2013 15:50 UTC

The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: “The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored.” And here is Haass’s final verdict on the president’s dillydallying: “Words like ‘ad-hoc,’ ‘improvised,’ ‘unsteady’ come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of “style.”

He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but “folks here in Washington.” “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear [the 'folks in Washington’] would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

The isolationists’ dilemma

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 5, 2013 15:33 UTC

There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn’t been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.

The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries’ affairs in Washington and Jefferson’s warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler’s war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.

Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.

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