The Long View 2006-11-06: The Zombies in Retreat

John Reilly used to poke fun at the sclerotic state of Republican economic policy with the phrase “capital gains zombies”. Gains…gainssss!

I see that twelve years later, this idea is still current:

The alliance of social conservatives with the business lobby in the United States is contingent. If the Trump era Supreme Court really does blow up Roe v. Wade, this could very well be one of the things that gets blown up with it.


The Zombies in Retreat

A proper catastrophe for the Republicans in the election of 2006 might have been better. It would have given the Democrats the responsibility to actually make policy, and it would once and for all have decapitated the Long-Term Capital Gains Zombies that have for many years prevented the formation of a real conservative party. Still, the carefully nuanced decision that the electorate made in this election was probably the best available. I note in particular two Senate races. This result is most important for the immediate future:

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000 but running as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, kept his seat from Connecticut, despite his earlier support for the war in Iraq.

"This puts Joe Lieberman, without question, in the catbird seat," says CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer (audio). If you have a closely divided Senate ... everybody is going to be wanting Joe Lieberman's vote.

"And let's not forget, Democrats turned their backs on Joe Lieberman, after he decided to become an independent, so he really doesn't owe them," Schieffer adds.

The other important result was the rather humiliating defeat in Pennsylvania of incumbent Senator Rick Santorum by Bob Casey: 41% to 59%. Why was this? Because both candidates were social conservatives, and on economic and social-welfare issues, Santorum was a "small-government conservative." The electorate has gathered by now that "small-government conservative" means someone with no plans to make their lives easier or safer.

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If social issues seemed less prominent in this election than in 2004, that's because the Democrats seemed to concede them. Of course, we do see efforts reported, to spin the results to suggest that social conservatism is a weakening force, but the results do not bear that interpretation:

In a triple setback for conservatives, South Dakotans rejected a law that would have banned virtually all abortions, Arizona became the first state to defeat an amendment to ban gay marriage and Missouri approved a measure backing stem cell research...Eight states voted on amendments to ban gay marriage: Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin approved them. Similar amendments have passed previously in all 20 states to consider them.

I have had occasion to comment previously on the folly of the South Dakota law. Popular sentiment will not tolerate the recriminalization of abortion, and popular sentiment is right: abortion can and should be largely eliminated through the ordinary disciplinary mechanisms of medical ethics, once the standards are returned to historical norms. Doing that will require getting rid of Rove v. Wade, which is challenge enough. The South Dakota criminal law was an expensive self-indulgence. It failed to stop abortion in the state; now abortion proponents will be able to argue, falsely I think, that the state is libertarian on the issue.

Regarding embryonic stem-cell research: it's a scam that will peter out in due course. And as for gay marriage, I am surprised that so many of the marriage-defense initiatives have done so well in such a variety of states. The Arizona result is a blip. The trend is otherwise.

Be this all as it may, the Democrats ran as well as they did in large part because they ran social conservatives in districts where local sentiment required it. One may question how much impact these people will have in the new Congress. Maybe there will be the sort of evolution that Ralph Reed described in the Republican Party of the 1970s: people who were embraced by the party on the supposition that they were poor, ignorant, and easily led eventually wound up running the place, or some parts of it. It's harder to imagine that happening with the Democrats, however. The leadership of the post-Goldwater Republican Party really did not have strong opinions on social issues, so they were willing enough to defer to the evangelicals and Catholics on these matters. In contrast, an important faction of the Democratic Party has no other reason for being except to promote the Bohemian cultural agenda. They cannot give an inch.

When the Democratic social conservatives understand that that is the case, they will look across the aisle and see some of their Republican colleagues struggling to escape the embrace of the surviving Capital Gains Zombies. The question is whether the genuine centers of the parties can cooperate and still leave the parties intact.

The Capital Gains Zombies themselves may well decide that Second Amendment and libertarian conservatives are easier prey than the pro-lifers. We could easily see a situation in which the Democratic Party becomes more religious while the Republicans become less.

* * *

Nancy Pelosi is no Newt Gingrich, for better or worse. Gingrich made such an impact because he took the chair as Speaker of the House with a coherent ideology and the ambition to govern as prime minister to a figurehead President Clinton. Today, although there are some specific items of various degrees of merit on the Democratic "to do" list, they do not constitute a legislative agenda. The Democrats ran against the president; there is no popular demand that they do anything in particular now that their position has been strengthened. That is true even about Iraq. The people are tired of waking up and hearing every morning that another 19-year-old has been killed by a roadside bomb. They are particularly tired of hearing only that from Iraq, while the Bush Administration seems to find time to talk only about Zombie business. Neither the Democrats nor the people who elected them have any particular idea about what to do in Iraq. The Bush Administration may well have some idea: perhaps now they will enlighten us.

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When I was thinking about writing this entry, I had contemplated using the lede, "I for one welcome our new insect overlords," this in homage to the Simpsons episode in which television-news anchor Kent Bronkman surrenders on the air to what he mistakenly believes to be an invasion of giant ants from outer space. A glance at Instapundit this morning, however, revealed the headline I for one welcome our new Democratic overlords, which links to the same sort of graphic I had also considered making. Then I checked Language Log, and saw how many thousands of times that variations of that phrase have been used online.

Just once I would like to have an original idea. Just once.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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