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GOP 'Fusionism' Comes Un-Fused

By Robert Tracinski

The battle in the Democratic primaries is less over the substance of the party's soul than over its style. Some critics have faulted Barack Obama for clinging to woozy generalities in his speeches rather than taking clear stands on the issues. But what would be the point of that? Senator Obama has little to say on the substance of his policies that would actually differentiate him from Senator Clinton. What they differ on is not so much the content of what they say, but the freshness and sincerity with which they believe it.


This is not the case for the Republicans. The battle for the Republican soul is on much more substantive, profound, and irreconcilable issues. The Republicans are not battling over style, but over the party's basic beliefs and priorities.


The essence of the dilemma on the Republican side is that "fusionism" is coming un-fused.

The modern conservative movement was created by forging an alliance between religious traditionalists, pro-free-marketers, and foreign policy hawks. The idea that held this coalition together was the theory of "fusionism," championed by National Review in the 1950 and 1960s. Fusionism was the idea that these three wings of conservatism could not only find common cause but could cobble themselves together into a semi-integrated ideology. The theory was that the religionists would defend traditional American culture, which would provide the cultural support for the ideals of limited government and American patriotism.


But the current election has prompted a lot of concern, particularly at National Review, that this arrangement isn't working. Jonah Goldberg, for example, worries that "Huckabeeism"--the combination of religious politics with populist anti-capitalist rhetoric--"threatens to unfuse fusionism." David Freddoso frets that "A two-way knock-down-drag-out fight between Huckabee and Giuliani could completely destroy the coalition that Ronald Reagan built by combining social and economic conservatives with anti-Communists."


They are right to be worried. The current primary campaign is a threat to fusionism. But it is not the candidates' fault, nor is it the voters'. The problem is the inherent instability of fusionism itself.


For a while, Rudy Giuliani was considered the main threat to the conservative coalition. As a pro-choice hawk campaigning on a pro-free-market platform, he was seen as trying to run on two wings of the coalition while driving away the third. But the more powerful threat to the conservative coalition has come, not from a secular politician like Giuliani, but from the leading candidate of the religious wing.


Mike Huckabee is splitting apart fusionism by pushing for the whole agenda of the religious conservatives while standing for pro-welfare-state, anti-free-trade economic populism. He is citing his religion, not only as the basis for banning "gay marriage," but also as the basis for what Jonah Goldberg has called "compassionate conservatism on steroids."


Huckabee is the main driver of the dissolution of the "fusionist" coalition. But each of the other major candidates is undermining fusionism in his own way.


There is no doubt about John McCain's credentials as a foreign policy hawk. He advocated the "surge" in Iraq before President Bush did, and at a campaign event last year he famously invoked what I call the Beach Boys Doctrine, replacing the lyrics of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" with "Bomb, bomb, bomb--bomb, bomb Iran." But McCain has a history of antagonism toward the religious right dating back to the 2000 primaries. And McCain cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as pro-free-market--not when he opposed President Bush's tax cuts and has been a tireless promoter of the global warming hysteria with its demand for massive new energy rationing. (Conservative writers are just beginning to draw attention to this fact.) You can't campaign as a pro-free-marketer when you propose to ban the incandescent light bulb, force everyone into hybrid cars, and put a legislative cap on the nation's energy production.


Ron Paul is not a major candidate and arguably is not even a genuine Republican. (He is a political opportunist who last ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket.) But he chips away at fusionism in his own small way, adding a distinctive twist: in economic policy, he campaigns for the gold standard and the abolition of taxes, while in foreign policy he adopts the blame-America-first pacifism of the far left.


In answer to all of this, Rudy Guiliani has just come out with a proposal for "the biggest tax cut in American history," accompanied by "a 5 to 10 percent reduction in spending at federal agencies." It is an attempt to establish himself as the staunchest pro-free-marketer in the race--but one who is unacceptable to many on the religious right.


There are only two candidates who could be considered examples of "fusionism." Fred Thompson can make a plausible claim to be acceptable to all elements of the conservative coalition--but he has so far run such a low-energy campaign that he has not earned the enthusiasm of any of them.


The other remaining fusionist is Romney--but nobody believes him. He is not credible to the religionists because he was pro-choice when he ran for governor of Massachusetts; he's not credible to free-marketers because he sponsored that state's scheme for government-mandated, government-controlled, government-subsidized health insurance; and he's not especially credible to hawks because he has no record or history on foreign policy.


So consider the line-up: if you're a pro-free-marketer, you've got Rudy--but you can't trust Romney, you know McCain is dangerous, and Huckabee denounces you as a member of the "Club for Greed." If you're a hawk, you've got Rudy and McCain and maybe Romney--but Huckabee sounds too much like Jimmy Carter. And if you're a religious conservative, you're thrilled with Huckabee, but you're suspicious of McCain, you don't trust Romney, and Rudy is at best barely tolerable.


There's no fusion here. There is certainly an intersection between the hawks and the pro-free-marketers--but there is no intersection that joins them to the religionists.


This is not an accident. There is no such intersection in this election because the secular and religious concerns of the right are, in fact, incompatible.


Fusionism is failing because its basic premise--that the moral foundations of free markets and Americanism can be left to the religious traditionalists--is false. For five decades, conservatives have ceded to the religious right the job of providing the moral fire to sustain their movement. But they are discovering that the religious right does not have a strong moral commitment to free markets. In fact, with Huckabee as its new spokesman, the religious right seems to be working on its own version of "fusion"--with the religious left.


The reason is that religion cannot support the real basis for capitalism and a strong American national defense: a morality of rational self-interest. Christianity is too deeply committed to a philosophy of self-abnegation, a destructive morality that urges men to renounce any interest in worldly goods and to turn the other check in the face of aggression. The early Christian saints, for example, abandoned all material comforts and lived in caves--which is to say that their closest contemporary disciples are the radical environmentalists. As for foreign policy, St. Augustine spent a fair bit of his massive apologia for Christianity, The City of God, explaining to the Romans that being sacked by barbarians was good for them because it taught them the virtue of humility and cured them of their attachment to material wealth.


I'm not sure what answer you would get if you asked "what would Jesus do" if he were alive today. But I'm pretty certain the answers would not include: "seek venture capital for a high-tech start-up," "negotiate an import deal for Chinese-made flat-screen TVs," or "manage a hedge fund." Which is too bad, because these are the activities that achieve, in reality, what the loaves and the fishes never could.


We live at the end of two centuries of evidence for the triumph of capitalism. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England, to the rise of the "Asian Tigers," to the impact of global capitalism in India and China--everywhere capitalism has spread, human life has been radically transformed for the better. And we live at the end of a century that amply demonstrated the failures of socialism. As I pointed out in commenting on the Democratic candidates, the left has never learned the moral lessons of this history--but neither has the right. Tricked by the fusionists into outsourcing moral questions to the guardians of religious tradition, the right has never been able to properly develop the moral case for rational self-interest--which means they never developed the moral case for the profit motive, property rights, and the free market. Many on the right are implicitly sympathetic to capitalism, sensing its virtues--but, thanks to "fusionism," unable to articulate them. And this means that they have never been able to turn the defense of free markets into a moral crusade.


Even worse, the "fusionists" turned away the one intellectual who could have helped them do so. National Review made a special effort to expel Ayn Rand and her followers from the right because her atheism threatened their fusionist agenda--even though she was the most powerful advocate for the morality of free markets.


The result of this failure is that we're entering a presidential election that is likely to revolve around three main issues: the War on Terrorism, socialized medicine, and massive new global warming regulations. Yet rather than rallying around a candidate who will effectively oppose the left on all of these issues, the Republicans are fragmented in a battle between their religious wing and the pro-free-marketers. And that battle may yet produce a candidate who can out-quote the Bible to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a prayer breakfast, but who will "me-too" the Democrats on environmentalism and the welfare state.


To escape this dilemma in the short term, the Republican Party's best bet is to nominate Rudy Giuliani rather than Mike Huckabee. To escape it in the long term, the intellectuals of the right need to devote much more time and attention to the secular moral case for liberty and capitalism--which would finally allow them to stand on their own two feet ideologically, without feeling the need to be "fused" to a religious movement that has shown itself incapable of offering a foundation for these ideals.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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