STEALTH CONSERVATISM….In my post this morning about liberal goals, I mentioned that one of the problems facing Democrats is that “Republicans are mostly nibbling around the edges, not taking a chainsaw to liberal programs.” And why is this a problem? Because it’s hard to mobilize widespread opposition to conservative policies when they’re put into place a little bit at a time. It’s the old boiling frog problem.

Via Tapped, though, Jeffrey Rosen at the New Republic provides an example of a related but different problem for Democrats, one that I briefly touched on a year ago. The problem is this: modern conservatives are largely trying to implement their policies via stealth. It’s not always clear what they’re up to, and even when it is, it’s way too complex to explain what’s going on to the average voter.

Rosen’s article is about the conservative project to overhaul the judiciary. Abortion, he says, is just a red herring:

In fact, what is at stake in the election is not the future of Roe v. Wade, school prayer, or any of the culture-war issues that have inflamed the country since the 1970s….If Bush wins, his aides seem determined to select justices who would resurrect what they call “the Constitution in Exile,” reimposing meaningful limits on federal power that could strike at the core of the regulatory state for the first time since the New Deal.

….In 1995…the Supreme Court began taking tentative steps toward resurrecting some of the constitutional limitations on the regulatory state that had been dormant since the ’30s….Nevertheless, the Rehnquist Court’s so-called federalism revolution has not yet delivered what the conservatives hoped. Every time the conservative justices have appeared on the brink of striking down a federal statute with real political support, such as the Environmental Protection Act, O’Connor or Kennedy have written hedging opinions reassuring moderates that the Court intends to challenge congressional power only at the margins.

….Taken to its logical limits, the Constitution in Exile would call into question not only environmental protections but workplace regulations like the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Furthermore, in the hands of a determined Bush majority on the Supreme Court, Congress’s power to ban discrimination might be challenged as well.

Other examples of stealth programs include the implicit voucherization of public education in the No Child Left Behind Act, the administration’s embrace of the Orwellian “Data Quality Act,” and the Medicare “competition” plan slipped into the prescription drug bill last year, a plan that’s both reviled by Republicans themselves and not slated to start until Bush is safely out of office in 2010.

The comparison with liberal programs is instructive. The point of the Social Security Act really was to provide pensions to old people. The point of the Civil Rights Act really was to eliminate discrimination. The purpose of Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan really was to provide national healthcare. Win or lose, there was no stealth involved.

But conservatives are increasingly unwilling to say what they really want and risk public opinion in an up or down vote. After all, if they wanted to reduce congressional regulation or repeal OSHA, they could just introduce a bill to reduce congressional regulation or repeal OSHA. They control both houses of Congress and the presidency, remember? But that would be unpopular, so they don’t do it.

I don’t have a clue how to make this stuff simple enough that it becomes an electoral winner for liberals. Eventually, of course, when it becomes clear what conservatives are up to, they’ll lose public support. But it would be a lot better if we could make it clear now so we don’t have to clean up the mess it leaves in another decade or two.

I’m just not sure how to do that.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!