Here we are again in a US Presidential election year.
For political addicts, even ones who think they should probably give up or at least cut down, there’s nothing quite like it. The genuine vibrancy and diversity of US political life, the sense that big questions are still in play and that ideas actually matter, is tremendously exciting for those who are understandably bored by the narrow and managerial nature of British politics.
The excitement really gets going in the spring and summer of the previous year, as various contenders for the party nominations throw their hats into the ring, or don’t, ending speculation that began almost as soon as the polls closed last time round.
Then we have several months of lively public debate. Candidates soar in the polls based on a couple of half-decent speeches, then crash and burn when it’s revealed that they don’t know where France is, or that they believe lizard men are using the Internet to read our thoughts. Frontrunners stumble; no-hopers briefly out-perform all expectation before falling back into the chasing pack.
The true believers make impassioned appeals to their constituencies; the moderates keep their powder dry and hope that their measured, sober approach will show that they are ready for primetime and able to appeal to floating voters. The 2016 cycle is particularly exciting as we are coming to the end of a Presidency, and so both parties are searching for a candidate.
Then we have the primaries and caucuses, those complicated affairs by which each party chooses its nominee for the Presidential race. To an outsider’s eye these can seem bizarre, even perverse, but they add greatly to the gaiety of the nation.
For traditional conservatives attached to the local, the particular, and the idiosyncratic they are especially enjoyable. If you were designing a political system from scratch you might not do it this way, but we very seldom are, thank goodness.
This year has had a particular interest because of the sustained success (thus far) of two insurgent candidates: the inescapable and brash Donald Trump and the old-fashioned socialist Bernie Sanders, who have just scored large victories in New Hampshire.
While they have little in common with one another personally or politically, both are tapping into what appears to be a growing discontent with American elites. This discontent should be treated sympathetically by cultural conservatives, as much of it stems from trends that they too lament: the decline of strong settled communities, the rise of radical individualism, the march of globalism in politics and economics, and the disintegration of the married family.
So who should the discerning traditional conservative hope to see installed in the White House just under a year from now? As ever in politics a perfect candidate is not available, and cultural conservatives will disagree about priorities. It is also true that even the leader of the free world is subject to certain constraints on what he can achieve in office. Barack Obama, for example, has been repeatedly prevented from passing his desired gun control measures by a Republican-controlled Congress.
Nevertheless, a Republican President would be important for some key conservative causes. He could, for example, discontinue the US federal government’s legal action against religious organisations seeking exemptions from the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.
He could co-operate with the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass laws allowing conscientious objection from legislation that unjustly impinges on religious freedom, and veto laws that restrict that freedom. Perhaps most importantly of all, the President has the opportunity to appoint new Supreme Court judges, who make some of the very biggest decisions in US political and cultural life.
It has been said in jest, but with some justification, that the most powerful man in the United States is not the President, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing vote” on the 9-member Court. With four Justices who are reliably conservative on “culture war” issues like abortion, and four who are reliably liberal, a lot depends on which side Kennedy picks.
He wrote the controversial majority opinion in last summer’s Obergefell v Hodges ruling which established gay marriage as a constitutional right, as well as an influential (though nonsensical) passage in one of the Court’s most important rulings on abortion, 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Casey.
Supreme Court Justices serve until death, impeachment or voluntary retirement, so the opportunity to replace them, and thereby shape the court’s decision-making for decades to come, is rare. On average it seems to happen about once every Presidential term (although the court went more than a decade without a change of personnel between 1994 and 2005), so a Republican President could easily have the opportunity to tilt the balance of the Court in a more conservative direction during the 2017-21 term, by replacing an outgoing liberal member with a conservative.
Three of the liberal members of the Court are in their late seventies or early eighties, while only one of the conservative Justices is over seventy. There is a limitation on the President’s power of appointment to the Court—the Senate must confirm all nominees by a simple majority—but the Republicans currently enjoy a 54-46 majority in that chamber.
There are other issues in American politics that may be near to the traditional conservative heart, of course; environmental degradation, the loss of working-class jobs, gun violence, policing, the place of the USA in the world order. But those mentioned earlier are arguably the most urgent in a Western world becoming more and more hostile to the liberties of Christians, to the cultural foundations of our civilisation, and to respect for human life at every stage.
The question is, which candidate might achieve what traditional conservatives are looking for? We can rule out Trump, a loudmouth and demagogue who has few clear policy positions and no history of considered adherence to conservative positions (although we should perhaps think carefully about why so many people have flocked to his banner).
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is better in policy terms, though lacking detailed plans to provide stability for those losing out to economic and cultural liberalism, but he is reputedly difficult and prickly in person and would perhaps struggle to appeal to the nation as a whole in the general election. John Kasich and Jeb Bush are more mainstream Republicans, likely to do the bare minimum possible to keep social and cultural conservatives onside.
The best hope looks like it might be Senator Marco Rubio, his loss of momentum in New Hampshire notwithstanding. Although he is young and inexperienced, and his professed foreign policy is, as I heard one commentator describe it, “George W Bush on steroids”, he is solidly committed to the cause of life and to religious freedom.
He impressed Christians recently with a generous, thoughtful and honest statement of his faith in response to a question from an atheist at a public meeting. The excellent US conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty—who has reservations about Rubio as a candidate—has written insightfully about Rubio’s appeal to Christians.
Speaking for myself, he also carries some of the baggage of US conservatism with which I struggle, but I can mostly live with that given his ability to provide a convincing narrative for conservatism in the US and to be a young, fresh face for the Republicans from a humble immigrant background. Politicians cannot solve all our problems, but they can do a great deal and they can set the tone for smaller-scale efforts in individual communities and areas.
Although perhaps the last word should be left to the author of Psalm 146:
“Put not thy trust in princes”.