Roger’s Rules

More on NY 23

My sunny thoughts about the once-again great states of New Jersey (welcome, Governor Christie!) and Virginia (ditto, Governor McDonnell!) are not displaced by the (to me) disappointing and (to everyone) surprising news that Doug Hoffman lost to Bill Owens in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.

There has been a great deal of hand wringing and pundit-izing over that result: How did it happen? Why? What does it mean? If you work for Barack Obama, it means that the entire country is still drunk on his promises of Hope-n-Change while the defeat of Messrs. Jon Corzine and that chap–what’s his name?–from Virginia tell us absolutely nothing about the mood of the country. Poor Nancy Pelosi, who has progressed from the surreal to the positively delusional, seems to have regarded election 2009 as a victory for the Democrats. I hope we’ll be seeing more such victories next year and in 2012.

But back to Doug Hoffman. What happened? After super-RINO Dede Scozzafava crashed, burned, and dropped out of the race, many commentators supposed that by endorsing the Democrat Owens she merely underscored her own petulance and political irrelevance. Hoffman’s surge in the polls, they thought, would carry him all the way to victory. Well, it didn’t happen, Why? My friend Roger Simon spoke for many when he suggested that Hoffman’s patent social conservatism was the issue and, ultimately, the kiss of death. “America,” Roger argues, “is a fiscally conservative country — now perhaps more than ever, and with much justification — but not a socially conservative one.” Not, he hastens to add, that it is socially liberal: “It’s not. It’s socially laissez-faire (just as its mostly fiscally laissez-faire). Whether we’re pro-choice, pro-life or whatever we are, most of us want the government out of our bedrooms, just as we want it out of our wallets.”

According to Roger,

Hoffman’s capital-C Conservative campaign . . . tried to separate itself from the majority parties by making a big deal of the social issues. He was all upset that Scozzafava was pro-gay marriage, seemingly as upset as he was with her support for the stimulus plan. He projected the image of a bluenose in a world that increasingly doesn’t want to hear about these things. Hoffman’s is a selective vision of the nanny state — you can nanny about some things but not about others. I suspect America deeply dislikes nannying about anything.

I wish Roger were right about Americans disliking “nannying about anything.” Alas, I suspect many Americans crave it more and more. As exhibit A, I direct your attention to what happened elsewhere in New York: in New York City, Michael Bloomberg, a veritable black belt nannier, was elected to a third term. This is the man, remember, who outlawed smoking, who tells you what sort of fat you may eat, who frowns upon salt, who puts cameras in taxicabs and on the street, and who volunteers to help Santa Claus each Christmas to determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

I suspect that the real issues were not Hoffman’s conservatism but his heavy-handedness and public persona. Those are different things from his social conservatism. I am at one with Roger about the evils of the nanny state. As Marianne Moore said of modern poetry, “I too dislike it.” But moral vision is not something that can be completely privatized and survive. This is something that James Fitzjames Stephen, the great critic of John Stuart Mill, saw with penetrating clarity:

Strenuously preach and rigorously practise the doctrine that our neighbor’s private character is nothing to us, and the number of unfavorable judgments formed, and therefore the number of inconveniences inflicted by them can be reduced as much as we please, and the province of liberty can be enlarged in corresponding ratio. Does any reasonable man wish for this? Could anyone desire gross licentiousness, monstrous extravagance, ridiculous vanity, or the like, to be unnoticed, or, being known, to inflict no inconveniences which can possibly be avoided?

As Stephen dryly observes, pace Mill, “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.”

My own suspicion is that Doug Hoffman lost not because he made a big deal of his conservative positions but (leaving Scozzafava’s treachery to one side) he was rhetorically inept.

There’s more, much more, to be said about the constituents of a vital conservatism. For the moment I merely want to put in a word for some of the elements Hoffman articulated, even if he did so ineptly.