Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey wrote in his book, Armey's Axioms, “When we act like them, we lose. When we act like us, we win.” Such words seem appropo after the 2008 general election. However, there is so much more to those words today than when they were written.
I cannot tell you how many times during the Bush Administration, political staffers at the state and federal level would seemingly say the same thing, 'I didn't sign up for this.' From the ill-executed war in Iraq to the prescription drug plan to the recent government bailout, many Republicans – both grassroots and professionals alike were caught off-guard by the brand of conservatism and, thus, the brand of Republicanism being executed at the highest levels of our government. And, worse yet, it was for the world to see. But, in his defense, President Bush didn't do it alone. He had a lot of help.
President Bush's proclamation of “compassionate conservatism” when he ran for office in 2000 was great rhetoric and a wonderful mission statement. However, Republicans failed to understand that it actually meant something. Compassionate conservatism meant spending – a lot of spending on government programs. It meant deficits and increased debt. It meant a foreign policy that focused on American exceptionalism and a Wilsonian offense spreading democracy around the world rather than a peace through strength national defense policy. In short, it was a brand of conservatism with which many Republicans were uncomfortable. It was not the brand of conservatism that built a center right America. However, he was “our guy” and they kept their lips sealed.
Now, in the wake of the recent elections, both grassroots and professional Republicans are asking, “where do we go from here?” Pundits have been busy today arguing whether Republicans and conservatives should revert back to their principles and become more partisan, thus, playing the role of loyal opposition? Or, should they acquiesce and work with the increased majorities of the House, Senate and new President-Elect Obama. Oddly, the answer can be and should be - both.
For years, conservatives have tried to indicate their political leanings by expressing themselves as Paleo-conservatives and Neo-conservatives. These designations spoke to the type of conservatism they believed in. As described by Wikipedia, Neo-Conservatives were/are, “a modern form of conservatism that supports a more assertive foreign policy, aimed at supporting American business interests abroad.” Paleo-Conservatives were/ are described as, “arising in the 1980s in reaction to neoconservatism, stresses tradition, especially Christian tradition and the importance to society of the traditional family.”
But, as President-elect Obama plainly put it, “Change has come to America.” This must be with the Republican Party and conservative movement, too. We can revert back to our most fundamental traditions, principles and philosophies; be a loyal opposition when warranted and work with the new majorities in the House and Senate at the same time. How? It won't be because of re-branding an image or reinventing the wheel. It will be by returning to our roots; a center right roots of thinkers and philosophers that ushered us into a time of peace and prosperity. We need to look to the past writings of Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, Richard Weaver, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
In these writings we will find a stark contrast with modern conservatism most recently on display. We will find a place in the very first chapter of Russell Kirk's book, The Politics of Prudence, a proclamation that conservatism is, in fact, the lack of ideology. It is not partisan but reasoned. It is not argumentative or “gotcha” but measured. It is a far cry from the conservatism contemporaries have come to know. Further, we will find a reason for a just and moral order in our society for the sake of shared interest and partnership toward a shared future – not to force dogmatic practices on an unwilling citizenry.
In other writings from Hayek and Mises we will find a proven direction to build prosperity without taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In Burke, we will find a role for regulation without over-regulating to the point where we choke a small business' or individual's opportunity to make a profit. In Weaver, we find that ideas have consequences. Every decision carries with it levels of impact. But, as Weaver notes, “All work is a bringing of the ideal from potentiality into actuality.” We work together.
As a collection, we find a place where minorities have a home through public policies that directly benefit them and a place where they are not only welcome but are relied upon. We find a proper role for government while not intruding into peoples' personal lives or asking them to give up their liberties in the name of national security. We find a place for achieving peace through strength without active nation building or misdirecting aggression; not confusing offense with defense . We find a place for a limited social safety net while still relying on the hard work and individual responsibility of every able citizen because the greater we limit the fall, conversely, the greater we must limit the success. And, we find a place where we are truly “our brother's keeper” but a keeper by choice – not by government force.
In this time, we can begin anew to read and understand and share what traditional conservatism is and what it was meant to be. We need our state and federal leaders to do the same and be able to practice and articulate it. In this, we will be able to work with a President Obama when he has it right and serve as a loyal opposition when he has it wrong. Rather than a partisan approach – we show what a reasoned, measured and prudent approach to public policy looks like. More importantly, we will show our citizens and the rest of the world what we were supposed to be; what our movement was built to be and what our Party quit trying to be. At the very least, we will most certainly find a brand of conservatism that most of America agrees with – they just haven't seen it in a quite a while.