Let’s try to figure out where we go from here.
Remember what it was like at the beginning of the 2000s? It was conservative Republicans who were filled with hope and a desire for change. Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his scandal-scarred administration, and Al Gore and Bill Bradley were dueling over who could move the country to the left more effectively. The Republican primary started off with a host of pretenders to Ronald Reagan’s throne, but soon settled into a brawl between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain.
Bush won that brutal contest and eventually defeated Al Gore in the Electoral College, after the US Supreme Court pulled the plug on the circus in Florida. Once Bush was officially declared the winner, conservatives looked to the next few years with unbridled optimism: with Republicans in control of the House, Senate and White House, the right finally had the chance to rollback decades of progressive excess.
Bush was to be the JFK of the right—a young and vibrant leader ready to lead the country to a new frontier of domestic freedom and international strength. January 20, 2001 was to be a moment of renewal for the country—a time when America would regain its rationality, its civility, its moral integrity.
What happened to that moment? Why was it squandered? Why did conservatives and Republicans fail to keep their eyes on the prize?
The 2000s were supposed to be a conservative decade. Instead, the effort to liberate the country from liberalism was derailed—by a great fire in New York that motivated conservatives to support an expensive and ineffectively-prosecuted war in Iraq, by the intimidating power of the progressive media, by a President that was not actually committed to limiting the size and scope of the federal government. Lacking in focus and lacking in resolve, conservatives made the ghastly mistake of excusing Bush’s flaws even as average Americans found themselves unable to ignore his weaknesses.
The conservative moment of January 2001 lasted for mere seconds. At the beginning of the Bush administration, conservatives believed in reducing income taxes, eliminating government waste and protecting the nation from attack; by the end of the Bush administration, conservatives apparently believed in remaining loyal to incompetent government officials, implementing borrow-and-spend economic policies and compelling foreign countries to embrace democracy. No wonder so many Americans fell into Barack Obama’s open arms.
This was a wasted decade for the American right, and especially for the Republican Party. Are we in for more of the same over the next ten years?
Hopefully not. If optimism is indeed a fundamental tenet of conservatism, then one has to believe that the GOP and the American right will get it right—and that the development of a coherent, credible conservative message, and the recruitment of new men and women to deliver that message, will lead to electoral victory and political accomplishments in the 2010s.
Can such a “coherent, credible conservative message” be developed? Yes. However, in order to do so, we have to resolve the image problems and internal contradictions of modern conservatism.
A few months back, former National Review contributor David Frum visited the Latin School of Chicago to discuss the current political climate, specifically his concern that voting patterns established in one’s youth are hard to alter as one gets older. Two students at the elite high school told Frum they rejected the Republican Party because the party’s message came across as exclusionary and hypocritical—opposed to women’s rights and gay rights, deeply hostile to science, concerned about Obama’s reckless spending while dismissive of George W. Bush’s, etc. How did the Republican Party—and, by extension, the conservative movement—acquire this negative reputation?
It seems that conservatives and Republicans have largely lost the ability to successfully communicate their views to the wider population. Ronald Reagan was able to reach out to those who disagreed with key elements of his message, but in the two decades since Reagan left office, the American right has turned inward, no longer bothering to convert more Americans to its cause.
It’s easier to speak to those who already agree with you. It’s also lazier. Somewhere along the line, it became the right’s unofficial policy to simply declare that America was a center-right nation, instead of doing the hard work required to make America a country in which conservatism is truly the default political template.
There is a belief that conservatives and Republicans need President Obama to fail spectacularly in order to make a full political comeback—but why does it have to be this way? Can’t conservatives and Republicans win again simply by building a better mousetrap?
Of course they can—if they use the right tools.
“Participatory democracy requires popular deliberation,” Matthew Spalding notes in his 2009 book We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future. But our political discourse too often is stifled by the political correctness of self-appointed social critics on the one hand and the closed-minded ideology of single-issue advocates on the other. Neither makes a real attempt to persuade or listen. The debate among our political leaders is more narrowly partisan than it is broadly political, driven by immediate interests more than considerations of the common good. Rather than throwing up our hands and withdrawing from the public debate, though, we need to engage it in new ways by making a clear and forthright defense of core principles, applying them creatively to the questions of the day, supporting positions consistent with those principles, and generally reframing the national debate about the most serious issues before us. We need more popular scholarship and scholarly popular writing that is accessible and compelling to the general public, designed to shape the public mind and not just contribute to the dusty shelves of university libraries or the passing attention of the latest website.”
Once core conservative principles are clearly defined, it shouldn’t be that hard to defend those principles. Of course, it might be hard if conservatives are too exhausted from trying to determine exactly what those principles should be.
Is “limited government” a conservative principle? If so, it hasn’t been adhered to by recent Republican administrations. Even Ronald Reagan was unable to scale back the size and scope of the federal government. As Steven Hayward notes in his 2009 book The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989, “Reagan was more successful in rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire chiefly because the latter is a harder problem. While the partisan Democratic House that Reagan faced through his entire eight years was an important factor, it does not entirely explain Reagan’s failures. Rolling back big government was a harder problem for constitutional reasons, but also because of public opinion. The experience of the 1990s, after the Gingrich revolution delivered both houses of Congress to Republicans, suggests the public doesn’t support shrinking the government to the same extent that the conservative movement does. Conservatives resist facing this problem directly and openly, preferring to deploy expanded versions of the sound critiques from public choice theory to explain why the public really doesn’t like big government but can’t break the ‘iron triangle’ that preserves big government piecemeal. This is a cop-out.”
If “limited government” is truly a fantasy, then it might be wiser for conservatives and Republicans to position themselves as supporters of better government, in contrast to the hackerama and waste of progressive Democrats. As Hayward suggests, the average person is not opposed to big government per se, just inefficient big government. If conservatives and Republicans began to place more of a rhetorical focus on maximizing government efficiency instead of peddling fairy tales about cutting the size and scope of government, perhaps the percentage of self-identified conservatives in this country would rise above forty percent.
The Republicans didn’t exactly demonstrate a commitment to maximizing government efficiency during the Bush years; if conservatives and Republicans are serious about converting more Americans to their vision, they must be willing to acknowledge that the last Republican President deviated from that vision.
Former Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett has set the template for the rest of the right in this regard, pointing out how Bush led conservatism to its low point in the late-2000s. In a November 20, 2009 Forbes.com article, Bartlett noted that Bush torpedoed the GOP’s credibility on fiscal-responsibility issues with the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. “Recall the situation in 2003,” Bartlett noted. “The Bush administration was already projecting the largest deficit in American history--$475 billion in fiscal year 2004, according to the July 2003 mid-session budget review. But a big election was coming up that Bush and his party were desperately fearful of losing. So they decided to win it by buying the votes of America's seniors by giving them an expensive new program to pay for their prescription drugs.
“Recall, too, that Medicare was already broke in every meaningful sense of the term,” Bartlett continued. “According to the 2003 Medicare trustees report, spending for Medicare was projected to rise much more rapidly than the payroll tax as the baby boomers retired. Consequently, the rational thing for Congress to do would have been to find ways of cutting its costs. Instead, Republicans voted to vastly increase them--and the federal deficit--by $395 billion between 2004 and 2013…Even with a deceptively low estimate of the drug benefit's cost, there were still a few Republicans in the House of Representatives who wouldn't roll over and play dead just to buy re-election. Consequently, when the legislation came up for its final vote on Nov. 22, 2003, it was failing by 216 to 218 when the standard 15-minute time allowed for voting came to an end.
“What followed was one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history. The vote was kept open for almost three hours while the House Republican leadership brought massive pressure to bear on the handful of principled Republicans who had the nerve to put country ahead of party. The leadership even froze the C-SPAN cameras so that no one outside the House chamber could see what was going on…the Medicare drug benefit was a pure giveaway with a gross cost greater than either the House or Senate health reform bills how being considered. Together the new bills would cost roughly $900 billion over the next 10 years, while Medicare Part D will cost $1 trillion.
“Moreover, there is a critical distinction--the drug benefit had no dedicated financing, no offsets and no revenue-raisers; 100% of the cost simply added to the federal budget deficit, whereas the health reform measures now being debated will be paid for with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, adding nothing to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office…I don't mean to suggest that Democrats are any better when it comes to the deficit, although they have a better case for saying so based on the contrasting fiscal records of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The national debt belongs to both parties. But at least the Democrats don't go on Fox News day after day proclaiming how fiscally conservative they are, and organize tea parties to rant about deficits, without ever putting forward any plan for reducing them. Nor do they pretend that they have no responsibility whatsoever for projected deficits, at least half of which can be traced directly to Republican policies, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag. It astonishes me that a party enacting anything like the drug benefit would have the chutzpah to view itself as fiscally responsible in any sense of the term.”
In a November 25, 2009 Forbes.com piece, Bartlett again held the GOP accountable, this time over the issue of war funding: “In recent years, Republicans have been characterized by two principal positions: They like starting wars and don't like paying for them. George W. Bush initiated two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but adamantly refused to pay for either of them by cutting non-military spending or raising taxes. Indeed, at his behest, Congress actually cut taxes and established a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D…Bush and his party, which controlled Congress from 2001 to 2006, never asked for sacrifices from anyone except those in our nation's military and their families. I think that's because the Republicans understood, implicitly, that the American people's support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has always been paper thin. Asking them to sacrifice through higher taxes, domestic spending cuts or reinstatement of the draft would surely have led to massive protests akin to those during the Vietnam era or to political defeat in 2004. George W. Bush knew well that when his father raised taxes in 1990 in part to pay for the first Gulf War, it played a major role in his 1992 electoral defeat.
“Consequently, Republicans resolved to fight our wars on the cheap and with deceptive cost estimates,” Bartlett continued. “On the eve of war in December 2002, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Mitch Daniels claimed that the war in Iraq could be fought at a total cost of $50 billion to $60 billion. Indeed, Bush even fired his top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, for saying publicly that the war might cost between $100 billion and $200 billion.
“Of course, both Daniels and Lindsey grossly underestimated the actual cost. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost close to $1 trillion thus far. That is exactly what economists not on the White House payroll expected…In his 2008 book, What a President Should Know, Lindsey said that lowballing the cost of the war was a ‘tactical blunder’ because it allowed Bush's enemies to claim that he lied us into war. But at the same time, Lindsey acknowledges that the administration never rose to ‘Churchillian levels in talking about the sacrifices needed.’ He also says that asking for sacrifice in the form of spending cuts and tax increases would have served the important purpose of involving the American people in the war effort. As it is, war is largely out of sight and out of mind.”
Bartlett and such commentators as Daniel Larison and Austin Bramwell of The American Conservative are providing the constructive criticism conservatives and Republicans need in order to make a comprehensive comeback in American political and cultural life. May their kind increase.
Another core conservative conviction that needs to be clarified is the right’s respect for the religious—and the non-religious.
In the fall of 1998, the late Jack Kemp drew some fire for suggesting that conservatives of faith were getting too obnoxious for their own good. In a November 8, 1998 Washington Post column, Kemp declared, “The 1998 midterm election was a referendum on Republican performance, not on the impeachment issue or on either party's agenda for 1999…. The electorate is practically shouting for Republicans to finish the job Ronald Reagan began in reforming the tax and regulatory apparatus. Instead, the party's cultural conservatives and religious activists insisted that it was more important to avoid risky reforms. They made the decision to sit on their hands, wait for a cultural backlash and rely on voters to punish the Democratic party for supporting a president who had misbehaved in his private life and lied about it to a grand jury…[The ‘98 midterms] demonstrated the limitations of a political campaign built around only cultural and social issues. It is impossible to separate the culture from the economy; a strong culture requires a strong economy. Those party intellectuals and opinion leaders who gambled this election on a cultural backlash are now licking their wounds and pondering their failures. There is absolutely a place for them in the party of Lincoln, but it can't be in a dictatorial role. Conservative social engineering is every bit as presumptuous as liberal social engineering.”
Kemp continued, “Americans prefer to receive their spiritual fulfillment in churches, synagogues and mosques. They are conservative in their values but they want a progressive conservatism, not a reactionary conservatism… Reagan espoused a conservatism that was based on traditional values and morality without legislating personal behavior. He knew that economic growth, personal freedom and equality of opportunity will allow America's faith-based institutions to thrive and provide a moral compass without government interference. Republicans must now demonstrate to the electorate--and especially to the minority communities--that we possess the vision and strategy to help all people get a shot at the American Dream.”
Kemp’s perceived potshots at social conservatives roused the ire of then-Boston Globe columnist John Ellis. In a November 12, 1998 article, Ellis wrote, “[Now] Republican congressional leaders talk about the need for ‘moderation’ and ‘pragmatism,’ code words aimed at supposedly overzealous religious conservatives. The ‘Christian Right’ is derided by Republican strategists and operatives as a ‘paper tiger,’ incapable of delivering votes in Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp delivers his own rebuke, prominently displayed in The Washington Post. Adding insult to injury, the national press amplifies all this, believing it to be true. It isn't true. It is true that the Democratic Party and liberal elements in the national media have successfully demonized religious conservatives as intolerant zealots. In this effort they have been blessed by the presence of such figures as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, and various extremists in the antiabortion movement. But anyone who has spent time in politics knows that these are the Beltway faces of the religious right, Hogarthian caricatures of a much more humane and diverse constituency.”
“…[Social] conservatives are the soul of the Republican Party,” Ellis continued. “In the main, they are neither intolerant nor unforgiving. Reporters who have covered their political activities know them to be earnest, unfailingly polite, and deeply concerned about the moral climate of the country. These concerns are widely shared by the population at large. The agenda of religious conservatives is to reverse what they perceive to be the moral decline of the nation. They view the abortion issue as the most important moral issue in America since slavery, but they are not, in the main, abolitionists. Instead, they have adopted a strategy that tries to diminish the number of abortions performed in the United States by passing legislation that requires parental consent for teenagers and that outlaws the murderous practice of partial-birth abortion.
Religious conservatives have worked long and hard to return the educational system to basic values, insisting that school be a place of learning, not self-esteem management, and that discipline, manners, and good conduct be part of the program. They have also asked that a few minutes of silent prayer be included in the daily routine so that students might reflect on the wisdom of the ages. Religious conservatives have led the fight against the vulgarity of our media culture, engaging in economic boycotts of companies that produce mindlessly violent and egregiously exploitative movies, television shows, musical recordings, and publications. For their efforts they have been reviled by economic elites who profit from such ventures and by intellectual elites who imagine that The People vs. Larry Flynt is art. Religious conservatives have been at the forefront of the rebirth of volunteerism in America. Although their generosity and compassion receives virtually no national press attention, it has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And religious conservatives have been instrumental in keeping the cause of human rights alive.”
Ellis is absolutely correct to note that social conservatives constructed the building the modern-day GOP currently resides in. However, conservatives and Republicans must always made sure there are no restrictive covenants or gentlemen’s agreements preventing social libertarians from moving in.
In a culturally secular society, there will naturally be Americans who are potentially sympathetic to the conservative message, but who have certain quirks. Perhaps they feel that both unborn babies and homosexual couples deserve civil rights protection. Perhaps they believe in an awesome God and a risen Christ while also believing that most of the folks on television who claim to speak in Jesus’ name are full of it. Perhaps they are opposed to both the War on Christmas and the War on Drugs. The conservative tent should have enough room to allow these people to be welcomed with open arms.
If a religious person and a secular person share the same views on economics, defense, the freedoms enshrined in the First and Second Amendments, etc., why should they not work together to achieve common political goals? There should not be a feud between these two factions—not when they have a common political enemy.
In addition, while strong Christian convictions have led many to embrace conservatism, conservatives should always be cautious about creating the impression that one must be a Christian in order to be a conservative. As Dinesh D’Souza notes in his 2009 book Life After Death: The Evidence, “…[We] live today in a secular culture where Christian assumptions are no longer taken for granted. There are many people who practice other religions, and some who practice no religion at all. The Bible is an excellent source of authority when you are talking to Christians, but it is not likely to persuade non-Christians, lapsed Christians, or atheists. In a secular culture the only arguments that are likely to work are secular arguments, and these can only be made on the basis of science and reason.”
Let’s make those arguments.
“The [Republican] Party also must be more sober about the demographic transformation that is taking place in America,” former FCC Chairman Michael Powell wrote last year. We are a browning nation, but a Party seemingly incompetent in connecting with America’s diversity and its ascendant multiculturalism. We are stuck in antiquated notions of race. My kids saw Barack Obama not as black but as modern. His race and enlightened manner of dealing with it captures how the young see themselves.”
While equal treatment and equal opportunity are core conservative convictions, the American right didn’t always live up to this principle in the past. Unfortunately, a number of prominent conservatives acted stupidly with regard to racial issues in the 1950s and 1960s (William F. Buckley initially dismissing the civil rights movement, Barry Goldwater failing to join Everett Dirksen in supporting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, etc.), permanently damaging the perception of conservatism in the minds of millions of black voters.
Conservatives and Republicans might have some success attracting black small-business owners to their cause, but they have little chance of bringing large numbers of black voters to the right. While many blacks are culturally conservative, they are also, with rare exceptions, simpatico with progressive Democrats when it comes to economic and foreign-policy issues. Thus, overwhelming black support for the political left will likely remain the status quo for decades to come. (In theory, working-class black voters could be encouraged to reconsider their voting habits via Republican-led efforts to establish school-choice programs. However, the grim reality is that such programs, if proposed, would likely face resistance from affluent voters uninterested in having children from a different social class in “their” schools. As Peter Brimelow notes in his 2003 book The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, “The voucher movement's fundamental and unspoken problem, however, is race. Government schools in wealthy suburbs are already de facto private schools — and they are de facto segregated, by class if not completely by race. Families who cannot afford to live in these neighborhoods cannot send their children to those government schools. To many suburbanites in these areas, vouchers just look like a new word for busing.”)
Instead of wasting time trying to change what cannot be changed vis-à-vis the black vote, conservatives and Republicans would be better off tailoring a message of hope and opportunity to other non-Caucasian groups. As Powell suggests, the GOP must find some way to connect with nonwhite voters who are not, as of now, permanently aligned with the Democrats. If the party fails to do so, it will be doomed demographically.
The conventional wisdom is that conservative/Republican demagoguery on the issue of illegal immigration has hurt the right’s image in the eyes of nonwhite voters. Perhaps conservatives and Republicans would be better off simultaneously encouraging an increase in legal immigration while denouncing illegal immigration. When was the last time you heard a prominent conservative figure raise questions about the bureaucratic jungle a person must traverse in order to become a naturalized citizen? Without hearing such expressions of sympathy for those trying to become legal, recent nonwhite legal immigrants will naturally become suspicious of the motives behind anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric (that is to say, they will logically fear that such rhetoric is just a prelude to the “actual” goal, the limiting of legal immigration). As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby noted in November 2009, “It is…dispiriting to see conservatives assail immigrants instead of the insane immigration system that gave most of them no legal way to enter the United States… Of course illegal immigration is a problem. But it can only be solved by overhauling our dysfunctional immigration laws, not by demonizing or scapegoating illegal immigrants.”
There are plenty of nonwhite voters who think conservatives and Republicans are on point with regard to fiscal, social and defense issues—but they will not align themselves with the American right so long as certain figures on the right use rhetoric that suggests “they’ve been spending most their lives living in a pastime paradise,” to quote the famous Stevie Wonder song. When they see certain conservatives rant and rave about illegals and express little if any sympathy towards those who are striving to become legal…when they see certain conservatives implying that a President with a legitimately multicultural background isn’t really a citizen…when they see certain conservatives make nonsensical references to “pro-American” parts of the country…these voters get more than a little suspicious.
Conservatism, in the purest sense, respects the past while focusing on the future. So let’s try to keep the impurities out.
If the 2000s are to be remembered for the failure of “compassionate conservatism,” let the 2010s be remembered for the success of “clean conservatism”—a conservatism that’s not at war with itself, a conservatism that can reach those who are currently politically uncommitted, a conservatism that can maintain America’s greatness.
Clean conservatism is capable of self-criticism, always recognizing that inquiry is the only route to truth. Clean conservatism resists empty sloganeering, always honoring the intellectual roots of the movement. Clean conservatism is aware that not everyone will listen to its message, but nevertheless attempts to tear down the walls of ideological segregation in the United States. Clean conservatism proposes actual solutions to problems related to education, access to affordable health care and environmental damage, instead of allowing progressives to claim ownership of these issues. Clean conservatism recognizes that we are all Americans, and that there should be no conflict between urban and rural citizens. Clean conservatism pays homage to the achievements of the past, but recognizes that not everything that occurred in the past can be duplicated in the future. Clean conservatism sees more beauty in tomorrow than it saw in yesterday.
Clean conservatism ignores the slurs, the insults, the attacks, the nasty looks. Clean conservatism understands that this stuff comes with the territory. Clean conservatism presses forward, doing the necessary work to build a new center-right foundation.
Once that foundation is built, clean conservatism will win. It will win because its arguments will be stronger than the ones put forth by its opponents. It will win because its message will be more powerful than the messages of those who seek to discredit or demonize it. It will win because Americans will see themselves as truly belonging to this movement.
Years ago, conservatives embraced the catchphrase “Morning in America.” Today, and tomorrow, the vision should be more than just “Morning in America.” For what good is a beautiful morning if it leads to a terrible afternoon and an unbearable night?
The terrible afternoon was the mid- to late-1990s, when it appeared that the conservative vision had returned to power, only for that appearance to be revealed as an apparition. The unbearable night was the mid- to late-2000s, when the American right seemed to be mired in quicksand.
Instead of just “Morning in America,” why not have a beautiful day and a glorious night? A clean conservatism can speed up the arrival of this day—a day when parents can again be confident that their children’s quality of life will be superior to their own, a day when a worker can again make enough not just to get by, but to get ahead, a day when a Commander-in-Chief can trust the information he’s given before sending his troops into harm’s way, a day when no one is treated differently because of who they love, especially if the person they love is God.
A clean conservatism can deliver this result. A clean conservatism can truly renew America’s promise and America’s purpose. A clean conservatism can heal the injuries pessimism and hopelessness have inflicted upon so many of our citizens. A clean conservatism can provide honest hope, credible change, literal liberty…and justice for all.