Yesterday, Heritage Foundation founder and President Ed Feulner wrote a post at The Next Right, arguing that the failures of the Republican Party were not a failure of the conservative movement.
At the risk of losing my invitation to the Heritage Foundation Chrismas party: Ed Feulner is exactly wrong.
The Movement doesn't want to take responsibility for where we are, but "personnel is policy" and the conservative movement is the personnel of the Republican Party. A political Party is an empty vessel, only as effective and healthy as the ideas and incentives behind it. We can't buy a "we'd be fine if only we could trust politicians" theory of politics.
Whether it is because the movement's ideas have been ineffectual, because the movement's infrastructure has become complacent and entrenched, or because the movement's incentives have become perverse, the failures of the Republican Party are precisely the fault of the movement.
The problem is not Republican politicians, although many Republicans politicians are a problem. The problem is not with the basic ideals of limited government and personal freedom, either. The problem is a movement that plays small-ball and cedes responsibility for infrastructure to business interests, leadership that rewards those who make friends rather than waves, an entrenched Party and Movement support system that mostly supports itself, an echo chamber that has rotted our intellect, a grassroots that is ill-equipped to shape the Republican Party, and a Republican Party that has replaced strategy with tactics, substance with marketing.
As The Economist pointed out recently, the Right has been losing the intellectual battle of ideas, becoming "a modern-day version of the 1970s liberals it arose to do battle with: trapped in an ideological cocoon, defined by its outer fringes, ruled by dynasties and incapable of adjusting to a changed world."
Unfortunately, the result of that movement complacency has been the erosion of the Right's organizing agenda - its ideas. There has been a lot of conversation at The Next Right in recent days about that, and at Heritage's conservative blogger briefing on Tuesday, Feulner argued that the Right excels at ideas...
[W]e believe the ideas are fundamental and you've got to get the ideas right before you can start trying to market them. Yes, marketing is important, but that's only the second stage. The first thing is to get your principles screwed on straight and make sure you understand what they're all about.
But is it really true that the Right has the fundamental policy ideas? What effective ideas has the Right had recently? How far have those ideas gone? Where are we? Unfortunately, we're even farther behind than we were. Government is not more limited; our problems have not been reformed. Indeed, the problems ahead of us
The Right needs to push the reset button on ideas.
I’m not talking about the general ideas – free markets, limited government, strong defense – but the way to get from here to there. Robert Bluey says argues that have an abundance of the policy thinkers. Well, ok, but yet we haven't had the notable, transformative ideas to move the ball forward on the core ideals. Sure, we have plenty of ideas for agencies, programs, details, each purporting to keep markets free, government limited and defense strong...but those are ideals, not ideas, and they aren't being matched to a politically viable and organizing agenda.
The current set of ideas either hasn't worked: they either haven't been viable or they've been small.
At this stage, do we need the 900th white paper on trade, even more policy recommendations on Taiwan or new reams of paper devoted to education policy? Well, yeah, we do. In theory, those can be important. But practice is more important than theory, and we've had precious little practice lately. Our ideas have become brush strokes on a painting, fine-tuning a work that has already gotten too busy to be beautiful.
The Right has replaced strategy with tactics; pouring gas in a car that isn’t going anywhere. We are tinkering with an agenda that doesn't capture the public imagination.
Fine-tuning should be secondary to the big picture.
2008 was the year in which that inverted idea agenda, policy and message problems finally extracted its toll and things all fell apart. The Right has replaced strategy with tactics. We are tinkering with an agenda that is not going anywhere.
Mr. Feulner is wrong. We have to push reset on the movement itself - not by eliminating the old guard, but by developing a new guard to compete with the old guard - making it better or filling new roles, but always making it work harder.