Bottom Line Up Front: No matter what America's short term future holds (a liberal White House, a liberal Congress, etc.), the long term future of the conservative movement depends on our ability to evolve in substance and unify around principles, not personalities.
Anybody who blogs on this site can list the reasons why they're an American conservative. In fact, many conservatives who don't blog, or those who don't even know what a blog is, can list their reasons with an adequate level of logic in their explanation. But not every conservative is called to be part of a conservative movement; or, more importantly, not every conservative is attracted to be a participant of one or more parts of the conservative movement.
The reason I was attracted to the conservative movement as a student at the beginning of this decade was because I felt that the Right, significantly more so than the Left, had a better combination of message and infrastructure that could consistently win elections and legislative battles. One of the reasons why? It seemed to me at the time that the Right was a lot more concerned with principles than personalities when it came to political battles, the old cliche being that "Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line." The Right has lost this advantage, not only because of the Democrats have successfully evolved their infrastructure to fit modern times, as Jon Henke notes; conservatives have also become intellectually lazy. Case in point: our movement's continuing love affair with Ronald Reagan.
Don't get me wrong: I believe that Reagan was one of the greatest American Presidents of all time, and his personal abilities tethered to his steadfast defense of conservative principles in government should always be lauded. But last weekend, I attended the Americans for Prosperity - Defending the American Dream Summit, where they had a dinner in tribute to the 40th President of the United States. I have to admit I felt this sense of discomfort and anxiety during the dinner because of the loud and raucous cheering during the videos they played of Reagan's speeches and the aura of nostalgia for the Reagan years. But I left the dinner hopeful that this dinner was just a tribute and that great organizations like AFP had the full knowledge that different work needed to be done to carry the movement forward.
Then came today, when a friend on Facebook posted a status update linking me to the Heritage Foundation's new website: What Would Reagan Do?
To give some context to how I felt this afternoon once I clicked on the website, let me tell a short story. When I was in school not too long ago, I was required to take a philosophy course. I pared it down to two choices: a class called "Issues and Ethics" with Harvey Mansfield and Bill Kristol, two stalwarts of the conservtive movement, or a class called "Ethics and International Relations" with Stanley Hoffman, a very elderly liberal professor. I decided that it would be best for me to take the liberal professor's class instead of the Mansfield/Kristol class because it would be helpful to know how the other side processed philosophical thought. It was the spring semester of 2003, and we were beginning our war with Iraq ... so the "Ethics and Interntional Relations" lectures became more interesting. One day, our professor asked a simple, but ridiculous question: "What would Kant say about the war in Iraq?" Everyone else in the class started bloviating on how this war applied to the categorical imperative. I raised my hand and said the following: Kant wouldn't know what to think. Kant wouldn't know how to handle an irrational leader of a nation. Kant would be confused as to the concept of a UN Security Council resolution. And finally, Kant could not deal with the concept of a weapon of mass destruction. Sure, you could extrapolate, but that means you would have to make several assumptions and bald extensions of what Kant meant in his writings.
So, why was I a little uncomfortable with Heritage's new website? Well, the fact is we can't extrapolate what Ronald Reagan would do. Yes, the conservative principles that he defended and executed during his time in the White House are important to reflect on. But principles alone can't deal with new situations and new crises. This is why I wasn't ever a fan of Hillary Clinton's or John McCain's argument of "being ready on day one." No one is ever ready on day one to be President Why? Because every President faces different challenges, different opportunities and different crises which requies a combination of good principles (which AFP and Heritage are keynoting) and great creativity in problem-solving. Having principles without creativity in public policy formulation is like trying to run an engine without oil. The point? The conservative movement doesn't need a replacement engine; we need an oil change.
Again, don't get me wrong. Heritage is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work. But the problem with our movement now is something that Mitt Romney said last year during the primary campaign: "Republicans need to stop acting like Democrats. Republicans need to start acting like Republicans again." Of course, this is true at the substantive level with the greed, corruption and over-spending of Republicans of the last decade. But it's also been somewhat true when it comes to the status of our movement: the Right has become stagnant because while we still have superior principles, we have become lazy when it comes to coming up with new solutions and communicating those solutions in an effective way.
So, what are four things that we can do to help the Right move beyond the nostalgia of Ronald Reagan?
First, we need to stop being defensive and start going on the offensive again when it comes to our grassroots work. Jon Henke puts it beautifully in his last blog post:
"The Right is behaving like a company within a declining industry, which focuses on increasing market share, rather than expanding the actual market itself. Declining industries are defensive, seeking tradition and efficiency rather than innovation. The Right - and the Republican Party - is trying to manage the decline by consolidating successes and attacking their opponent to limit the Left's market share."
This is exactly the problem with the "51% is enough" strategy. Give credit to Howard Dean and his 50 state strategy for not conceding defeat in any area of the country. We need to have a 50 state strategy, but in a different manner. As I have posted before, we need to start building our GOP farm team to not only help identify potential political talent, but also to help identify important local and state issues. We have to start thinking that state legilative and city council races are just as important as statewide and presidential elections. Playing small ball is just as important as playing large ball, and can benefit large ball campaigns in the future.
Second, we need to start merging our grassroots with our netroots. I've blogged on this previously too, and I feel that the Right has a much better opportunity to merge the two than the Left. The grassroots and the netroots of the Left are still very much two different (often battling) factions, because they are now in a position where they could have an influence in governing ... leading to some arguments over how they should govern. Conservatives know how we should govern because we have great principles. But the grassroots and the netroots of the Right can work together to be creative about solutions when it comes to foreign policy, social policy and economic policy.
Third, as repeated three times by now, we have to stop being intellectually lazy, and start thinking and working hard on how the problems history has presented us should be solved. My governing philosophy has always been that it's not up to government to make history; it's government's job to know how to react to history: new opportunities and new challenges. Example: while I was against the bailout, the House Republican Conference came up with great ideas that could improve transparency within the financial system. We can start to come up with solutions on issues that have traditionally been strong suits for Democrats: promote new options of choice and competition in educaton beyond vouchers, give new incentives to reduce the number of uninsured in this country beyond the McCain health credit proposal (which is still a great idea), and spur innovtion and job creation, not through plain old public works projects that often get earmarked, but by providing broad based tax and economic reform that can give everybody a fair shake at succeeding. Our tax system picks winners and losers ... and it shouldn't be governments job to promote social policy through the tax code.
Fourth, and most importantly, we have to stop conceding the academic and intellectual battleground. Major universities, and academic thought overall, are now branded as liberal/progressive. Rightfully so, not because conservatives have been branded by the American public as "stupid," but because conservatives have not made the effort to start battling again in classrooms, academic publications, and intellectual forums. Liberals intellectuals come up with many great pieces of work, but all with the wrong direction in mind: the goal of a eutopia where everybody experiences equality of condition. Conservative intellectuals of old promoted realism and pragmatism as working conditions to any thought because they feel like I do: that it is not our job to make history, it's our job to react intelligently to history. We need a resurgence in conservative thought beyond what is already out there. We need to be willing to fight liberals on their own battlefield.
These are long term proposals that require much thought, and less laziness. It's too easy to look back to the "greatness of Reagan." It's too easy to talk only about principles and not solutions. Soren observed two things earlier this week from the AFP conference that resonate with me:
"No one sees who the groups will be. Furthermore, the old conservative movement leaders weren’t there. I saw Grover Norquist and Ed Meese, but I didn’t see Morton Blackwell, Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, or similar figures. Interestingly, the old conservative movement leaders who were there were Reagan people but not Goldwater people. Many of the old conservative movement institutions predated Reagan.
"The fact that those leaders weren’t there raises the question: who will be the next leaders. None of these groups have a credible succession plan. The stature of these groups will likely collapse. National Review, which does have some wonderful people but cannot be said to be the opinion leader it once was, was cited repeatedly as an example."
Let's start thinking about "the change we need." The engine is just fine; we just need some new oil.