Sunday, July 20, 2008

Conservatives Think Ahead

The death of conservative ideology has become practically a cliché this election season. With an arguably war-weary electorate, and worry about the economy, what do conservatives have to offer, beyond social hot-buttons and tax cuts?

The New York Times suggests that conservatives are thinking fresh about the direction of the movement:


ALMOST anything can happen in an election year, but among conservatives, almost everyone seems to agree that no matter who captures the White House in November, the movement that has ruled the Republican Party since the 1960s and mostly dominated American politics since 1980 has lost its way. Across the spectrum of the right, writers and thinkers have turned their relentless analysis inward, a kind of political EST seminar aimed at self-transformation.
The next few passages review changes at the American Enterprise Institute (with the obligatory reference that President Bush killed the movement), but later down the piece looks at where conservatism might go:

For some on the right, the conservative decline is simply the result of veering away from the golden age of Ronald Reagan....

For others, however, the nub of the problem is not deviance from the 1980s agenda but worshipful adherence to it. Mr. [David] Frum is one of those who has undergone a conversion (or two). His book “Dead Right,” published in 1994, was a brisk catalog of Reagan’s failures (especially his failure to reduce the size of government). Then, after writing speeches for President Bush, Mr. Frum wrote “The Right Man,” in which he characterized President Bush’s leadership as “nothing short of superb.” But in his newest book, “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” Mr. Frum confesses that his former boss has “led his party to the brink of disaster.”

Mr. Frum’s transformation has caused him to rethink the role of government. Not only does he now promote an idea that has long been conservative heresy — that tax rates have gone as low as they can — he also calls for new taxes on consumption and energy. Taxing “those forms of energy that present political and environmental risks,” he writes, “would look exactly like the carbon tax advocated by global-warming crusaders.”

Mr. Frum also departs from the smaller-government-is-always-better-government dogma and concedes that there are some areas where government has to step in — for instance, prison reform. His list here includes “opportunities for education and self-improvement; conjugal visits; mentoring and support for prisoners’ children.”

Many of Mr. Frum’s allies in this debate come from a group of younger conservatives who were born more than 15 years after he was and came of age after Reagan. “The world is different, the priorities are different,” said Yuval Levin, 31, who is at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and recently edited a book with Mr. DeMuth. “In 1985, the big issues were the cold war, crime, welfare reform, taxes and social issues. Now, most of those are no longer on the list.”

Social issues are still a priority, he said, but they are joined by others that have floated to the top of the agenda, including energy, the environment, immigration, health care and expensive entitlements....

Another new-generation conservative, Ross Douthat, argues that “Reagan was right for his time, but now it’s a different time.” Mr. Douthat, 28, and Reihan Salam are the authors of a new book, “The Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.” Mr. Douthat says that social conservatives have gotten stuck and need to move beyond their focus on gay marriage and abortion — a focus, he said, that does nothing to help a single African-American mother trying to raise a family. Instead, conservatives need to “figure out a way to talk about the problem of family breakdown and the extent to which that’s linked to social mobility, economic troubles.”

In his eyes, while the network of research groups and journals helped build conservatism, it has also contributed to its stagnation. “Conservatives have always criticized the liberal establishment” — universities, magazines, organizations — for a “tendency toward cocooning,” Mr. Douthat said. Now, it is conservatives who are cocooning, talking only to each other and not looking around for new ideas.

“There was this tremendous generation of intellectuals who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, but I think there’s been some difficulty in establishing a new generation,” Mr. Douthat said. “On the right, a lot of them did their best work 20 years ago.”

Election day would seem to be the pivotal moment in this debate. Adam Bellow, a conservative book editor, recently argued that “the G.O.P. will not be revived through the efforts of intellectuals but by a talented politician who can build a new majority coalition. When that happens, as eventually it will, the intellectuals will be there to translate his or her political instincts into a new conservative ideology.” But as Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, long a flagship of the right, said: “Whether or not McCain wins, there is going to be a lot of rethinking among conservatives.”

Kevin Hassett, an economist at A.E.I. who is advising Senator McCain, went out of his way to emphasize his own lack of partisanship. “I’m thrilled that John McCain has proposed a big reduction in the corporate tax rate,” he said, but he added that similar ideas have also been adopted by Democrats, including Senator John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run. “If we do our job really, really well, then we don’t help one political side or the other,” Mr. Hassett said.

Meanwhile, Megan McArdle, a libertarian writer, thinks conservative organizations will actually have a tougher time influencing policy if Senator McCain is elected. “He doesn’t have an ideological framework,” she said. “He has a superhero view of politics. There are good guys and bad guys and you’ve got to elect the good guys to kick the butts of the bad guys.”
It's probably going to take a combination of those factors: good ideas and strong leadership.

On ideas, I genuinely think Douthat's research holds promise. Some recent books making the case for a new conservativism aren't, frankly, very conservative (like Frum's Dead Right, and Michael Gerson's, Heroic Conservatism), but Douthat seems to get to the nub of things when he talks about winning over socially-moderate voters looking for effective governmental responses to bread-and-butter issues.

It's not as though Democrats are necessarily going to ride a wave of big-government liberalism to power in November.

Kimberley Strassel, at the Wall Street Journal, has been focusing on congressional elections around the country, where conservative Democrats have been elected on traditional Republican themes, while stressing the added appeal of anti-corruption reformism. See, for example, Strassel's, "
A Louisiana Lesson for the GOP":

With Democrats actively recruiting conservative candidates, it's no longer good enough for the GOP names to fall back on cultural credentials, to demagogue immigration, or to simply promise lower taxes. Voters care about the size of government, but they are equally worried about the cost of doctor visits and gas prices. The winners will be those who explain the merits of a private health-care reform, who talk about vouchers, who push for energy production. And given its reputation on ethics, it's clear the GOP has to recruit Mr. Cleans, who also make voters believe they are more interested in solving problems than bringing home pork.
On leadership, I don't think Megan McArdle's making much sense about John McCain's "superhero view" of politics. McCain is a genuine war hero, and frankly, it's his largest electoral asset.

Indeed, McCain's
a national greatness conservative at a time when people are arguing America's not so great, especially on the economy (see, for example, Peter Gosselin, "In This Economy, Failure is an Option"). We need McCain to stand tall; even if he's not a perfect Ronald Reagan candidate, he's got enough of the optimism of America's mission to keep the flame of exceptionalism burning.

Now, that's not to say there's no current economic dislocation. We have sectoral crises (housing and money markets), but we're not sinking into recession, and some sectors are seeing robust growth (in
the technology sector, for example, which is a sign of business confidence and investment in the economy).

This is a Democratic year, no doubt, but as we've seen so far, Americans respect a candidate who will stand tall for American values and traditionalism. McCain can make the sale by finding a vigorous message that combines his patriotic heroism with a policy focus demonstrating convincingly how he can help American help themselves.

Photo Credit: New York Times