A return to practical conservatism
posted at 12:01 pm on March 5, 2013 by Ed Morrissey
Politico leads off today with a whither-the-GOP analysis that looks at some interesting trends within the party and the conservative movement. Like most of these pieces, Maggie Haberman’s article provides a good overview of the various “where do we go from here” efforts, but tends to cast them in competition with each other when that’s not necessarily so:
Four months after taking an electoral pounding, Republicans can’t agree on what went wrong in 2012 — let alone on a path to recovery.
Each week brings a new diagnosis of the party’s woes. Karl Rove says it’s candidate quality. Mitt Romney chief strategist Stuart Stevens argues Democrats have won over minority voters through government programs like Obamacare. Some Bush White House vets say it’s the GOP’s trouble understanding how to approach a changing electorate. Techy conservatives blame the party’s inferior social media presence and outdated voter targeting and data-mining.
With fault to go around for allowing a president mired in a weak economy to handily win reelection, the finger-pointing and blame-shifting from various corners are showing no sign of abating.
It’s worth pointing out that none of the issues raised in the second paragraph are exclusive of one another. That’s where the “Republicans can’t agree on what went wrong” meme tends to go off the rails a bit. Many of us think that all of the above issues have to be addressed, organizationally and in policy, for the Republican Party and/or conservative movement to regain its competitive ability.
There may be debates about the priority of each and the resources they should use, but that doesn’t mean that one excludes the other. Major parties and political movements have the virtue of numbers, which means that reforms can take place in massively parallel environments. People who have an interest in data mining will work in those areas, while others work on outreach and policy.
As far as the supposed conflicts showing “no sign of abating,” well, it’s only been five months since the election, and we have at least a year to go before primaries begin in the next. These periods are supposed to produce robust debate on direction and policy for parties and movements, especially those who didn’t do well in the last election. There is no particular need to reach a decision by Thursday of next week when CPAC starts, for instance, and we will have plenty of other events during the year as well where these debates will unfold and partnerships form to address deficiencies within the movement.
In that spirit, my latest column at The Week is actually a continuation of an ad hoc symposium that Matt Lewis and I have conducted over the last couple of weeks about the policy direction of the conservative movement and the GOP. Matt wrote a column yesterday in which he called for a new embrace of “compassionate conservatism” as a way to expand the reach of both the party and the movement. Instead, I suggest adopting “practical conservatism”:
Now that Republicans have power and responsibility to set an agenda, at least in the House, they find themselves stuck between their philosophical rock and their policy hard place. Instead of reaching back to the past and “compassionate conservatism,” though, Republicans need to start considering an advent of practical conservatism.
In practical terms, the entitlement programs we have cannot be dismantled, as Randian purists would prefer. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are too popular for repeal, and more importantly, deliver a level of living standards on which millions of Americans rely — standards that would plummet in these programs’ absence. Instead of denying that, practical conservatism would embrace that — because on the trajectory of current policy, these programs will utterly collapse at some point. There is, after all, nothing compassionate about a default, or about sticking succeeding generations with the bill for benefits we enjoy in the present.
Conservatives have good ideas for reforming these programs, and practical conservatives can point to the massive pain that failure will cause future generations. The same is true of programs such as food stamps and other programs that lift the truly needy, but which need to be better targeted so that those who can lift themselves will have to do so.
If nothing else, the past few months should have made it clear that in practical terms, talking about “the 47 percent” and “makers versus takers” won’t win elections for Republicans. It’s in our nature to care about the poor and struggling among us, and that impulse speaks well of Americans. Practical conservatism would also embrace this impulse and form policy around the goals of a robust but practical safety net that doesn’t require massive borrowing, ensuring that limited resources only go to those truly in need while building a fair and free economy that creates true prosperity across all income classes. Practical conservatives would take a lesson from the mid-1990s welfare reform and Jack Kemp’s outreach to urban centers with conservative economic proposals aimed specifically at improving lives of the working class voters that Republicans have consistently lost over the last several decades.
When I say “practical conservatism,” I mean a conservatism that recognizes the political reality of today and works within it to effect the best change possible. I also mean putting conservative principles into practice in ways that make the lives of Americans better. Too often we embrace philosophies without providing answers in concrete policy terms, a trend that spending two years completely out of power exacerbated. Without practical answers on how conservatism will make life better, why would anyone buy into it at all?
The greatest virtue of conservatism — especially economic conservatism — is that it accounted for the reality of human nature and designed systems that worked complementary to it that respect individual genius, rather than in opposition while assuming a Utopian vision delivered by elites to the ignorant masses. We need to embrace that approach again, stop talking philosophy, and start providing solutions.
Update: Peter Wehner adds his thoughts on orienting policy to solutions, and to the role of faith in it:
I understand that politics involves a balancing act and prioritization. There are obviously many issues that cry out for attention. Still, it seems to me that any political philosophy or party that doesn’t take into account the care and concerns of the weak and marginal is morally desiccated and hardly worthy of one’s allegiance. At the risk of sounding simplistic, what matters to God ought to matter to us, not for reasons having to do with arbitrary and outdated doctrines but with our basic design. The child in inner city Detroit and sub-Saharan Africa have worth because God has bestowed worth on them, as on us; because they and we are created in His image and likeness.
Now precisely how solidarity with the poor works itself out in public policy is a complicated matter involving prudential judgments. But that a society should care about the poor really is not.
Be sure to read it all. And I agree with several commenters that Ronald Reagan provides a good model on how to present such policies.