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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Charles R. Kesler

Last Build Date: Mon, 08 Jan 2007 08:45:22 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Conservatism After the Thumping

Mon, 08 Jan 2007 08:45:22 -0600

In their hearts, he knows they're Right. Such a faith, though gratifying, is bound to be disappointed. If conservatism means being decent and patriotic, then of course, nearly all Americans are fuzzily conservative. But that doesn't tell you much about how they vote, which in recent years has been in roughly equal numbers for Democrats and Republicans. The notion that a steady conservative majority exists, waiting only to be activated by the right Republican appeal, thus makes for bad GOP strategy. It lures Republicans into thinking their job is easier than it is, by disguising the hard truth that victory still depends on persuading, not merely reminding, a crucial segment of the electorate to think conservative and vote Republican. But the idea that conservatives long ago won the battle for public opinion, and that the GOP has only to collect on their victory, runs afoul of a deeper problem, which is that the definition of conservatism is more clearly up for grabs than at any time since the end of the Cold War. McCain recognizes this, inasmuch as his presidential candidacy depends on offering his own twist on the term. After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism lost the urgent motivation provided by anti-Communism. Many predicted a crack-up, but what actually ensued was a series of flirtations with new, or at least newly assertive, right-wing elements. Upward floated the balloons of civil society conservatism (an anticipation of the compassionate conservatism to come), "third wave" conservatism (technology to the rescue), and national greatness conservatism (McCain was an early enthusiast). Some traveled farther than others, but each descended under the weight of its own limitations and the pressure of events. Libertarianism, emboldened by socialism's pell-mell retreat, enjoyed its moment, too, though less than one might have expected. Communism's collapse in Eastern Europe did not translate directly into capitalism's triumph there; and in America, the boom of the 1980s and 1990s, staggered but not stopped by a recession and 9/11, proved vigorous enough to finance both federal tax cuts and benefit increases, at least temporarily. Prosperity, strangely enough, made libertarianism less compelling. Into this disorderly scene strode George W. Bush, touting a compassionate conservatism that accepted the present size of government (or at least resolved to stop arguing about it) and strove to build an enduring Republican majority by increments, appealing to soccer-cum-security moms, immigrants, and minorities. Though the strategy contributed to victory in several elections, it came with high costs. Literally: the new prescription drug entitlement will cost untold billions (though it will save some hospitalization costs, too). More important in the short term, compassionate conservatism eviscerated the GOP's reform ambitions. By abandoning the public case for limited government, Bush's spiritless conservatism left the administration, and especially Congress, adrift and spendthrift. Even more acutely, there is confusion now over conservative foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine's emphasis on preventive war and global democratization has come to define right-wing foreign policy to many Americans, and to nearly all Europeans. This misimpression has been heightened by the willingness of most conservative journals in this country to swallow their misgivings and follow the administration in its impromptu pursuit of democracy in Iraq. Yet conservative objections, not all of them honorable, reassert themselves in the wake of Iraq's intractable difficulties--and the American voters' impatience with the whole scene. What does it signify, then, to demand that Republicans return to the conservative path? It's time for conservatives to admit the need to rethink and clarify their own precepts. To be sure, there are verities to which the wise and good may always repair, and conservatism is distinguished by its reverence for them. But these must be relearned in every generation, restated in the idiom of life, and applied to new circum[...]

Hard Questions for the GOP

Mon, 24 Apr 2006 00:38:16 -0600

But the ability to see beyond the formulas of the recent past, to deepen the critique of liberalism, to steel conservatism for the uphill fight--these virtues are in short supply among GOP candidates in 2006, not to mention 2008.

Here are some of the hard questions that conservatives now, or at any rate soon will, confront.

Entitlements. President Bush made a valiant run at Social Security reform last year, but his efforts were undercut by his own lack of credibility on the subject. After all, having two years earlier added the first major entitlement program since the Great Society--the Medicare prescription drug benefit--to the federal government's obligations, it was a little late to begin worrying about how to pay for it all. In 2004, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid consumed 8.4% of the national economy; by 2030, that figure is projected to rise to 14% or more. If not offset by cuts, the surge in entitlements would raise the federal government's spending from about one fifth to one quarter of gross domestic product, and bring government spending at all levels to almost one half of the economy.

Yet it isn't the cost of entitlements that's the main problem. Far worse is the dependency they breed and the mentality they encourage: that our most important rights come from government, and that rights like these trump all other considerations of the common good.

Keeping government constitutional. The modern regulatory state operates at the borders of constitutionality and often crosses them. From the beginning, there were constitutional problems. Could Congress delegate its legislative powers to rules-writing agencies in the executive branch? The correct answer is No, generally speaking, but since the New Deal the Supreme Court has given its blessing to the practice. Thus today's administrative agencies combine legislative and executive, and often judicial, power in the same hands--the "very definition of tyranny," as The Federalist put it. Still, in most cases tyranny is avoided or at least tempered by congressional oversight and by administrative law, a new kind of law that grew up precisely to restrain the administrative state.

Regulation's costs and inefficiencies are lamentable, but the deeper issue is the Constitution's fading authority. Conservatives need to breathe new life into the separation of powers without succumbing to modern-day abolitionism and calling for the dismantling of all federal agencies. A place to start may be with those agencies that not only regulate but tax on their own authority. The Federal Communications Commission taxes long-distance phone calls, for instance, to meet its own budgetary needs, which--surprise surprise--grow constantly. In a decade, the FCC has increased the tax from 3 to 11%. Republicans need to stand up and say: No taxation without representation.

But the larger task of reconstitutionalizing American government will not be so easy, because it will require a profound rethinking of government's purposes and limits.

Civic education. Important as the debate about immigration policy is, it is much ado about nothing if politics cannot address what immigrants, and citizens as well, are taught about America. The question concerns public schools from kindergarten to the postgraduate level, and raises delicate questions of academic freedom and multiculturalism, which is why Republicans stay miles away from the issue. But it does no good to craft a superior immigration bill if new Americans, like the old, have their patriotism subsequently subverted (whether deliberately or not) in the public schools.

These and many other hard questions lie ahead for Republicans and conservatives. If they cannot come to grips with them, they cannot prevail in the long term as an electoral majority. More importantly, they will forfeit the chance to save their country.