Conservatism: Principles And Power

What you’re about to read comes from a column by Fareed Zakaria called, “The End of Conservatism,”

“Conservatives are a gloomy bunch at the moment. Many believe that their party–the Republican Party–has lost its way and that it has done so by abandoning its principles. Aside from his foreign policy and Supreme Court appointments, conservatives find little to love about George W. Bush. His signature domestic policies include a vast expansion of government-financed health care (prescription-drug benefits), and increased funding for education while halfheartedly promoting vouchers and school choice. Bush also signed into law campaign-finance reform and supported a proposed immigration bill that would have allowed illegal aliens a path to citizenship. The Republican Congress is even worse, having indulged in an orgy of irresponsible spending. And now the party is set to nominate John McCain as its presidential nominee, a man who on several key issues has broken with Republican orthodoxy and voted with Democrats. For conservatives, a return to principles is the only way to be returned to power.

…Conservatism grew powerful in the 1970s and 1980s because it proposed solutions appropriate to the problems of the age–a time when socialism was still a serious economic idea, when marginal tax rates reached 70 percent, and when the government regulated the price of oil and natural gas, interest rates on checking accounts and the number of television channels. The culture seemed under attack by a radical fringe. It was an age of stagflation and crime at home, as well as defeat and retreat abroad. Into this landscape came Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, bearing a set of ideas about how to fix the world.”

Since 2006, my own thinking on conservatism has changed a bit and with that in mind, I think there are some very important truths in Zakaria’s column (although I don’t agree with all of it) that conservatives need to come to terms with.

First of all, conservatism is not a stagnant philosophy. Barry Goldwater, for example, was for all intents and purposes, what we think of today as a Libertarian. Although Ronald Reagan shared many of the same positions that Goldwater did, he didn’t match up with him on every issue just as conservatives today don’t match up with Reagan in every case.

Reagan raised taxes. Today it’s considered heresy amongst conservatives to suggest such a thing. Reagan, had he been allowed, would have cut much more deeply into the budget than most conservative politicians would today (Example: How many fiscally conservative politicians are calling for the Department of Education to be disbanded?)

Furthermore, many of the problems we face today are very different or at least are perceived by the public to be very different than they were in 1980, but we’re continuing to propose many of the same solutions as we have for 20 years, in much the same way as we always have.

We’ve also gotten way off the tracks on the “purity” issue. There’s this sense that if conservatism gets more pure, if we can just get rid of the RINOS, we can dominate again — but that’s not true. When a political party is losing, they need to find ways to draw more people into the tent, not throw people out.

This tendency may end up killing us long-term on issues of fiscal conservatism because a member of Congress can vote our way 9 times out of 10 and get no credit for it because they go the wrong way on that one vote. Meanwhile, the appropriators do the wrong thing 7 times out of 10 and they may get a little grief for it, but they figure, “How angry are my constituents really going to get over spending if I bring home the bacon?” We also spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about earmarks, which is all well and good; we do have way too many “Bridges to Nowhere,” but entitlements are where we’re spending the real money. If we put 1/2 as much energy as a movement into Social Security reform and Medicare reform as we do earmarks, we’d do 10 times as much good in cutting deficit spending.

Now that being said, we should not compromise on the core principles of conservatism. Moreover, we should not forget that the war in Iraq and the simple fact that George Bush is an extraordinarily inept politician is really hurting the conservative movement right now. Had the war gone better and had George Bush had some minimal amount of political skill, it’s entirely possible that the GOP would still control Congress and be doing fine today.

That being said, we also should not be content to rest on the exact same agenda that conservatives were touting in the eighties. We should always be asking ourselves, “How can we reach out to more Americans?” How can we apply our principles in different areas to reach larger blocks of voters? What new solutions can we come up with to the problems that the American people are concerned about? In some of these areas, we’ve done a good job. In others, we haven’t.

Just to name an example of an area where conservatives have fallen down, I’d point to health care. It’s not that there aren’t any practical, passable conservative ideas, there are — giving tax breaks to individuals, not companies, allowing health care to be sold across state lines, etc., is a good idea, but how many conservatives talk about the issue at all?

I’ve also grown to believe that trade is another issue we’ve blown. Too many of us have just been content to just say “free trade” and not deal with issues related to it. How many non-Paleocons have made a big stink about China selling us poisoned products? How many conservatives have demanded that Bush work to get tariffs on American goods reduced in nations that we’re trading with? We don’t do that enough and the American people, naturally, have started to lose confidence in us on the issue.

Long story short, as a movement, conservatives need to start talking more, in different ways, about new ideas and problems that we haven’t been adequately addressing of late. We also need to spend more time talking about how we’re going to bring a bigger slice of the American people into our camp and less time trying to flail people who aren’t conservative enough out of the Republican Party.

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