Reform Conservatism, Not Conservatives

It’s clear to me that Conor and to a lesser extent Rod don’t understand what Jamelle, Freddie, E.D., and myself have been driving at in our various critiques of reform-minded conservatism.  Conor’s misunderstanding is made apparent in this statement from his interview with Scott:

Perhaps we’re getting at what puzzles and galls me so much about recent posts at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen about how dissident conservative writers ought to conduct themselves. The notion is that these writers should assess an ideological subset of the American public, discern their sensibilities, and craft all subsequent writing so as not to offend them. What a fool’s errand. There are times when people react badly to hearing the truth plainly stated. It is a journalist’s job to tell them that truth anyway, as forthrightly and accurately as one can put it.

Although I don’t wish to speak for Freddie, Jamelle, or E.D., this seems to miss the point of our critiques entirely.

Our point has nothing to do with insisting that Conor or anyone else soft-pedal their critiques of Limbaugh, et al, although those attacks may well have the effect of making matters worse.  It certainly does not suggest that reform-minded conservatives should refrain from objecting to torture or the conduct of the War on Terror or civil liberties violations by the Bush Administration – quite the contrary, Ron Paul’s growing influence on conservatism shows that it is possible to passionately dissent without forfeiting the ability to move conservatism in your direction.  Nor do I think we are suggesting that Conor or any other specific reform-minded conservative is to blame for the current state of the Republican Party.

No, the point is that reform conservatives need to recognize that there is an ideological problem with conservatism as currently constituted as an amalgam of libertarianism, hawkishness, and religious fundamentalism that leaves modern conservatism incapable of governing well or ethically.  It is all well and good to criticize the Bush Administration or to take issue with talk radio, but until reform conservatives recognize what caused the Bush Administration’s faults and the hyper-vitriol of talk radio, they will be unable to do anything about it.

The assumption of many reform conservatives seems to be that the Bush Administration and talk radio are just a few bad apples who managed to deceive conservatives into thinking that they were good conservatives and had all the answers.  This is wrong, and smacks of a paternalism that assumes workaday conservatives are pliable, easily fooled automatons rather than people who are simply too concerned about putting food on their own plates to ask otherwise unimportant philosophical questions like “what does it mean to be a conservative” or  “what would Edmund Burke say.”

The problem instead is that movement conservatism has become an incoherent ideology, in part because of its own successes, but also in part because the issues facing this country simply are not the issues that were facing it in 1978.   An ideology that attempts to unite so many disparate sub-ideologies must inevitably become nihilistic and unable to articulate a compelling  social or political vision much beyond “we’re not them” after its initial raisons d’etre have become obsolete.

That point had passed by 2000, if not earlier, yet the conservative wonks (who would largely be the forerunners of the reformist conservatives) largely continued pushing for the same old policies, just with different rationales.  In the face of relatively low levels of taxation, the Laffer Curve gave way to “starve the beast” and the notion that tax cuts were a panacea for just about any problem.  To justify Cold War levels of defense spending and militarism, Saddam Hussein, Iranian Ayatallohs, and Kim Jong-Il transformed from regional pests into an Axis of Evil as threatening to our existence as a fully-mobilized Josef Stalin.  Illegal immigration ceased to be solely an economic issue and instead became one of national security as much as anything else.  And so on.

If a politician dependent on votes and a talk show host dependent on ratings bought into these narratives and turned them to 11, those who pushed the narratives in the first place deserve a good chunk of the blame (as of course, do the politician and the talk show host).

What conservative wonks needed to do instead of finding new narratives to justify the same old policies was to start pushing for new solutions to new problems that were consistent with their individual visions of what conservatism should be about.  They needed to push these solutions not because of their electoral appeal, but because they believed those solutions to be the right thing to do.  If this meant annoying a segment of the base or another strain of philosophically-grounded conservatism, so be it.

In other words, they needed (and still need) to engage in a competition of ideas with each other.  They needed to (and still need) to bring these new ideas before the base to try to persuade the base in their direction rather than simply criticizing the base for not following their direction in the first place.  And yes, Grand New Party is an example of doing precisely this; but a book by a then-obscure pair of young conservatives is hardly going to be adequate to fix the problem.

Instead, what we get are conservative wonks too timid to ask other conservatives to support health care reform beyond the dated conservative hobby-horse of tort reform and, if we’re lucky, tax reforms (which really ought to be part of any health care reform but which are hardly the end of the story).  We get conservative wonks who proudly disclaim the growth of the federal deficit under both the Obama and Bush Administrations but who are unwilling to convince other conservatives of the need for massive defense spending cuts, modest tax increases, or even significant Medicare reform to solve the problem.

The power and influence of talk radio thus is not the problem, nor is the fact that talk radio tends to take everything to the absolute extreme.  Those facts may certainly be lamentable and troubling, but they are symptoms, not causes.   Simply pointing the finger at a handful of entertainers and blaming them for conservatism’s troubles does nothing to solve the problem other than to further alienate the base and leave it even more unwilling to listen to your alternative vision of where conservatism should head in the 21st century.

So this is not a function of asking that conservative reformers abandon their principles or censor themselves.  Quite the opposite: it’s a function of asking that conservative reformers fearlessly stand up proudly for their individual principles.  Do this, and reformers may or may not convince other conservatives to follow.  Focus instead on the low-hanging fruit that is extremist rhetoric and liberal shortcomings and reformers will continue to fail to present a vision of conservatism worth following.  Similarly, selling reforms on electoral grounds will do nothing because it places votes over principles.

To be sure, if the primary goal is to put an end to extremist rhetoric, then by all means focus on extremist rhetoric; if, on the other hand, the goal is to reform conservatism and make it a philosophy capable of governing well, then focusing on the symptoms rather than the disease will do nothing.

What it comes down to is this: one cannot reform conservatism if one believes that the problem with conservatism is conservatives, and refuses to challenge core assumptions of conservatism.  Indeed, what made Orwell’s critiques so effective and important was not that he publicized the evils of individual actors; it was that he drew the connection between evil and ideology in an attempt to reform that ideology.  Conservative wonks and opinion journalists should be introspective enough to do likewise rather than merely seeking to blame conservatism’s problems on a small cadre of individuals.

UPDATE: Please do see Alex Knapp’s response, which I fully endorse – including the areas where he notes the problems with my recommended approach.  And these sentences hit the nail on the head:

Instead, they need to engage them. They need to take their concerns seriously (crazy as they might be) and judo flip them to the reform path that they want. Whether that’s czars, Iran, taxes, “socialism” or what have you, the task that reform conservatives need to take upon themselves is to address those concerns in a serious way, and offer up conservative alternatives to the traditional conservative solutions.

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65 thoughts on “Reform Conservatism, Not Conservatives

  1. Mark-
    Perhaps you could flesh out a bit more who these conservative wonks are. For me, someone outside of the GOP/conservative orbit for a number of years, it is not all that clear. This may reflect my own subject matter bias, but when I think conservative wonk I picture people like Bruce Bartlett and Donald Marron, neither of whom seem to fit into your description.

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    • I don’t know anything about Marron, but to the extent that Bartlett is trying to reach a conservative audience, I think he’s doing what I’m looking for.

      Here, I’m probably referring more to your Douthats and Brookses, but also to your conservative think tanks, which I think have lost a lot of their boldness upon which they were built.

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    • People overdo The Godfather quotes, so forgive me for pointing out that Bruce Bartlett is nothing more than Tessio redux, about whom Vito says “Now listen, whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, he’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.”

      Bartlett wants us to support or acquiesce to higher taxes more or less for their own sake, as though metastazing entitlements are a fact of life we can’t do anything about. We had better hope they’re not. If they are our economy has no shot. And as near as I can tell, Bartlett argues this line out of personal pique against various conservative or Republican poohbahs. He’s not the only one, of course, but for the sake of all of us he needs to get over it.

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        • “I’ve never heard him claim that entitlements are, or ought to be, sacrosanct.”

          Sure he does. More precisely, he claims that the current spending trajectory is irreformable therefore we as a party should acquiesce to whatever taxation level is required to fund it. In return we should get some influence over how the money is raised, so we can implement a VAT instead of some other form which is more destructive of the economy.

          http://blogs.reuters.com/james-pethokoukis/2009/10/08/vat-attack-the-value-added-tax-bruce-bartlett-and-deficits/

          As far as resentment goes, I think that’s pretty clear too.

          http://www.newmajority.com/why-i-am-anti-republican

          Bruce Bartlett is not particularly important to anybody I know, except to the extent that he can argue his case like anybody else. The idea that we ought to repudiate the GOP because they done Bruce Bartlett wrong isn’t anything I take seriously, and in his heart of hearts I don’t think he does either.

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          • Bartlett makes no normative statement with respect to increased spending in the link you provided. He acknowledges that neither party has an appetite for spending controls. But an observation of reality is far from a normative statement.

            My earlier comment was not meant to imply that Bartlett holds no animosity towards the GOP in its current form. Bartlett spoke out about what he saw as the previous administration’s flaws and was read out of the conservative movement as a result. That he continues to have ideological issues with the current GOP leadership does not diminish that history.

            Further, what about Bartlett’s critique- “All I see is pandering to the party’s crazies like the birthers . In the short run that may be enough to pick up a few congressional seats next year, but I see no way a Republican can retake the White House for the foreseeable future.”– is substantively different from any other dissident’s view?

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            • Right. And he argued himself in that second link, his “ideological issues” are mostly misplaced retaliations for his personal resentments against the GOP and mainstream conservatives. It’s understandable why he might go that route, but no one else needs to.

              As I’ve argued elsewhere, dissident conservatism as we know it is pretty lame, so being a dissident conservative doesn’t necessarily speak well for Mr. Bartlett. But, to the extent he is to be distinguished within that group, most dissident conservatives have an airy, nonchalant understanding of our political process. To his credit (or not), Mr. Bartlett has no such delusions. He understands perfectly well the bipartisan trench warfare parts of our political system, and explicitly attempts to sell us out to the Democrats. That’s where that Tessio thing comes in.

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  2. the postion conservitives find themselves in seems to be crudly analagous to where the dems where in the 80’s. Liberal politics had been domnant for decades which led D pols to become complacent and corrupt. Lib succsess left the various parts of the coaltion at a loss for what else to do. Most, but by no means all, lib goals had been substantivly acomplished or had lost wide public support. There was a lot of low hanging fruit for a good politician, reagan, to pick off and a general desire for change along with a generational change.

    R’s have in many ways been either dominant or with momentum since the 80s. Yes clinton was a dem but he aimed at repudiatig a lot of the caricture of D’s and individul’s do matter and twist otherwise nifty anolgies. R’s have had a lot of what they wanted passed and what didn’t pass( SS reform under bush) was so unpopular and ill thoughtout that it had no chance.

    R’s are left with a similar feelings as D’s had. The wistful belief that the only problem is getting the message across better with a better, newer messenger (possibly one with boobies). A desire to blame everybody else except themselves for their fate and an inability to leave some of the past behind to move forward (read as, its 2009 and we need some new forking ideas).

    If anything helped the D’s it was the general push of progressives to , well, have forward progress. R’s are not quite as inclined to forward thought, preferring to explain why this or that long dead white philosopher had all the answers for 2009.

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  3. Mark, I disagree with your position that the “Neocons” aref actually “conservatives.” The modern political paradigm defined as liberal and conservative breaks down along the lines of unrest in Western history represented as the theophany and the hostile alienation represented, for example, in Hobbes’s “Fear of Death,” and Heidegger’s “Angst.”
    The liberal triumph represented by the election of Obama reflects the collapse of the Aristotelian quest for the ground and the consequent rise of the Marxist “socialist man.”
    The true conservative seeks a restoration not only of the Nous as the divine ordering force and the re-institution and/or actualization of noetic consciousness but enjoys a certain appreciation that:
    “Life is not given; the God of the Laws can only offer it through the revelation of his presence; life to be gained requires the cooperation of man.”

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    • Philosophically, I have no doubt that you are correct that the neoconservatives are not conservative. But politically and practically, their affiliation and influence on the modern conservative movement seems largely undeniable. Regardless, the point here is at least in part that conservative policy wonks need to be more forceful and willing to challenge the neoconservative narrative (similarly neoconservative wonks, if they have any principles at all, need to be willing to challenge the more traditional conservative narratives about smaller government and taxes).

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  4. “it’s a function of asking that conservative reformers fearlessly stand up proudly for their individual principles. ”

    OK, fine. But who, exactly, is failing to do this? Do you see Conor and Frum and the rest of the reformers as gulty of this in some sense? My read is that they are the ONLY ones even attempting it.

    To identify this as the problem, then attribute it ot the reformers seems really, really odd to me. Am I missing something? Escpecially in the case of Douthat. You mention the book here, and say it’s just not enough. But Douthat built his whole career on the book and its creation. Seriosuly. What more do you want him to do? Frum has been “challenging” the base and its institutions like NRO, and laying out his “individual” ideas for years.

    I mean this sincerely: You seem to think they are gailing in sime fundamenta, sense. OK. Frum wakes up tomorrow. What should he do? What does he need to do differently? What, specifically, does he need to say? What does he need to avoid saying? Where should he put this message out?

    After many, many posts on this topic, I am still not clear, at al, what you would have them DO. If anything, aren’t the people here guilty of the exact same thig you charge the reformers with? They take some shots at the talk radio hosts, you say, and offer no alternative. You take shots at the reformers and,,, offer no alternatives.

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    • Grand New Party is exactly the kind of thing that I’d have them do, and we need more of that sort of thing. Freddie’s point in his post on Douthat was that since he’s been with the Times he hasn’t really been pushing the narrative he was pushing in GNP.

      But in terms of what I specifically want to see: I want to see fiscal conservatives trying to convince other conservatives and the base that defense cuts are a necessary part of attacking the deficit. The bottom line is that I want to see reform-minded conservatives actually trying to persuade the base to support a different policy agenda from the “cut taxes, increase defense spending, save the family from destruction by the liberals” agenda that may well have worked in 1978, but is largely irrelevant now.

      But above all, I want reform conservatives to get their diagnosis of the problem right, and recognize – as Frum has, mind you – that the problems of the Bush Administration and talk radio go far deeper than just a few bad actors. That said, part of the problem is that Frum’s ability to persuade the base will forever be hampered as long as he’s associated with things like “unpatriotic conservatives,” and other accusations against the conservative base. There’s not much that he, personally, can do about that at this point, but to the extent that reform conservatives want to continue blaming the base for their problems, they will only make it more difficult for themselves to actually fix conservatism’s problems.

      As for not offering alternatives….dude, have you seen my writing on health care? That said, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I haven’t necessarily been the ideal example of what conservative wonks should be doing (although I really don’t consider myself a conservative or even, for that matter, a part of the American Right at all).

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        • One way of doing this would be to go on the talk radio shows or Fox News and make the case directly. Another way is to write more pieces for conservative media.

          Most importantly though, reform conservatives need to be making the case that in today’s world it is simply not possible to be, for instance, a tax-cut and defense spending deficit hawk. To the extent that I see conservative policy advocacy in recent months, it tends to be of the “Democrats should do…..” variety rather than the “Conservatives should do….” variety.

          Too often it appears, at least to me, that conservative policy activists and wonks aim their proposals at a liberal audience. This is in part a stylistic criticism, I suppose, and it’s certainly a subtle point, but it’s important nonetheless.

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          • Good points. I would argue that there needs to be new thinktanks that can respond to a reformed conservatism. The AEIs and Heritage Foundations came of age during a different era and I don’t think are capable to thinking of a conservatism for the 21st century.

            Personally, I’d love if people like you and E.D. formed some kind of alterna-con thinktank that put out conservative proposals for this new era.

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            • I hadn’t thought of the idea of new think-tanks emerging before. That’s a really good thought.

              As for E.D. and I forming a new alterna-con think tank…if you can find us the funding, I’m so there!

              Speaking of which….note to Cato: I am totally available for duty as an adjunct at a moment’s notice!

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              • I’m just going to throw this out there and wait for people to pounce on it like a raw steak in the lion’s cage: Newt Gingrich is proof that politicans can be affected by think tanks and intelligent lobbying for new policies. His lack of success in getting his collegues to adopt said policies is why reform conservatives face a very steep uphill climb.

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                • There’s probably a fair amount of truth in that statement. That said, and keeping in mind that it’s going to be an uphill road for reform conservatives regardless, Gingrich has a pretty good track record of moving the base in his direction, or at least finding themes that allow him to move the base in his direction. The current Scozzafava fiasco and backlash is a bit of the exception, I would say: he’s nakedly pushing a candidate on purely political grounds that he knows agrees with the base on virtually nothing. I have to say, it’s an uncharacteristically clumsy and tone-deaf move on his part, and he’s paying the price.

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                  • This is where I have to disagree with you somewhat. You say that Gingrich’s support of Scozzafava was silly because she doesn’t agree with the base. I’ve done a number of posts on Scozzafava at Republicans United ( http://republicansunited.us/tag/dede-scozzafava/) and her record is fairly conservative…not as conservative as the so-called base, but conservative.

                    If the point is to have someone that is liked by the base, the question remains: how can conservatism be changed if the base is not challenged? The current Conservative Party candidate is someone the base likes, but I don’t think he will ever help reform the party.

                    Also, as gay conservative, I tend to move towards Scozzafava who supports gay marriage and is yet a conservative. Because the base is against gay marriage is that okay?

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                • I think Gingrich is an interesting case. Before she became the acceptable anti-Obama, he worked with Hillary Clinton on healthcare and defense and escaped without a scratch from the right.

                  He also led an impeachment of Bill Clinton and Republican takeover of the House.

                  So it’s interesting to see a.) how his credentials as a through and through Republicans are both really solid and nearly unimpeachable and b.) how little traction he’s gotten on issues where he departs from the base.

                  I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say he’s allowed into the tent, but can’t lead it. Which is a step above those who can’t get in (Frum) but doesn’t speak much to the party or movement moving anywhere any time soon.

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                  • How about the part where he was forced out of R leadership due to being scandlerific. And not that it matters to the R base, but the entire time he was castigating Clinton for going all Free Willy, the Newtster was on a long term hike of the Appalachian Trail.

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      • “But in terms of what I specifically want to see: I want to see fiscal conservatives trying to convince other conservatives and the base that defense cuts are a necessary part of attacking the deficit.”

        Maybe yes, maybe no. When you look at the fiscal history of the feds over the last twenty years or so, plus the states and the industrial democracies in Europe, most things get pretty clear.

        We know that every country in Europe has cut defense expenditures substantially. In fact that’s a substantial underlying cause of diplomatic tension between the US and Europe. The Europeans want the influence that America has, but not do the things America has done. But that’s an aside in any case. The main point is that cutting defense has done nothing to help the public fisc for those countries and all of them are in worse shape than us. Maybe you could argue for cutting defense as on theory that “we’re all in it together”, so defense has to take its share of cuts. But even that argument is academic unless the butter 3/4 of the budget is addressed. Which under Democratic leadership it has never been, and likely will never be in the future.

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        • But was defense spending as large a contributor to the fiscal problems of those other nations as it is the US? This year, defense/security spending accounts for more than half of discretionary spending, which is in turn only about a third of the total budget (the rest primarily being Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt). Unless you are going to get very serious about Medicare reform (which Republicans have been unwilling to do), the only way to address the deficit problem is to go after what is by far the largest chunk of discretionary spending, and to go after it hard. Non-Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security entitlements are miniscule by comparison.

          Yet the most popular idea regarding military spending among Republicans right now is to mandate it be permanently set at a minimum of 4% of GDP.

          Put it this way: you could completely eliminate every single penny of non-defense discretionary spending, and it would barely be enough to repay the debt incurred for even one year between 2002 and 2007.

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          • Right. People can quibble about this or that but in rough terms defense and related security expenditures are roughly one-sixth of the annual budget. It seems to me that entitlements is where we have to cut for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. “That’s where the money is.”

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            • But that is, in part at least, why it seems the GOP is currently unfit to govern: they’re fighting for a defense spending floor of 4%, they’re actively fighting any kind of Medicare reform, and they’re opposed to any kind of tax increases, yet they are attempting to take the mantle of being budget hawks.

              Social Security reform may be able to help a little, but its funding stream is such that it has not yet become a major problem.

              While it’s true that the money is in entitlements, it’s in entitlements that Republicans have shown no willingness to attack. To my knowledge (and maybe I’m wrong here), they don’t even have a plan to tackle Medicare/Medicaid reform.

              If they’re not willing to tackle Medicare/Medicaid reform, the next biggest area of the federal budget – and far and away the biggest area of the federal budget without a dedicated funding stream – is the defense budget.

              Let me put it to you this way: what plan do Republicans have, right now, on which all or most all Republicans can agree, that will come anywhere close to balancing the budget or at least returning it to tolerable levels?

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              • “Let me put it to you this way: what plan do Republicans have, right now, on which all or most all Republicans can agree, that will come anywhere close to balancing the budget or at least returning it to tolerable levels?”

                Frankly the Party of No is good enough for now. If the GOP were in power now, chances are we’d have no stimulus packages, no car company bailouts, no Kyoto, no cap-and-trade, and no universal government health care bill. That already gives several trillion in the bank over the next decade or so.

                Now in the bigger picture, you and I might agree that’s still not enough to solve our fiscal problems but it’s a decent first step. Stop digging and all that.

                And this is where the GOP is functioning only as an opposition party. We should hope there will be a more proactive agenda as the Republicans attempt to contest for majority status.

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                • This is kind of the point. Party of No may be just fine for being a minority opposition party. It is not, however, fine for actually governing and if the GOP still has no agenda if and when it returns to some semblance of national power, it will simply repeat the errors of the last 8 years. Meanwhile, there are actual problems begging for actual solutions – and not just fiscal problems.

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                  • “Party of No may be just fine for being a minority opposition party. It is not, however, fine for actually governing…”

                    This is an odd situation (for me at least) where it’s easier to argue a stronger assertion, because the context is clearer. That is, not only are mainstream conservatives fit to govern right now, we are the only ones who are.

                    The GOP is not going to take actual control of either house of Congress until Jan 2011, though it may assume de facto control over the political debate sooner. Stopping the health care bill, stopping cap-and-trade, and stopping the “stimulus” packages is frankly a big enough agenda until then. Though, I agree with you that the party would be in better shape, both politically and for governance, if the GOP gets its head past being the Party of No ASAP.

                    Let’s also note this: it’s mostly the party’s fault that they are currently constituted as the Party of No. But not entirely. Dissident conservatives such as Mr. Bartlett (but not just him of course) are trying to get us to acquiesce to being fleas on the Democrats’ dog. Not only is that horrible political advice, it’s also fails as a substantive agenda and most importantly fails the aspirations and economic livelihood for America in general. The hope for prosperity for America (and political success for Republicans) crucially depends on that not happening.

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                    • Mike, that’s “free psychoanalysis”.

                      If someone asks a direct question, to respond by questioning the motives of the asker is a tactic that usually works… but it’s still not answering the direct question.

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            • “That’s where the money is.”

              Problematically, 80% of the money is still not in the federal government’s hands at all. Think how much of the debt you could pay off if you somehow had access to that…

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  5. /sigh

    You have TWO problems. The ideological problem, and the demographic timer on non-hispanic caucs.
    Where Rush and Beck hurt you is that they lock the GOP into the diminishing WEC demographic.
    The GOP sacrificed fiscal conservatism and libertarian principles to retain power….you can restore those values…but…..
    The GOP cannot attract minorities with rascism…..cannot attract the college-educated with creationism and anti-science dogma, and cannot attract youth with the uncool and the illiberal.

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  6. Another great post Mark..

    I think where we’re sort of at is a crossroads between two forms of conservatism. I would call one ‘traditional conservatism’ and the other ‘progressive conservatism’. I see traditional conservatism as primarily a reactionary effort to hold the line against the liberal inclination to advance culture at a reckless pace. Whereas in the past this conservatism might have manifested itself as a tapping of the brakes from time to time it has now morphed into both feet on the brake pedal, parking brake engaged, throw the keys out the window…no, no, no.

    While Obviously there is a portion of the Left who would prefer to see conservatism wither and die and for us to become a solely liberal nation, I think most critics of contemporary conservatism do so because they believe we need a healthy Right just as much as we need a healthy Left. So it’s my belief that those people want to see the total-opposition-to-everything version of conservatism go away but they also aren’t really comfortable with the reactionary-tap-the-brakes-as-needed version of the Right either. What they are really looking for can only be described as a progressive conservatism because they want to see a Right that moves things forward, albeit at a slower and more reasonable pace. I truly believe that Americans want us to always be moving forward but they prefer a slower approach to change than advocated by the Left, but modern conservatism isn’t giving them that.

    One of the great strengths of Grand New Party was that it looked forward and advocated real change within a conservative framework. It’s family-friendly ideas on using the tax code to encourage the kind of lifestyle choices the are healthiest for the country is forward thinking but also conservative approaches because it isn’t simply a hand-out and it places the traditional family as the goal of American society.

    What the public seems to want from reform conservatives is not just vocal opposition to the less-savory tactics and policies of the Right but rather they want to see conservatives suggest reasonable alternatives to liberal plans. In short, the public wants choices. Nothing burns up Independents more than having to hold their nose every 2-4 years when they pull the lever for the lesser of two evils.

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  7. Shorter Mark:

    To be sure, if the primary goal is to put an end to extremist rhetoric, then by all means focus on extremist rhetoric; if, on the other hand, the goal is to reform conservatism and make it a philosophy capable of governing well, then focusing on the symptoms rather than the disease will do nothing.

    What it comes down to is this: one cannot reform conservatism if one believes that the problem with conservatism is conservatives, and refuses to challenge core assumptions of conservatism. Indeed, what made Orwell’s critiques so effective and important was not that he publicized the evils of individual actors; it was that he drew the connection between evil and ideology in an attempt to reform that ideology. Conservative wonks and opinion journalists should be introspective enough to do likewise rather than merely seeking to blame conservatism’s problems on a small cadre of individuals.

    Very well said.

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    • In addition to my comments above about the radicalism of the Tea Party conservatives being opposed to the natural caution and skepticism of traditional conservatives, there are many contradictions, even within the Reaganesque conservatism that were dormant until recently.
      Namely the tension between defense hawks and fiscal hawks; Between civil libertarians and social conservatism.
      All parties can accomodate tensions, yet only when the individual members subordinate their agendas to the whole; the stridency of the Tea Party conservatives and willingness to couch their issues (foreign wars, abortion) in life or death existential terms, makes subordination nearly impossible.

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  8. I remember these discussions happening, to some extent, among the left after Kerry lost.

    There were those who argued that Kerry was not a problem. There were those who argued that he was. There were those who argued that Dean was the real reason the Democrats looked bad. There were those that argued that Dean what the only reason the Democrats looked as good as they did. Did Moore’s movie galvanize more Republican voters than it did Democratic voters? Will there, truly, be a Permanent Republican Majority???

    And the Republicans were stupid and bad and the voters kicked them out of office both 2 and 4 years later.

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  9. I agree with Mark’s analysis, but would also make the point that Wm. F. Buckley did two things in the 1960’s. He promoted a fresh intellectualy grounded version of conservatism, AND politically outmaneuvered and ostracised the Birchers, to make conservatism less about race resentment than genuine ideas.
    To borrow a phrase from the COIN warfare strategy: there are “reconcilables”, and irreconcilables”; we moderates need to engage and persuade and compromise with the former, and confront and ostracize the latter.
    Amid all the intellectual exercises there is a legitimate place for politics, and we can’t be afraid to confront and speak plainly about those who are destructively hateful.

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  10. I read an interesting piece in (I think) the Globe and Mail yesterday bemoaning the absence of a Progressive Conservative option in Canada. I’d be interested in one of the Canadian writers here providing a brief history of the Reform/Alliance battle with the PCs, whether Peter McKay’s unholy union is reversible and what lessons can be drawn for American politics.

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  11. “No, the point is that reform conservatives need to recognize that there is an ideological problem with conservatism as currently constituted as an amalgam of libertarianism, hawkishness, and religious fundamentalism that leaves modern conservatism incapable of governing well or ethically.”

    No, no, a thousand times no. I agree with you about the nature of some of the problems with conservatism as it exists to day, but you are misunderstanding the degree of these problems by orders of magnitude or something. Stipulating whatever problems you have with GWB or talk radio, not only is modern conservatism capable capable of governing well and ethically, it is the only thing that is.

    In particular, the modern Euro-weenie state is in real trouble that we have some chance of escaping because of our lower-case r republican traditions, whose political representation are mainstream conservatives.

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