Whither Conservatism

If opinion amongst the illuminati is any indication, “wither conservatism” is the more appropriate query. The Republican Party, generally regarded in our two-party system as the home of conservatism, has taken a beating in the last two election cycles. This is bandied about as evidence that America has rejected conservative ideals to embrace the sweet, soft bosom of liberalism. The balance of power has undeniably swung towards the Democrats of late; to what degree that shift can be attributed to the decline of conservatism is the question Republicans must debate. From here, it appears to be more short-term tactical failure rather than lack of a strategic vision.

Public opinion polling data has consistently demonstrated that America is a center-right nation. Most Americans understand and favor the rather abstract notion of limited government. Republicans failed to implement specific policies aimed and reducing the federal government’s footprint when handed the reins of power, instead opting for an orgy of spending and government expansion. They betrayed conservative ideals and violated the public’s trust. They opened the door for charges of hypocrisy from their opponents and threw fuel on the fire by not vigorously policing ethical breaches and corruption. Not a failure of philosophy, but rather a failure of men. Bad actors across the land tarnished the Republican brand; Democrats and the media (yeah, redundancy) rightfully went on the attack with great success.

Responsibility for the electoral bloodbath starts at the top. George W. Bush has done an extremely poor job advancing the conservative agenda. He sat on his veto pen while spendthrift Republicans in Congress expanded government at an unprecedented rate. His instincts on immigration are awful. He mismanaged a once-popular war to the point Americans preferred surrender to victory (although from a strategic standpoint letting Iraqis see just how bad life would be under the jihadis/insurgents probably helped launch the Anbar Awakening and aided the Surge strategy…). Worst of all, his administration seemed either unwilling or unable to defend itself from unjust criticisms. Why should conservatives defend him when he betrays our desire for limited government and won’t even defend himself? His dedication to keeping Americans safe following 9/11 has been steadfast and admirable. Beyond that, with a few exceptions (Roberts, and eventually Alito) he’s been a disappointment.

Turns out a “Compassionate Conservative” is a pro-life liberal.

Bush is not alone in disappointing conservatives, but he’s the face of the Republican Party. His unpopularity is a drag on the party all the way down to local dog catcher elections. Fortunately for conservatives, he won’t be available to kick around any more when 2010 and 2012 roll around. The challenge now is for congressional Republicans to restore voter confidence by actively and publicly fighting for conservative principals. Nationally, they need to identify a party leader to effectively present conservative ideas to the voters and reengage moderates.

The “who” is a question for another day; conservatives need to advance a concrete suite of policy ideas which reflect a commitment to limited government. One great failure has been the inability to link our current economic downturn to the market-distorting effect of affirmative action lending policies advocated through the Community Reinvestment Act and Fannie/Freddie. It’s has the Democrats’ fingerprints all over it. Yet the public blames Republican Party. Once again, Bush is POTUS and ultimately the buck stops with him. He’s done the “right” thing by not pointing fingers and working to repair the damage – to the detriment of the Republican Party as a whole. As the new Congress muddles through policies to “stimulate” the economy, the minority party needs to lay blame where it belongs and hammer the disastrous consequences of government distorting the market into the public consciousness.

Likewise, they need to emphasize the impact of the Democrats’ support for organized labor and ever increasing CAFE standards on US automakers.

Tax policy is another area where conservatism is a winner. People need to understand the US has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world and why that leads to higher prices and foreign outsourcing. America should lead the world in economic freedom, reducing corporate and capital gains taxes would further strengthen our competitive position. At the personal level, simplifying the tax code and implementing a flat income tax rate can increase revenue and save people hours of puzzling over our Byzantine federal tax code.

Affordable energy needs to be a cornerstone of conservative ideology. By reducing the amount businesses and individuals spend on energy we can put money back into everyone’s pockets. This is the ultimate in trickle down economics – by reducing costs at every stage of production, transportation, distribution, and retailing the price of all goods will fall. It benefits lower income Americans most of all since they spend a higher percentage of their income on personal energy consumption (electricity, natural gas, gasoline, etc.) and groceries. This is perhaps the best place conservatives can demonstrate how deregulation can put money back in citizens’ pockets. Eliminate barriers to expanding domestic oil/gas exploration and nuclear power. Use the tax code to allow energy companies to expand delivery infrastructure. Whatever it takes to ensure the US has the lowest cost energy in the world.

Finally, explain practical, results-focused reasons we need to not just limit, but reduce the size of our federal government. Start with the Citizens Against Government Waste website. Then point out the redundancy of many government programs. Point out the failures of the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Agriculture, and Office of National Drug Control Policy. Do we really need a Department of Labor? A Department of Commerce? If so, how do we measure their effectiveness? Why can’t they reduce their budgets by 1% annually? How come the government never has to tighten its belt?

Entrenched bureaucracies are a difficult foe to overcome – particularly with Government Employee unions laundering money back to the Democrats. Conservatives need to sell the public on a redesigned federal government that is efficient, nimble, and accountable. Privatize unproductive functions, promote on merit rather than seniority, reduce obstacles to releasing low-performing employees. Top performing organizations churn the bottom performing 10-25% of their workforce annually. Only government employees are going to oppose a government model that eliminates workers who aren’t striving to excel for their taxpayer-financed salary.

The thorniest area is social issues. It’s difficult to square limited government with many Republicans’ desire to impose morality through social policy. The demand for ideological purity on social issues also limits conservatives’ choices when it’s time to nominate candidates for a national ticket. Unfortunately, social issues are the ones most passionately argued on both ends of the political spectrum. One advantage the Democrats enjoy is the willingness to sacrifice ideological purity on social issues for the sake of electoral victory. Or toleration of obfuscation on the campaign trail. Two twenty, two twenty-one; whatever it takes.

Personally, I’m a limited government conservative even when it comes to social issues. I don’t believe the government should meddle in the affairs of adults. I don’t like abortion, but it’s not my place to tell people how to conduct their lives. If they’re comfortable with it on their conscience, so be it. Judge not lest ye be judged; if there’s a God they’ll take it up with him. That’s not a winner with the base and banning abortions isn’t a winner with the majority of the country. I guess the only way to frame it is as a judicial argument – appointing justices who will send the issue back to the voters in each state. We’d likely end up with basically the same laws we have now, but at least they wouldn’t be decreed by an unelected judiciary.

Voters would respond positively to these ideas. What’s been lacking is the will required to transform ideas into actions and spokespeople to defend and advance the conservative agendas when the howls of protest rise. No, we don’t want to take away seniors’ entitlement programs; we want to ensure they won’t bankrupt their grandchildren. We don’t want to take away school kids’ lunches; we want to let the more-accountable-to-individual-voters states and school districts take responsibility. We want the government to leave you alone, let you keep more of your money, and permit you to make decisions for yourself. Ready to help when catastrophe strikes and willing to see people suffer the consequences of poor decisions.

We’re probably kicking a dead horse, though. Conservatives have been saying the same things throughout the Reagan and Bush presidencies while we creep ever closer to an omnipotent nanny state. Perhaps conservatism is only viable as a round table political philosophy. The ideas sound good in principal but it seems there aren’t enough voters willing to swing without a government safety net for conservatism to work in practice.

Or, maybe they’ve been let down by Republicans to the point they’ve just thrown in the towel and decided to let the party of a chicken in every pot, federalized health care, and free money run things for a while. Will a new slate of fresh, conservative voices step up, stick to their promises, and kick Washington to the right? Only time will tell.

Posted by Baron Von Ottomatic

"We call this the barbershop. Everybody's getting a haircut here,"
Fear and Loathing in Detroit