The Current Crisis

Out of the Wilderness

Conservatism's death has been greatly exaggerated. Remarks delivered at The American Spectator's annual Robert L. Bartley Dinner on Tuesday.

By 11.12.10

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The prepared text of remarks delivered at The American Spectator's annual Robert L. Bartley Dinner in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 2010.

Well, I guess our Wilderness Years are over. They were very brief. I never even felt a chill. Conservatism's undertakers had hardly finished their tales of Conservative Crack-Up and Conservative Demise when we were on the comeback trail. I think it began January 20, 2009. Soon we were firing up our Hummers and heading home. I had hoped my years in the Wilderness would last a bit longer. Out there with the chiggers and the poison ivy, I had hoped to find the pulchritudinous Sarah Palin. I understand that she has a terrific recipe for sautéed elk. Or perhaps I could catch a member of the World Wildlife Federation torturing butterflies.

But now we have returned to civilization, and I do not know what to do with all that stuff I bought from the L.L. Bean catalogue back in that dratted year '08. Maybe I can give the stuff to Sam Tanenhaus, the goofball editor of the New York Times Book Review. If there be justice in this world, Tanenhaus will be consigned to the Wilderness for the rest of his life after writing that exceptionally imbecilic The Death of Conservatism, first in the New Republic, which is understandable. Everything in the New Republic, at least on politics, is imbecilic. Then, as a book. That was a little over a year ago. A little over a year ago! The Death of Conservatism! If I ever write such a stupendously stupid book, burn it!

Tanenhaus's theme was anticipated shortly after the '08 elections by David Frump and David Brooks. They are conservatism's Branch Davidians, who occasionally attempt suicide in the newspapers, only to be saved from oblivion by Liberals who find their columns somehow wonderful. Let me remind you all of what David Brooks said on November 11, 2008. He was writing in his ongoing New York Times con-job. There he said a week after the '08 election that "the battle lines have already been drawn" between the Reformers for whom he had the utmost hope. And the rest of us, for whom he saw only gloom. "In one camp," he wrote, "there are the Traditionalists, the people who believe that conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed."

"To regain power," David went on "the Traditionalists argue, the G.O.P. should return to its core ideas: Cut government [boo!], cut taxes[shock!], restrict immigration[egads!]. "Rush Limbaugh," he added, "and Sean Hannity are the most prominent voices in the Traditionalist camp but there is also...." Grover Norquist, Leonard Leo, Tony Perkins, and "the writer R. Emmett Tyrrell" whom David then proceeded to misquote.

"The other camp," he wrote, "the Reformers, argue that the old G.O.P. priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new generations." American voters will not support, "a party whose main idea is slashing government. The Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety." And get this "They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by David Cameron...." Who are these reformers? David Frump? Sam Tanenhaus? Brooks does not say.

He continued, "Moreover, the Reformers say, conservatives need to pay attention to the way the country has changed. Conservatives have to appeal more to Hispanics, independents and younger voters." And I kid thee not; "They cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West Coasts." And in conclusion he averred: "...the Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats." How we have suffered! He has been all over National Public Radio this week ignoring that '08 column and dispensing the Liberal bilge of the present moment. But we remember, David.

In the months that followed ‘08 I attempted to answer our undertakers. I told them in After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery that even as they were writing back in '08 and '09 conservatives outnumbered Liberals two to one, and even the Independents were more numerous than the Liberals. Liberalism has been a distinctly minority party for a long time. Take away their media support, and they are about as popular as the American Prohibition Party.

In Hangover I told them that we began in the 1950s as a tiny band of businessmen and intellectuals alarmed by the growth of government -- an early Tea Party movement, if you will. But through the ensuing years, led by such scholars as Milton Friedman, we developed arguments about government being a threat to our personal freedoms. Moreover, government could do only do two things well: inflate the currency and wage war. The rest is best left to private entrepreneurs.

Now the Liberals boast of their diversity. They include feminists, gays, Latinos, Blacks, the underclass, Hollywood, California, and so forth. But this is merely playing Masked Politics. Behind the Mask, they have been Democrats all along. And a feminist or a career civil rights advocate does not, contrary to their boasts, speak for all women or all blacks or all Latinos.

In the meantime since the 1950s conservatives have practiced inclusion and steadily expanded, creating the most diverse political movement in the country. We took in ever more groups of voters alarmed by Big Government and by feckless Liberalism.

In the 1970s there were the wayward Liberals who became alarmed by Liberalism's extravagant domestic policy and lack of resolve toward Communism. Our longtime Board member Jeane Kirkpatrick was one of them. They were called Neocons, and we welcomed them into the Big Tent. In the 1980s there were People of Faith who became concerned as Liberals threatened prayer in public places, pornography at the corner drug store, and legalized abortion. They were called the Christian Right, and we welcomed them into our Big Tent. When certain Democrats became Reagan Democrats under a man who talked about America as a City on a Hill -- beacon for all the world -- we welcomed them too, and they joined our Big Tent.

Now there is a new group we have welcomed into our Big Tent, the Tea Partiers. They really do want to slash government, balance the budget, and address the entitlements that are scheduled to bankrupt the U.S. Treasury. They are the latest addition to conservatism and we welcome them. Their arrival will finally allow us to do something about the enormous deficits that face Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. They must keep the pressure on. We will keep the pressure on. We shall all bring the Republican Party, and the country back, to Constitutional values.

And we come armed with a plan for recovery. Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future is our beginning. It incorporates the policies that have been hammered out in our think tanks. Doubtless there will be more such plans. Yet the suicide watch continues, particularly at the New York Times. There the Davidians have a new sidekick to go along on the op-ed page with David Brooks. He is Ross Douthat. He simply makes thing up. Just the other day in explaining the impending Democratic defeat he said that Social Security was founded in a time of "strong economic growth." He is talking about the Depression. He ended his column thus: "Obama seems as if he would have been a wonderful chief executive in an era of prosperity and consensus, when he could have given soaring speeches every week and made us all feel tingly about America." Has Douthat heard the things Obama has actually said about America? About our arrogance and militarism?

Now President Obama has fled the country. It is too soon to say if he will return or not. Let us assume the worst. He returns. What kind of country is he returning to? Actually the same country he left. The country about which he knows very little. And Nancy Pelosi knows even less. It is a country in which American conservatism has been providing the bulk of political ideas since the 1980s. You do not run for high office in America and promise to raise taxes, not since Fritz Mondale in 1984. You do not run for office promising enormous deficits. The mainstream in this country was shaped by the Reagan Revolution. When a Liberal runs for national office he or she lies to you. When a conservative runs for office he or she has no trouble telling you honestly what he or she is going to do. It is not terribly controversial except in Massachusetts and how long that will be true is in question.

What this election has proved is that policy matters. Obama and Pelosi and Reid promised more government. Longer waits for healthcare. Large handouts. Money going into one pocket that was taken from another pocket. We cannot afford it. We want economic growth. The American people want growth. And we have come from the Wilderness to return the nation to the growth.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.