Streetcar Line

Accentuate the Positive

Criticism is important, but not enough.

By 7.9.09

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Barack Obama is a disaster for the country because his economics are straight out of Mussolini's playbook, his foreign policy is that of Ramsey Clark, his Justice Department is that of Ramsey Clark as well, his ethics are pure Chicago thuggishness, his hostility to Christianity in the public square akin to that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and his ego like Napoleon's.

Yeah, … and trying to make those complaints will get conservatives exactly nowhere. Nor will complaints that the establishment media have put their journalistic ethical manhood in collective hock, trading in their watchdog roles for not just a lap dog role where Obama is concerned, but more like lap dancers for the president while asking him exactly what he wants them to show him.

Yes, Nancy Pelosi and Pat Leahy are hypocrites and cheaters; and yes, Barney Frank's economics are a threat to the republic; and yes, making "empathy" a criterion for choosing judges is about as relevant as making calculus skills a criterion for picking a hockey team.

To all those points, much of Middle America asks "so what?" Why should that make them pay attention to conservatives instead of paying attention to dead weirdo musicians and to their own credit card debts? Oh, much of Middle America will indeed give a passing thought to conservatives when those conservatives are flaking out in Argentina, Alaska, or airport assignations. But otherwise, conservatives just don't seem relevant.

A huge part of the problem is that our elected leaders don't seem to have a clue about how to mobilize conservative grassroots, much less the general public, behind positive themes or principled conservative ideals. The number of Republican congressmen not seriously afflicted with Inside-Baseball-itis can probably be counted on a broken abacus on which the beads don't move. And the congressmen who actually understand that good principles are good politics, rather than an occasional tool for political ends, are as rare as the latest confirmed sighting of a hairy-nosed wombat.

But none of that excuses the rest of us for our failures to win political battles.

The conservative movement somehow lost its ability to elect enough of its own to office. The movement certainly lost its ability to stay connected with enough of the politicians it helped elect to office. And it -- we -- clearly failed to maintain the constructive hold that conservatives once enjoyed on state and national Republican Party apparatuses.

To understand how bad things are, one need only watch Republicans in the Senate fumble the chance to win a real public relations battle concerning the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. On every level, polls give conservatives the edge on issues related to judges. Yet Alabama's Sen. Jeff Sessions has been allowed to wage a mostly lonely battle -- a valiant and well-thought-out battle, but still a mostly lonely one -- while most of his colleagues act as if it's a foregone conclusion that Sotomayor will be confirmed.

You can't win by acting as if you can't win.

And that's a shame, because if the nomination battled is waged well, there actually is, or could be, a serious chance, even if decidedly difficult, to defeat Sotomayor.

But I digress. The point here is that conservatives need to relearn politics.

Now that's a tall order. Relearning politics from top to bottom involves all sorts of campaign technology, media savvy, personal skills, and myriad other challenges -- far too many challenges to be discussed in one column.

But one fairly simple lesson from past conservative successes can be emphasized concisely. The lesson is this: To capture the public's imagination, a movement needs to push a galvanizing, positive policy change.

In the late 1970s, a flailing Republican Party rallied around what became the Kemp-Roth tax-cut plan, along with calls for a strong defense. In 1994, conservatives rightly embraced the Contract with America. In 2002 especially, but also in 2004, conservatives effectively campaigned on the issue of judicial nominations. And in 2004, it is almost certain that various state initiatives to outlaw homosexual marriage helped carry President Bush to re-election while helping save or win seats for a number of Republicans, conservative or not, who benefitted from high social-conservative turnout.

In each case, conservatives clearly provided something to vote for. Yes, it also helps immensely to have something to vote against. Parties and candidates can win elections on the strength of being against something or someone bad. But principled movements can't elect enough principled politicians to office, and keep them in office, merely on a negative message. They need to offer something positive -- something either inspirational or at least deeply felt. Something for people to support.

Pundits, including ones whose names begin with "Q," need to learn this lesson too. We may have good reason to stress the negative, to sound warning bells against bad policies or people, to make provocative comparisons and points of logic. But if we pundits focus only on those criticisms of the left, we too fail to make a case that can keep the broader public engaged beyond the lifespan of any one particular grievance.

Sure, we occasionally write columns heavy on policy ideas and positive themes. But like so many other conservative activists, we don't focus enough attention on winning, positive, prescriptive solutions to current problems.

These solutions do not need to involve active government. They do need to involve a citizenry that becomes more active in public -- in politics or in very public private-sector leadership.

The Obamites right now are undermining our sovereignty, our values, our foreign policy stances, our longstanding alliances, our sanctity of contracts and of private property, our limits on governmental power, our energy independence, our dollar, and our long-term national solvency. We need to offer not just a check on those Obamite efforts but a concrete explanation of what we would do differently.

Let us therefore pledge ourselves to rallying around positive themes and proposals -- some of which I hope to broach in this space in weeks to come.

Right now we face a serious struggle for the basic symbols and practices of the American tradition. Let us demand of each other that we rise to the challenge.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.