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Sorting It Out

What now for the Republican-Conservative conventicle?

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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IF YOU THINK THAT THE 2008 presidential contest was a long and painful process, just wait for the post-election fight on the right. The recriminations began before The One ascended into electoral heaven.

On the question of how we got here, conservatives seem to have broken down into roughly two competing camps. One says that the Republican Party keeps encountering defeat at the ballot box because it isn't conservative enough. For eight years under George W. Bush, there was compassion without conservatism in the form of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and increases in discretionary spending unseen since Lyndon Johnson splurged on guns and butter at taxpayer expense. The Republican Congress was even worse, indulging in ethical lapses and binging on pork. Yet this year, Republicans nominated a presidential candidate to Bush's left.

Other conservatives counter that there is something deeply wrong with the Republican message, and maybe even conservatism itself. While millions worried about their vanishing stock portfolios, disappearing jobs, and nonexistent health insurance, the GOP was at best offering solutions to the problems of 1980 and at worst being smothered by a conservative cocoon more concerned about Bill Ayers than Joe the Plumber. John McCain, they argued, was particularly ill suited for the role of compelling economic messenger in this climate.

There is an element of truth to both critiques. Conservative domestic policy must go beyond attacking earmark abuses and chanting, "Drill, baby, drill!" But that doesn't mean the right should cozy up to big government. Rockefeller Republicanism was good for Nelson Rockefeller, but not the GOP as a whole. Conservatives must resist succumbing to either the liberal conventional wisdom or the right's own herd mentality. The former produced numerous catty attacks on Sarah Palin, the true star of the Republican ticket; the latter convinced many conservatives that the surge made the Iraq war a winning issue.

Few Americans are Tories, making big-government conservatism untenable. Thankfully, not many more are liberals.

 

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

 

Jed Babbin

 

Well. Now that was unpleasant.

The most liberal member of the United States Senate, a man with no training, education, or experience relevant to the job, will be the president of the United States for the next four years. And his vice president will be a man whose claim to 36 years of experience in foreign policy is tarnished only by the fact that he has been wrong on every major issue.

The result was inevitable: John McCain is not a conservative and his running mate, Sarah Palin, was not ready for prime time. Between the two, they failed to appeal to the essential conservative constituencies and unite them. Reagan Democrats--facing the financial crisis--largely went for Obama. Evangelical Christians in places such as Ohio could have made the difference in some states.

Let the recriminations begin, let the tumbrels--and the heads -- roll. The Republican Party has to define and solve the problems that led them into the wilderness. Some are obvious. Some are not. Two examples:

First, the Democrats require anyone who votes in their primaries to at least profess allegiance to their party. Republicans, by allowing cross-over voting in early primaries, enabled the Democrats and independents to choose their candidate. Don’t believe it? Examine the margins by which Sen. McCain won in places such as New Hampshire. The margin of his victory in those primaries was equal--according to the exit polls--to the percentage of cross-over votes. And the Republican Rules Committee has adopted these same bizarre rules for 2012.

Second, the Republican brand--reduced to ashes by the Bush administration and wasteful spenders in Congress--has to be rebuilt from the ground up. The foundation of conservative principles--smaller government, reduced spending, strong defense, and protection of individual liberties--is still there. If they choose to rebuild on it, and reject the mantra of “compassionate conservatism”--a quiet form of liberalism--they can succeed quickly. We will lead them back from the wilderness. If only they will follow.

It’s 1974 again, people. We have a lot of work to do.

Jed Babbin is the editor of Human Events.

 

 

Michael Barone

You can’t win ’em all. None of us wants to live in a country where one party wins all the time. But no one wants his party to lose, either. And for most conservatives, the Republicans will remain their party, however inept and exasperating its leaders. So what should conservatives think after their party has gotten licked? A few thoughts.

One. This wasn’t--quite--a Democratic blowout. Barack Obama’s margin was unambiguous but not overwhelming, less than George H. W. Bush’s in 1988. Democrats have fallen short of 60 seats in the Senate. Their gains in the House look to be less than Charlie Cook, Stuart Rothenberg, and Larry Sabato forecast. Given the fundamentals--party ID, direction of the nation, president’s job approval, edges in money, organization, and enthusiasm--Democrats reasonably hoped for more. The numbers look a lot like 2006. There are a lot of stubborn Republican voters out there.

Two. The election returns suggest that Obama has built a top-and-bottom coalition. The highly educated and urban affluent on the one hand; blacks and (despite John McCain’s stand on immigration) Latinos on the other. Yes, I know, it’s a little more complicated: some grad school graduates are modest-income teachers and social workers (imbued with all sorts of bad ideas from their grad schools), and some blacks and Latinos are affluent while even those who are not can make their way around in and up our society (see Obama, Barack). I think there’s something unstable about a top-and-bottom coalition. Not because its members’ economic interests are in conflict (the Leonard Bernsteins don’t mind paying high taxes) but because its politicians tend to support policies that don’t work. Example: New York in the decades after Bernstein’s famous party for the Black Panthers. Obama’s policies to tax high earners more to hire more government employees will sooner or later provide ground for complaint.

Three. Conservatives need to look ahead, not behind. Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. are dead. The America and the world they did so much to change for the better has changed. Conservative principles are still valid, but issues always need reframing. Meanwhile, the Obama administration will give us new things to oppose and--maybe--new things to support.

Four. Conservatives have two new champions, with the demotic touch the Republican party always needs: Sarah Palin and Joe Wurzelbacher. The 2012 ticket? Four years ago, Barack Obama was a state senator.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

Jim Burnley

Having grown up in the South during the last years of segregation, I believe that Senator Obama’s election is a remarkable, and positive, commentary on how far we have come as a nation over the last 50 years. Unfortunately, the first African American president may also turn out to be our most radical president.

Although he skillfully portrayed himself as a tax cutter during the campaign, even getting to Senator McCain's right on health care-related taxes, he also signaled his belief that the tax code should be an instrument to redistribute wealth. From his opposition to any restrictions on abortion, to his declared intention to use a cap-and-trade system to outlaw new coal plants, and to his support for changes in labor laws to expedite the rapid reunionization of the private sector work force, he underscored his standing as the most liberal member of the Senate.

An early indication of whether he intends to pursue a comprehensive radical agenda will be his key personnel appointments. Obviously, Cabinet secretaries and agency heads are extremely important, both substantively and symbolically. But the workhorses of any presidency are senior White House staff, deputy secretaries and deputy administrators, and assistant secretaries and assistant administrators. If President-elect Obama fills these positions with members of the professoriate, union activists, environmental extremists and the like, then the country will be in for a very rough ride.

Jim Burnley served as secretary of transportation in the Reagan administration.

John H. Fund

American politics has shifted slightly but clearly to the left in the wake of Bush administration failures. But exit polls showed only 51 percent of Americans want government to do more for them. One of the most striking successes of Barack Obama’s campaign is that he was able to convince 19 percent of conservatives that he was going to cut their taxes, while only 12 percent of conservatives thought John McCain would do the same. Thus, even some conservatives could find a reason to vote for change in the person of Barack Obama.

As Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, who helped Bill Clinton win reelection in 1996, puts it: “This election is not a mandate for Democratic policies. Rather, it is a wholesale rejection of the policies of George W. Bush, Republicans, and to a lesser extent John McCain.”

If the Democrats govern as if there is no Republican Party, they are likely headed to the kind of reaction that Bill Clinton faced when he made the same misjudgment after the 1992 election victory, following a meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, with then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley. At that point, Clinton decided to defer to Congress on key elements of his legislative agenda, and the subsequent lurch to the left did incalculable damage to his presidency.

That may be one reason why Barack Obama has chosen Rahm Emanuel, a respected member of the congressional leadership, to become his new White House chief of staff. Someone will have to tell Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the first two years of Democratic dominance of Congress after their 2006 sweep has left them with a Congress that has an approval rating even below that of President Bush.

To the extent that Barack Obama is a successful president, it will be in direct proportion to how much he remains his own man and trusts the political instincts that have gotten him this far, this fast.

John H. Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and The American Spectator’s Politics columnist.

Quin Hillyer

The conservative movement has been hobbled, badly, for quite some time. Despite all of its influence, the Movement (I’ll capitalize from here on for clarity) has not had one of its own at the top of a presidential ticket since 1984. Worse, the Movement now claims only a minority of elected officials at virtually every level of government. Worse still, even some officials who are considered Movement types are seriously lacking in their ability to combine principle with practical politics. They just don’t know how to meld the two. They don’t understand how practical politics and principle are mutually reinforcing.

The central mission for the Movement, therefore, is to convince candidates and officeholders alike of the enduring truth that good principles (and good policies) are good politics. Here’s how the Movement should pursue that mission: A grand coalition of conservative leaders ought to combine forces for a Candidate Recruitment Political Action Committee--with great fanfare. It should use all its savvy and muscle to make its imprimatur essential for any candidate right of center, and should make crystal clear to voters nationwide why its candidates merit support.

It should do so by promulgating a clear statement of principles. (One model, perhaps too lengthy, can be found in the mission statement at www.conservativecompact.com.) It should then require every candidate who wants its endorsement to attend a weekend-long training session, perhaps modeled after those at the Leadership Institute, that would include an advance assignment to read every word of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, plus at least one popular-literature account of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. (Three good ones are Miracle at Philadelphia, by Catherine Drinker Bowen; Decision in Philadelphia by Christopher and James Collier; and A Brilliant Solution, by Carol Berkin.)

It would not be a wasted exercise. No better example can be cited for public servants trying to combine practical politics with principle, under pressure, for posterity, than can the Constitutional Convention.

Put that together with practical, hands-on training in modern political technology, and with an acclaimed CRPAC panel at the end of the training/selection process to make an endorsement in every federal race (along with vast organizational and financial support to go along with it), and suddenly you have a cadre of candidates who are fit for office and readily identifiable by the public.

The problem with the Movement is not in its constituent parts, but in its disassociation from actual officeholders. This plan, or something like it, would bridge that gulf.

Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and an associate editor at The Washington Examiner.

Terence P. Jeffrey

No matter what conservatives write or say today, our movement will be defined in the coming months by where we stand and fight--because President Obama and the Pelosi-Reid Congress will give us plenty to fight against.    In my view, conservatives must always fight on three principled fronts: 1) for laws and cultural norms consistent with the Ten Commandments and the natural-law vision of the Declaration of Independence, 2) for limited government as defined by the U.S. Constitution, and 3) for a realistic foreign policy that, through the best moral and practical means, defends the liberty, security and prosperity of the American people.

George W. Bush often departed with conservatives on 2) and 3), embracing big-government programs such as No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug entitlement while pursuing the utopian idea that the United States should somehow go about “ending tyranny in our world.” 

President-elect Obama is unambiguously on the wrong side of all three fronts. 

He has vowed to sign the Freedom of Choice Act and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, threatening the sanctity of life and the traditional family. Conservatives must fight him here. 

He is committed to enacting a constitutionally unjustifiable national health care plan that would lead to the socialization of medicine, diminish the self-reliance of the American people, and hasten the day when entitlement spending bankrupts the country. Conservatives must fight him here.

He declared, when campaigning for president of the United States in Berlin, Germany, that: “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet.” Conservatives must fight all the naïve and internationalist impulses in Obama’s foreign policy.

And just as our movement will be defined by where we stand and fight, our political leaders will be defined by who fights with us.

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSNews.

 

David Keene

Liberal pundits, analysts, and camp followers are already suggesting that Barack Obama’s victory on November 4 has forever changed American politics in ways that will make it virtually impossible for Republicans and conservatives to come back for a long, long time.

They have every right to celebrate, but they shouldn’t get carried away because we’ve all been there before. Barack Obama is only the second Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to win more than 50 percent of the vote. Jimmy Carter managed to do it by a hair in the post-Watergate election of 1976. After both of those elections, an earlier generation of pundits predicted the end of conservatism and of the GOP. In both instances, things ended badly for those celebrating the demise of the right as Republican candidates retook the White House in 1968 and 1980.

Liberals were especially giddy after Watergate. The news magazines predicted the death of the Republican Party and many Republicans themselves didn’t know what to do.

Members of the party’s national committee discussed changing the name of the party or abandoning it altogether.

Then Ronald Reagan stepped forward and urged conservatives to take the party and abandon the “banner of pale pastels” flown by the GOP establishment for one of “bold colors.” They listened, organized and rebranded the old GOP, nominated him in 1980, and within months analysts were suggesting that perhaps the revitalized Republicans had doomed the Democrats to permanent minority status.

The fact is that sensible conservatives should be eager to take on the challenge embodied in the Obama victory. They now have an opportunity to go back to basics, to shape the policies of a party desperate for leadership and ideas. There are bright, energetic conservatives in the Senate and House, and even more out in the states. The party of George Bush will become the party of Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, and Mark Sanford, and it will prove to be a far more aggressive and principled threat than what Obama and his forces defeated this year.

We’ve not only been there before, but we’ve come back before and will again.

David Keene is the chairman of the American Conservative Union.

 

Philip Klein

America is not as conservative as it seemed in 2004, and it isn't as liberal as it looks right now.

What happened is that four years ago, voters put their trust in one political party to run the country and they didn't like the results, and so, over the course of two elections, they systematically threw out that political party and turned to a different one. If Democrats disappoint the public, they could be waking up on a not-so-distant November morning just as devastated as Republicans were in 2008.

Those who are in the profession of writing the first rough draft of history would have us believe that a single election result can signal the end of an intellectual tradition, but actual history instructs us otherwise. This is especially true for conservatism, which rose from the staggering defeat of one of its own in 1964 to a glorious triumph 16 years later.

Although Barack Obama has radical liberal roots, he was elected president by papering over his past, and convincing Americans that he was a pragmatic moderate who would cut their taxes and be more fiscally responsible than President Bush. If, once in power, Obama and his Democratic allies cater to their liberal base, it will be jarring to Americans who had something different in mind when they voted for the abstract concept of "change."

Conservatives won’t thwart Democrats by name-calling, but by making intelligent arguments to the country that explain why liberal proposals will have disastrous implications and by emphasizing that there is little room left to expand social programs when the government has to fund a $700 billion bailout.

While the network of conservative think tanks, journalists, and activists will have to spend the foreseeable future on defense, trying to contain the march of liberalism, it will also be a time for the movement to engage in long-term thinking, so that it will be in a position to reassert itself when the political conditions are right.

The task for conservatives is to make small-government ideology more relevant to contemporary challenges. With all the focus on the financial crisis that hit this fall, the candidates all but ignored the long-term $53 trillion deficit fueled by entitlement spending. The choice is clear. Either lawmakers rein in social programs, or they turn America into a European welfare state, with unconscionable tax rates, high unemployment, a stagnant economy, and a shrinking military budget. Not since Ronald Reagan's landslide in 1980 has there been a better opportunity for conservatives to make the case for a smaller government with limited functions.

Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.

 

Jeffrey Lord

In 1992, as the Bush-Clinton race careened to an end, a newspaper story reported that Bush aides were seen “trudging” on and off Air Force One. Physical exhaustion, it was clear, had overtaken the Bush 41 team. Shortly thereafter, they lost.

Intellectual exhaustion has overtaken the Republican Party of 2008. But not, it should be said, the conservative movement. From the world of talk radio to its magazines, think tanks, and grassroots activists, the conservative universe is both intellectually sharp and forward-looking. It cannot escape notice (other than in the usual mainstream media quarters) that President-elect Obama felt compelled to campaign as a would-be tax-cutter who was tough as nails when it came to the idea of deploying American military might in Afghanistan or, if need be, to invade Pakistan.

This is nothing if not a testament to the continued power of Reagan conservatism, even if Obama’s devotion to tax-cutting and military strength is more political tactic than principle.

The real task ahead for conservatives is not to reinvigorate conservatism but for conservatism to breathe new life into the GOP itself as a party of ideas that deals imaginatively with the real-life concerns of Americans.

As always, the Democrats, this time led by Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Harry Reid, will provide plenty of ammunition. Despite the echoes of Reaganesque campaign language, the Obama White House and congressional Democrats will soon get themselves entangled in the political consequences of bad economic and energy policy at home while being dangerous appeasers abroad. More ominously for Obama, it is no accident that two of the last three Democratic presidents who openly governed from the left--LBJ and Jimmy Carter--found themselves under assault from erstwhile allies for not being left enough. (By pretending to centrism after the 1994 loss of Congress, Clinton avoided the fate.) Each time a split opened the way for new chapters in the resurgence of the modern, conservative GOP.

Personnel is policy when it comes to staffing administrations. The same holds true when a party is out of power. Positions such as chairman of the Republican National Committee demand the attention of someone who has both a creative understanding of the power of conservative ideas as well as the capability to implement a sharp, strategically and tactically sound, crystal-clear opposition agenda to the White House. The glaring weakness of the McCain campaign was McCain's feckless insistence on “reaching across the aisle” as opposed to being a Reagan-style leader of the conservative movement. Reagan wanted to win, McCain wanted to get along. Presumed to get mainstream media support and votes, the McCain approach got none.

It was a tell tale sign of intellectual exhaustion. It is not a mistake Republicans should make again.

Can you say “Chairman Newt”?

Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania.

 

Grover G. Norquist

The Democrats have captured the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. Now what?

We have been here before and we can learn from how we recovered after the Goldwater defeat of 1964, the Watergate election of 1974, the Jimmy Carter election in 1976, and the Bill Clinton election of 1992 that gave Democrats the White House and Congress. The establishment left explained that the GOP and conservatism were finished and that we “must” move to the left. We passed on this helpful advice and created the Reagan Republican Party based not on the man but on the principles of limited government, lower taxes, less government spending and regulation, and a strong national defense. Back in 1964, 1974, and 1976 we had a theory that such a movement could be successful politically and in governing. Today we know that a Reaganite campaign can win. We have won four presidential campaigns with this tested approach: 1980, 1984, 1988, and 2000. In two of those cases the candidate who ran as a Reagan Republican did not always so govern.

Now we must do triage. The Republican minorities in the House and Senate cannot stop every bad piece of legislation. But those bills that would change the correlation of forces, such as abolishing secret ballots for unionization, the Fairness Doctrine that would outlaw conservative talk radio, or changes that facilitate increased voter fraud such as national same-day registration, must be filibustered and stopped. If we demand that all bad bills be filibustered, our senators will eventually tire or break and be overrun. There must be a selective line in the sand against permanent damage to our team.

The second group of bills are bad ideas that do damage that can be repaired. Overspending. Tax hikes. The important point is to oppose those bills and vote against them--not try to improve them so that an 80-percent really bad bill passes with Republican fingerprints all over it. We have two recent models. In 1990 President Bush and too many Republican congressmen and senators went to Andrews Air Force base and agreed on a tax hike to fund increased spending. We lost the presidency two years later. In 1993 Republicans refused to provide a single vote for the Clinton tax hike and Republicans captured the House and Senate the following year.

Lastly, there are nonpartisan ideas such as transparency in government that can safely be supported and highlighted, so we are not seen as always obstructionist.

Grover G. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform and the author of Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives (William Morrow).

Mark Sanford

Though I have many thoughts on the election, I will limit mine to what the Bible talks about in taking the log out of one’s own eye before worrying about the splinter in the eye of another. The “other” in this case is represented by Democratic wins and the election of Barack Obama. It was a historic night, and the election of the first black president is a great commentary on opportunity and where we have come as a country. I wish him well.

Going back to the log in our party’s eye, the election was not a repudiation of conservative ideals. It was a repudiation of a party that had come to stand for surprisingly little. In some ways Ted Stevens personifies what went wrong, as he did not stand for conservative principals, and accordingly the party’s problems were far broader than even the presidential race.

Republicans have campaigned on the conservative themes of lower taxes, less government, and more freedom--they just haven’t governed that way. Words not matching deeds can be a deadly formula in the world of politics.

So during our “time in the wilderness” it’s my hope that we go back to the basics of conservatism. In the business world, a political party is a lot like a brand. The thing that unites Caterpillar or John Deere customers is the way in which those products consistently walk the walk in delivering on what they advertise. We need to get back to the knitting of what I believe made this country and party great--a common sense conservative approach. Though they have engineering expertise, when Cat or Deere run into problems they don’t suggest making airplanes and cars as part of the solution.

Accountability will be important too. Rank-and-file Republicans indeed know what they’re about, but I’m often struck by the conflicting actions of office-holders. Chick-fil-A does not say to its franchisees, “However you want to cook the sandwiches is cool with me.” They are precise in what they expect, and it’s my hope going forward that more conservatives in all corners of America will be equally precise and exacting in making sure their views are reflected by the party that supposedly represents them.

The time before us will prove to be a great opportunity in righting the party--if we take it.

Mark Sanford is the governor of South Carolina.

Richard Viguerie

So much for “compassionate conservatism”--or, as it’s more accurately known, Big-Government Republicanism.

For the past eight years, Republican Party leaders conducted an experiment. For many decades, at least since the New Deal, Democrats used taxpayers’ money and the coercive power of government to support organizations affiliated with the Democratic Party and to build loyalty to the party. Could Republicans do the same? Could they pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit, and buy the support of seniors? Could they get Latino votes by supporting amnesty for illegal aliens, and farmers’ votes by subsidizing agribusiness, and parents’ votes by federalizing education? Could they use thousands of pork-barrel projects to protect Republican officeholders? Could they build the party by rewarding friendly faith-based groups with taxpayers’ money, and by getting K Street lobbying firms to hire Republicans, and by bailing out the Bush administration’s friends on Wall Street?

Could they out-Democrat the Democrats?

The results of the experiment are in. The results are: Majority Leader Reid, Speaker Pelosi, President-elect Obama.

Every Republican leader who helped conduct this experiment, at every level in the party and in the government, must go.

Those leaders must be replaced with principled conservatives--with new leaders who are in touch with the conservative values of most Americans:

· A Rasmussen poll released October 3, 2008, found that voters, by 59% to 28%, agreed with the assertion in Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

· A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll released October 10 asked: “In general, do you think government involvement is usually the solution or the problem?” By 53% to 17%, people selected “problem” over “solution.” When they were asked “Do you think this is a good time for higher taxes and larger government or is this a good time for lower taxes and smaller government?” respondents selected lower taxes and smaller government by 76% to 13%.

· Washington Post polls conducted October 19-21 showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering self-identified liberals by roughly seven-to-four.

If we are to rebuild the conservative movement and, someday soon, achieve our dream of conservative government, we must build a new corps of conservative leaders--leaders from every segment of society, young (for the most part), and skilled in using traditional media as well as new and alternative media to organize conservatives and to promote conservative ideas.

Along with new leaders, we need a new approach to issues, an approach that applies conservative principles to problems facing grassroots Americans in the 21st century.

The Republican Party’s current leadership is incapable of serving as an effective opposition to the Democrats. Conservatives must assume that role.

Richard A. Viguerie is the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.