Streetcar Line

How to Get Politics Right Again

Principles are principal.

By 5.30.07

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What's wrong with the right these days?

Allow, please, for some rambling, for something that is less a tightly crafted essay than some thinking out loud. Consider:

Here we are facing a leftist Democratic congressional leadership that is calling, in effect, for surrender in a foreign land -- and we can't gain much traction on the issue.

Here we are facing a leftist Democratic congressional leadership that badly porks up an "emergency" defense spending bill with non-defense projects -- and we can't gain much traction.

The leftist Democratic leadership passes a budget that would effectively require a massive tax increase. It moves towards elimination of "abstinence education" even though the pro-abstinence efforts are popular with parents. It pushes big government everywhere even though polls still show preferences for smaller government. It came to office, on a wave of disgust at Republican ethical lapses, promising higher standards and better enforcement -- and then it fails to discipline one of its most prominent members when he breaks the rules.

The leftist Democratic speaker of the House embarrassed herself by pretending to conduct diplomacy with Syria, and was widely excoriated even in the liberal media. The Majority Leader of the Senate keeps sticking his foot in his mouth. The front-runner for the Democratic nomination is somebody with some of the highest "hard negatives" in poll results that any presidential candidate has ever seen. The Democrats appoint to the Homeland Security Committee a man best known for accepting a dirty $100,000 payment and hiding $90,000 of it in his freezer.

But the right can't get much traction.

Finally, we Americans are enjoying the greatest economy in the history of mankind, with yesterday's report about soaring consumer confidence adding to the good news. The unemployment rate is very low. Inflation remains in check. Interest rates are below average. Wages are up. Home ownership is at record levels, while home values remain near record levels even after a slight slowdown. Stock market indices are at record levels, and the percentage of Americans owning securities is at or near all-time highs. The poverty rate is ticking downward. Shopping malls are filled to the brim. All at the same time, all when somebody usually identified as conservative sits in the Oval Office.

But the right still can't get traction.

MAYBE IT'S TIME FOR a conservative renewal. Perhaps it's time for conservatives to become reformers again. Definitely, it's time for conservatives to remember what conservatives are supposed to believe in.

We're the movement that believes in a smaller, more efficient government. We're the movement that believes in applying the lessons of history to current situations -- including the lesson that you can't secure a peace without boots on the ground. We're the movement that believes in the rule of law. We believe in national security. We believe in traditional values. We believe in open government, and in honest government. We believe in civil discourse -- except that on immigration policy, the pro-leniency faction continues to call the law-and-order faction "bigots," "nativists," racists, and the like, and our president says the law-and-order folks "do not want to do what's right for America."

We believe in empiricism, meaning we learn from evidence rather than rely on theory. Yet our administration ignores a National Intelligence Estimate that warns of infertile ground for democracy in Iraq and the probability of sectarian violence if Saddam Hussein is overthrown -- and, in response, the administration overthrows Saddam (good) without planning much at all for sectarian violence or for creating the institutions necessary to seed democracy.

We believe in merit, supposedly. Yet "our" administration fills the appointed ranks of the bureaucracy with second-raters. To handle national disasters, the president appoints a guy whose previous job experience involved heading a horse-industry interest group (and resigning under pressure therefrom). To oversee the Justice Department, and to handle Iraqi reconstruction, and supposedly to serve on the Supreme Court, values such as "loyalty" and, well, "values," are held in higher esteem than brilliance and relevant experience.

Faced with incompetence, the president cites lack of law-breaking as a positive attribute. Faced with unprecedented disaster, the president says an appointee has done a "heckuva job." Faced with a despot and former KGB honcho governing a huge nation with thousands of nuclear weapons, the president informs us that he can see into the despot's heart and soul and that the selfsame heart and soul are good.

In Congress, our leaders fight to keep their pork, appoint ethically challenged Members to key committees, break their word and bend all sorts of rules when in power and yet get re-elected by their caucus....

OH, WAIT, EXCUSE ME, I went off track. I was listing the things conservatives believe in, and I somehow found myself talking about what Republicans in power have done. Those are two separate things: conservatives, and Republicans in power. Conservatives have reason to support those Republicans only to the extent that the Republicans serve conservative ends, or if the fall of those Republicans will drag down conservatives with them.

Back in 1960, Barry Goldwater famously told conservatives to "grow up." He said our time would come. He was right -- but it took 20 years. And it took a unique conservative leader, with unique skills and unique appeals, to bring our movement to fruition.

We do not have the luxury of waiting 20 more years. Our society is in peril right now. We must rebuild quickly.

As we rebuild, we must do what conservatives of an earlier generation did. Build from the ground up -- as did people like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie and Morton Blackwell, and Cliff White and Bill Rusher, and Ed Feulner, and Stan Evans, and Phyllis Schlafly, and others too numerous to mention -- at the same time we try to find people at the very top to serve as our standard-bearers.

If we think that all will be well if we merely find the right presidential candidate, we are sadly mistaken. And we are equally mistaken if we think that grassroots development and organization and training alone will solve our problems, absent candidates such as Reagan backed by an "opportunity society" led by a Kemp and a Gingrich, a young Lott, a Bob Walker, a Vin Weber, and a Dan Lungren.

The way to rebuild quickly is to work both from the bottom up and from the top down, simultaneously. The truth is that the left is so outlandish that we really ought to be winning these days, and winning big. The fact that we instead are losing big is empirical evidence that the taste of power made us forget where it is that we are supposed to be going.

Use power on behalf of principles, rather than vice versa, and we can rebuild in a lot less than 20 years. But we must begin now.

More in future weeks...

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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.