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The GOP Needs Real Heroes

Stop looking for redux Reagans. 

By From the June 2014 issue

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The media reports these days make conservatives look like a fractious bunch—as indeed we sometimes are. I am deeply informed about grumpy conservatives and paranoid libertarians, bellicose neocons and navel-gazing paleocons. What I know as a matter of basic political arithmetic, however, is that we will need all of these groups—and more—if we are to restore some semblance of conservative governance. The path to that convergence, if not all the way to civility, is not only rhetorical but also doctrinal. We should start with the latter challenge, which lies, most consequentially, in the field of international affairs.

When it comes to defense and foreign policy, we, the leadership of the conservative movement, have done a very unconservative thing: We have spent down our intellectual inheritance. We have blown through the fusionist bequest passed down to us by Frank Meyer and Brent Bozell. Their fusionism, which conjoined Meyer’s freedom and Bozell’s virtue, was a fine piece of ideological cabinet-making. It stood handsomely in our front hall for a half-century, a welcoming introduction to our conservative worldview. But even the finest piece of tongue-and-groove carpentry must be maintained or, over the years, it will begin to loosen, then crack at the joints, and then splinter into pieces and panels. That’s where we are now.

We have only the two side panels—one represented by Rand Paul’s demobilization, the other by Marco Rubio’s interventionism. Both of those themes echo honorably down through conservative history. Paul recalls Meyer’s freedom; Marco Rubio echoes Bozell’s virtue. But they do not, either Paul’s views or Rubio’s, represent in themselves a coherent or widely acceptable policy alternative, any more than Meyer or Bozell, standing alone, did in their day.

Our proximate political problem is that almost all Americans—upwards of 80 percent, the polls suggest—agree with neither Paul nor Rubio. They find themselves somewhere in between,thus rendering our intramural debate, in which we shout at each other across a vast chasm, all but incomprehensible. What we need is some hard, doctrinal work to fashion a new foreign policy pertinent to these times, a foreign policy in which military power serves national purpose and not ideological abstraction. What we need, I’m suggesting to our friends in academe, the think tanks, and the media, is some fine, fusionist cabinetmaking.

But we first need to rediscover a rhetorical path to civility. Conservative rhetoric has lapsed into a state of disrepair. It is intended to rouse and unify, and today it does neither.

The magnitude of the problem was manifest most recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., last month. I diagrammed a few of those speeches. They were constructed along these lines: Step one: Call your opponent names. I gather from CPAC, in fact, that contemporary liberalism is just about equally divided between two rival factions—the idiots and the morons. Step two: Assert your moral superiority. To win a sitting ovation, it is recommended that you do so at the top of your lungs. Step three: Chant the following phrases with the rhythm of incantation: limited government, free enterprise, individual responsibility. Step four: Exit to a standing ovation.

These speeches begged—and answered—this question: To whom were the speakers speaking? To the national television audience? Or to themselves? 

Amid the several blessings of talk radio and Internet bloggery, we have created for ourselves one very large rhetorical problem. We have learned to savor the many satisfactions of talking to ourselves, while forgetting how to talk to people who do not yet agree with us. That is a luxury that Bill Buckley and the founding brethren never enjoyed. Separated from the public by what were then the monopoly media, Buckley could not get away with condemning and asserting. He would have had the impact of a B-B bouncing off the hull of an incoming drone. Rather, he was obliged to beguile and persuade—obliged, first, to beguile the monopoly media into granting him access to their audience, and then to persuade the audience to entertain what seemed to be his eccentric views. 

If we hope to win national elections now and then, we must acknowledge that “condemn and assert” won’t cut it. We will have to learn once again how to “beguile and persuade.” And those incantatory phrases: limited government, free enterprise, individual responsibility? We conservatives love them. We can dance to them. But nobody outside this room has any idea what they mean. They are limp and lifeless. All the juice has been sucked out of them by mindless repetition.

Hard as it may be to believe, we—the descendants of the Great Communicator himself—have been losing the rhetorical war. How could that possibly be? How have we managed to make sodden and tedious the most exciting story in recorded history, that of human freedom? Why in our public discourse have we substituted Beltway wonkery for the plain and powerful speech of Main Street—the power of the concrete over the abstract, the particular over the general? The power, most refulgently, of the role model? 

I think it’s because we have spent far too much time looking for the next Ronald Reagan—a fool’s errand, in my view—and far too little time remembering what he taught us. And at the heart of what he taught us about political communication was this: To revive the culture of opportunity, we must bypass the bogus claims of group politics and instead celebrate the heroism of individual accomplishment.

We all know who Obama’s heroes are. He displays them as if in a trophy case in the First Lady’s box at the State of the Union. There’s the witness to the venality of corporate America. There’s the pioneer in some exotic form of separatism. There’s the victim whose plight could have been averted by higher government spending. And there’s the rich guy who thinks he isn’t taxed enough. I am tempted to say, that’s the Obama coalition—the resentful, the aggrieved, the dependent, and the guilt-stricken. 

That wasn’t Reagan’s coalition. No, his heroes were ordinary men and women growing into their roles as free American citizens—the greatest role one could play upon the human stage, in Reagan’s view. His heroes were us, and for seeing us that way, we loved him. Today Reagan would see heroes all around us, even if we have trouble picking them out through the thickening socialist haze. Unlike the Obama coalition, our heroes make no claims upon our attention, much less our resources.

But they’re out there. Take the political realm, where we seem to have a new hero popping up each week. Kevin Faulconer, the new mayor of San Diego, has set California on a path to becoming a two-party state. Bob Corker stopped the UAW from organizing the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and thereby derailed the union’s plans to do for Mercedes in Alabama, Nissan in Mississippi, and BMW in South Carolina what it had already done for GM in Michigan. And there’s Tom Coburn, who, if there is any justice, will soon be recognized as the first great senator of the twenty-first century.

Why haven’t these heroes been celebrated for their good and replicable deeds? They should be. But they are not classic Reagan heroes. Reagan had the quaint notion that politicians were public servants and he thus saw little heroism involved when politicians served the public.   

Remember Julia from the 2012 campaign—the welfare-maximizing, benefit-gaming single mom featured in that Democratic ad? She was an authentic Obama role model, making her way, with the help of omnipresent navigators, onto multiple platforms of public assistance.

But she shouldn’t be confused with our hero, who we’ll call Julie. She’s the single mom who runs the bakery in the middle of town. She has a tough battle on her hands, and not just against the onslaught from Safeway and Walmart. There used to be two jobs at Julie’s Bakery: the guy who baked the cakes and the guy who sold the cakes. Now there’s a third guy. He observes, tests, records, and second-guesses the cakes. He’s from the government and he’s there to help. Every time there’s a staff meeting at OSHA, EPA, FEMA, FDA, IRS, DOJ, or the Labor Department, a new directive flutters down on the desk Julie keeps in the back of her shop. Her government is conducting an experiment. It wants to know exactly which straw will break Julie’s back.

Much of Julie’s heroism lies in the fact that, despite all obstacles, she is creating economic value, out of which she pays herself, supports the families of her employees, and subsidizes, at progressively higher rates, that third guy at the bakery.

Compare her economic life to that of her tormentor, Barack Obama, who is said to be a role model for young Americans and especially minorities. Over the course of his career, he has moved seamlessly from subsidized schooling to the tax-exempt Left to government work. He will soon move seamlessly to a lifetime pension paid for by Julie and her peers after—after!—it has been determined that they can no longer afford to pay for their own. A pension for the government worker, a 401K for Julie. Because bureaucratic life is so…hazardous? 

After what we all hope will be many years of pension payouts, Barack Obama will have spent a long life without ever once making direct contact with the real economy. A role model, indeed. In Obama’s America, perhaps every child can grow up to be economically unproductive.

The government worker may have the power. But it is Julie who should have not only our admiration, but our support. Can’t you see Ronald Reagan beaming that million-dollar grin at her up in the balcony at the State of the Union?

What I’m suggesting is that ourheroes should be the men and women who are emblematic of our aspirations and symbolic of our values. It is up to us to identify them and celebrate them—or we will be trapped, inevitably, in the Left’s rhetoric of class, creed, race, sexual preference, and whatever corrosive division comes next.   

Our heroes are all around us. Our job is to pick them out, lift them up and install them as the first citizens of our shining city on a hill. Just the other day I came across a new hero, Leonard Smith. I never met ol’ Leonard, but I think I would have liked him. Here’s his obituary from the local paper:

Leonard Mason Smith, 86, a veteran of World War II and Korea and longtime resident of Pine Island, Florida, passed away this week. Leonard Smith hated pointless bureaucracy, thoughtless inefficiency, and bad ideas born of good intentions. He loved his wife, admired and respected his children, and liked just about every dog he ever met. He will be greatly missed by those who loved him. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you cancel your subscription to TheNew York Times


This piece is adapted from remarks at the Philadelphia Society. 

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.