Packer and his sources advance some cogent criticisms of the state of conservatism, but the whole piece suffers from a failure to distinguish ideas from electoral politics. So do a lot of the books and articles about remaking the right. I think it is important to make distinctions between two trends here that are traveling together: The observation that conservatives need to adapt to a new set of issues that are different from the problems Reagan faced in 1980 and that the Gingrich Republicans faced in 1994 is correct. There need to be conservative policies that address voter concerns about health care, energy prices, and middle-class economic anxieties. Expanding the tax credit for children and shifting to payroll tax-cutting are important ways to make tax cuts relevant to a wider group of voters, even if those tax cuts can’t be as easily justified in supply-side terms.
The trouble is the tendency to take this thinking a step further: conceding that essentially liberal means of addressing the country’s problems are better than conservative ones. If we believe this — or we believe that conservatism was a onetime development relevant only to winning the Cold War and ending stagflation — we should become liberals. Let’s not try to reinvent Rockefeller Republicanism under another name.
Other conservatives think conservative policies and ideas can’t be sold to the American people. But that’s a problem for politicians and political strategists, not conservative writers and thinkers. It is an inability to tell the difference between the two that harms conservatism as much as anything else.
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