Thursday, May 15, 2008
In Advance of that Laura Debate ...
A little while ago, I received an email from a regular reader with the following subject line:
Enough with the whole "Frum says we should drift left!! Burn him!!" idea.
I appreciated the vote of confidence, but even more I appreciated the reader's awareness that proposing reform and new thinking is not the same as drifting left.
As I survey the conservative landscape, I see two main responses to the crisis we face in 2008.
Response 1 goes something like this:
Republicans are in trouble in 2008 because they drifted away from conservative principle. They over-spent and over-taxed. To survive in 2008 and to win in the years ahead, we have to get back to basics - to the tried and true Reagan politics of the 1980s.
You hear this response from people like Ed Feulner of Heritage with his "What Would Reagan Do" project, from talk show hosts like Sean Hannity, and from many of the conservative faithful.
Here's the problem: All the data I've seen suggests that Republicans would be in even more trouble today if they had followed a more principled line. That's exactly why they strayed from principle in the first place! The bloated prescription drug benefit is popular! The expensive bits of No Child Left Behind? Popular! School choice and social security reform? Unpopular! Conservative social stances on Terri Schiavo, stem-cell research, etc.? Way unpopular!
I happen personally to support many of these down-the-line old-school conservative principles. But we have to recognize reality here.
The country has changed and has thrown up new problems. In 1980, the American economy was emerging from a decade of sluggish economic growth for which over-regulation and over-taxation could very credibly be assigned the blame. In 2008, we are coming to the end of two consecutive economic cycles which have featured impressively fast economic growth - but in which middle-class incomes have stagnated, healthcare has become ever less affordable, and economic inequality has widened to extremes not seen since the 1920s or (some argue) 1900.
What would Reagan do in the face of these novel issues? We don't know. He's not here to guide us. We have to figure it out for ourselves. But here's one good bet: A great political talent like Ronald Reagan would have enough sense not to run an election in 2008 on a platform written in 1978. After all, Reagan never asked himself, "What would Bob Taft do?"
Response 2 recognizes the problems inherent in Response 1 - and urges that something be done. Today's NRO editorial is a fine example of this phenomenon.
What can Republicans do? First and foremost, develop a consequential domestic-reform agenda, from health care to energy to taxes. John McCain’s health-care plan, which would make insurance more affordable, is a promising start and Republicans should champion it at every opportunity. Second, give McCain plenty of running room to distance himself from President Bush and his party. There are more and less intelligent ways for him to do this, but it will have to be done if he’s going to prevail in an otherwise anti-Republican year. Third, don’t write off black voters. Both their turnout and the margin of their vote for Democrats will increase with Obama at the top of the ticket, but Republicans can cut their losses if they make their case to them.
Imagine yourself a Republican candidate for office in 2008 who is handed this kind of advice. Develop an agenda? Okay - what do you propose that this agenda should say? Broad advice to go get yourself some new ideas is not exactly helpful to the men and women we have sent to the political firing line.
If conservative writers and thinkers want to be of any use to practical politics, we have to recognize that it is our job too - maybe primarily - to develop the platform our political allies can use to win elections and govern effectively.
Effective governance does not mean moving "left." But it does meaning moving with the times. Comeback does not argue for abandoning conservative principle. It calls for modernizing conservative policy - and it offers some very specific suggestions as to how that might be done. Maybe those suggestions are wrong or inadequate. Very possibly so. If you think so, go to work to develop better. But we're not going to get anywhere by pining for the vanished 1980s - or by campaigning to lead a country that no longer exists.
Anyway, that's the argument I'll be making starting about 45 minutes from now.
05/15 10:17 AM