Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Abondenment of Reagan Conservatism

For the benefit of non-political-junkies, Ronald Reagan is credited with bringing together three kinds of conservatives: Social Conservatives (pro-gun, anti-abortion), Fiscal Conservatives (small government, low taxes), and Defense Conservatives (strong military). Looking at how the Republican primary contests have gone so far, I think the Republican primary voters has largely abandoned this three-forms-of-conservatism coalition.

Jonah Goldberg, whom I've been quoting left and right tonight (I like his stuff... what I can I say?), seems to agree:

Conservatism, quite simply, is a mess these days. Conservative attitudes are changing. Or, more accurately, the attitudes of people who call themselves conservatives are changing.

The most cited data to prove this point come from the Pew Political Typology survey. By 2005, it had found that so many self-described conservatives were in favor of government activism that it had to come up with a name for them. "Running-dog liberals" apparently seemed too pejorative, so the survey went with "pro-government conservatives," a term that might have caused Ronald Reagan to spontaneously combust. This group makes up just under 10 percent of registered voters and something like a third of the Republican coalition. Ninety-four percent of pro-government conservatives favored raising the minimum wage, as did 79 percent of self-described social conservatives. Eight out of 10 pro-government conservatives believe that the government should do more to help the poor, and slightly more than that distrust big corporations.


This is a far cry from the days when Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," and vowed to "curb the size and influence of the federal establishment."

Today the American public seems deeply schizophrenic: It hates the government - Washington, Congress and public institutions are more unpopular than at any time since Watergate - but it wants more of it. Conservative arguments about limited government have little purchase among independents and swing voters. This is a keen problem for a candidate like Romney, because it forces him to vacillate between his credible competence message - "I can make government work" - and his strategic need to fill the "Reaganite" space left vacant by former Sen. George Allen's failure to seize it and Thompson's inability to get anyone to notice that he occupies it. Worse, conservatives who want activist government want it to have a populist-Christian tinge, and that's not a pitch McCain, Giuliani, Thompson or Romney can sell.

This being the case, the question is what to do about it. Well, first, as a practical matter, I'd like to make a plea to the remaining Republican primary voters. Could you please stop voting for candidates that don't ascribe to all three parts of the Reaganite conservative platform? Come November, we'll need all three parts of the conservative coalition to win. Hucabee only gets us one-third of the coalition. Rudy, two-thirds. We need all three.

Going beyond then, some are calling for us to drop Reagan's three-part-package. They include former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, and Mona Charen of National Review, who invoke's Frum's book, Comeback, in a recent article, "Can Conservatives Still Win Elections?":

A fascinating new book, Comeback, by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, offers what may seem to some a startling answer: Drop Reagan. He is no longer relevant to the challenges we face as a party or a nation. He was perfect for his time. But that time has passed.

When Ronald Reagan ran in 1980, the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent. Inflation was eroding the purchasing power of consumers. Overregulation strangled businesses. One out of every three households had been victimized by crime within the previous 12 months. The Soviet Union had added 12 new countries to the communist domain in the previous decade. American hostages in Tehran were paraded on international television. Welfare rolls were expanding.

Reagan’s reform package spoke to those issues. He favored tax cuts, deregulation, welfare reform, stricter law enforcement, tight money and a strong national defense.

I'd like to propose that while the issues of 2006 (Islamo-fascism, immigration, the economy) may differ from those in 1980 (of course, some, like the social conservative issues of abortion, marriage, gun rights, etc. are still the same...) the three parts of the conservative movement are as relevant today as then. Small, fiscally responsible, government will bring the reform people are looking for to government and ensure a strong economy. A strong national defense keeps us safe against terrorists. Social conservatism helps us keep making progress against abortion, and ensure families remain strong.

Adjustments are necessary. Maybe we should talk about tax cuts less than we did when they were as high as 70% in the 80s. Addressing Islamo-fascists needs to be done differently than how we addressed the Soviet Union. But let's not abandon a ship that needs not sink. The full spectrum of conservatism still offers plenty of solutions. Let's help the American public know that and vote that, and not blindly cater to a watered down version of conservatism that they may demand, but will do us no good - we tried "compassionate conservatism" for the better part of the last 7 years and the record of those last 7 years in not very good. The Republicans lost both chambers of Congress as a result. Let's get back to Reagan Conservatism.

1 comment:

Roger said...

You totally hit the nail on the head! This posting is truly inspirational. Thank-you.