Opinion | Right must proactively define next era of conservatism or risk continued reign of left
Published: Friday, November 22, 2013
Updated: Friday, November 22, 2013 01:11
It is often said that you can tell what type of a conservative a person is by what year they want to go back to. Some conservatives accept the New Deal but not the Great Society—so they yearn for the 1960s. Others accept both, but wish to avoid the sexual revolution, so they’d be glad for it to be 1959 forever. And then there are some who think fondly of the days of the original Dr. No, Calvin Coolidge, and wish to take our country back to the 1920s.
Another favorite of the political class is to discuss which year in the past most resembles our current political situation. Was the 2012 election the Republican Party’s 1988 when an adrift Democratic party nominated the historically weak candidate Michael Dukakis? Or was it 1976, when establishmentarian President Gerald Ford narrowly edged out the insurgent Ronald Reagan?
Is the party adrift, or is it on the cusp of greatness?
No matter the answer to that question, it’s obvious what’s missing among most elected Republicans. That’s a clear answer to what conservative policy prescriptions need to look like for the coming generation – because it can’t just be about tax cuts and opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
The current crop of Congressional Republicans should channel 1994, when they took back the House for the first time in a generation running on their Contract With America (a set of specific policy prescriptions led by Newt Gingrich).
A healthy sense of American political history is beyond a virtue for any political actor in our system, but as William F. Buckley often said, conservatism is the politics of reality.
The current reality is that progressivism runs D.C., and conservatives need an agenda to combat this and win elections.
Last month, Utah Senator Mike Lee gave an excellent speech at the Heritage Foundation, laying out where conservatives have been and where they should head. Senator Lee is critical of the establishment, saying in part, “as the decades pass and a new generation of Americans faces a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s agenda like a security blanket.”
He calls a shortage of opportunity our generation’s greatest challenge and says “it presents itself in three principal ways: immobility among the poor, trapped in poverty; insecurity in the middle class, where families just can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic elites unfairly profit at everyone else’s expense.”
Instead of stopping at the indictment, like many politicians love to do, Lee takes us through four proposals he’s working on to deal with “the cost of raising children; the difficulties of work-life balance; the time Americans lose away from work and home, stuck in traffic; and the rising costs of and restricted access to quality higher education.”
We need more of this.
Conservatives have to get their act together. Tacking eight more years onto the current reign of progressivism is a scary prospect. The ideas are out there, the House is ours and the Senate could be soon as well. Using Congress to set out the principles of the next era of conservatism is possible. We just need more Mike Lees willing to step out, get specific and make it clear that our party is less about blind opposition and more about reform designed to help the middle class.
The way to make the party more about ideas and less about opposition is to run on these ideas instead of channeling 2010 and running campaigns largely about the evils of Obamacare. It’s fine to discuss the evils of Obamacare—there are plenty—but candidates should get conversant on the litany of replacement ideas percolating on the right.
Instead of voting to repeal the bill over 30 times, the House should pass a conservative health care reform. Instead of banking on the political gold that is the Obamacare rollout, House leadership should get behind comprehensive tax reform. And instead of just talking about it, they should actually make a move on immigration reform.
After that, why not use the House as a laboratory for conservative ideas instead of letting it become exhibit A for Republican infighting?
With six highly winnable Senate seats, the Democratic majority could either be greatly eroded or Mitch McConnell could narrowly become the new majority leader. And it’s difficult to see a path to a new Democratic majority in the House. Conservatives could be on the cusp of controlling two-thirds of the federal government and forcing President Obama to become a veto machine.
If conservatives can make the case that the president is harming middle class Americans with his tendency toward the technocratic and his refusal to listen to conservative ideas, then the conversation in 2016 will be a lot different than it was in 2012.
POLITICO reports House majority leader Eric Cantor understands that the debt and repeal votes only go so far, and is working on a 2014 agenda that would help Americans more in their everyday lives—this is a great sign.
In order to lead, conservatism has to get relevant. The way to do this is to pass policies that help middle class families who feel left behind by the political system. Opposition is fine, but in the end, it doesn’t get you anywhere. New ideas do.