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Reform Conservatism is Ultimately Neither

Cafeteria Conservatives Create a Feel-Good, But Failed Philosophy

“Kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” As I stood there in the freezing cold of January 20, 1989, newly sworn-in President George H.W. Bush’s words echoed off the western face of the U.S. Capitol. At the time, I remember thinking “wow, I wonder how that’s sitting with President Reagan.” I wasn’t the only one. Within days, newspaper story after story zeroed in on the claimed distinction, seemingly intentional, between Reaganism and the new Bush brand of conservatism – “using power to help people.” The media – then ensconced in the same hatred of Reagan as currently shown George W. Bush – was all too eager to seize upon this distinction as their “see, we told you so” moment. The theory went – Reagan’s brand of conservatism was thoughtless, cold and cruel – and Bush’s inauguration speech, promising a kinder, gentler nation, was confirmation of this undeniable point.

Ironically, George H.W. Bush spent much of his one-term presidency largely continuing the same foreign and domestic policy agenda as pursued in Reagan’s administration. In fact, it was not until Bush the Elder broke radically from Reagan’s lowered tax agenda and from his own campaign promise – “read my lips, no new taxes” – that he sealed his election defeat in November, 1992.Eight years after his father left office, George W. Bush ushered into our political lexicon the notion of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ In June, 1999, as he rolled out his campaign for the presidency, Mr. Bush told an audience in Iowa that Republicans “must match a conservative mind with a compassionate heart.” “It is compassionate to help out those in need and conservative to insist on responsibility and results,” we were told in a April, 2002 White House press release.

According to Time Magazine, the phrase ‘compassionate conservatism’ was first coined by former presidential advisor, Doug Wead, in 1982. It was later developed more comprehensively, as a political philosophy, by Dr. Marvin Olasky in his books, Renewing American Compassion and Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, What it Does and How it Can Transform America. President Bush’s speechwriter, Michael Gerson, described it as the theory that the “government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself.” The inescapable conclusion, however, no matter the nuanced definition, was that insistence on ‘compassionate conservatism’ reinforced the broader notion that ‘conservatism,’ without more, is not ‘compassionate.’

As well intentioned as this notion of ‘compassionate conservatism’ might have been, to date, it has clearly not evolved as the political foundation for an expanding Republican majority; although writer David Frum, in his book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, urges its continued use as a governing principle on issues of prison reform to public health. In fact, it could be argued that Democrats have largely co-opted this philosophy in forging its congressional majorities and the recent Obama victory. Exit polls taken after the 2008 presidential election show that Democrats were perceived, by significant percentages, as more trustworthy on the issue of both the conservative tenet of tax reduction and the more liberal tenet of government provision of social services, etc.

Irrespective of its relative success, at a minimum, the implementation of Bush’s notion of compassionate conservatism has been hampered by the myriad of legal and legislative hurdles which have been erected to stop its broader application. The current state of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives isn’t nearly as prominent as his earliest policy iterations, due largely to a resistant democratic secularism.

Given the new administration, the shelf-life of compassionate conservatism is nearly over. In the asserted absence of a cogent conservative philosophy to carry the Republican party forward, another strain of conservative thought has gained renewed prominence amongst so-called conservative journalists – ‘reform conservatism.’ Now, post-mortems on failed presidential campaigns and decreasing congressional clout will often give rise to calls for a change in direction or a new political philosophy, so the fact that people, like David Brooks and Frum, are promoting such change is not altogether surprising.

Reform conservatism is not a new political ideology – although it has been relatively dormant since its inception. Its major proponents, quietly walking in the political wilderness, include a ‘Who’s Who’ of prominent, smart, young political theorists, with a few older soothsayers – including the aforementioned Brooks and Frum. Romesh Ponneru, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Yuval Levin, Robert Stein count themselves among the young promoters of the reform conservative agenda.

What is reform conservatism? At National Review Online’s The Corner, Yuval Levin tell us that:

“Reform conservatism, if that is what I must call what I’m arguing for, is NOT a move away from Reaganism, it is a call for Reagan’s kind of instincts and attitudes applied to contemporary problems, and especially the concerns of the middle class parents, who are the source of America’s economic, cultural, and moral strength. A large portion of the governing problems we now suffer from have been caused by bad government policy, and so must be fixed by better government policy. Others may not be caused by policy one way or another but could benefit from an application of conservative principles: a focus on stronger families, more personal and economic freedom, and leaner more efficient governing and regulatory institutions.

“The point is not to reject what conservatives did in the 80s and 90s (which, unfortunately, was too often the theme of the 2000 Bush campaign). The point on the contrary is to build on those successes, which were in every instance examples of precisely a reform conservatism. Welfare reform is the model for health care and entitlement reform. The school choice movement is still the future of public education. Pro-growth economics obviously remain the path to prosperity.

“. . . I think that is actually the meaning of reform conservatism, as I understand it at least: it is a case for applying conservative principles in practice and arguing for a governing vision that offers people a particular sense of what it would mean to elect real conservatives again.”

Sounds great. If Levin’s claim on 80s and 90s public policy is true, what traditional conservative would argue with replicating Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America? Few, if any.

Yet, Levin grossly overstates the role so-called reform conservatism has previously played in prior public policy development. Certainly, the 1980′s were dominated far more by traditional meat and potato, “a b c” conservatives, than policy wonks who permeate today’s reform conservatism cause. Second, the foundation for the Contract with America was substantively rooted in the traditional conservative model, adopting language from Reagan’s 1985 inaugural speech and very conservative policy positions developed by the Reagan-friendly Heritage Foundation. Its message of shrinking the size of government, corporate tax cuts, government ethics changes, term limits and program reform was far more consonant with the traditional conservative model, than the reform conservative model being proposed by Levin, Ponneru, Frum and others.

Beyond this, there’s an ominous message to traditional conservatives hidden in Levin’s inviting language. “Reagan’s kind of instincts and attitudes applied to contemporary problems?” What? In this curious statement, Levin seemingly reduces Reaganism to serve as nothing more than an instinctive guidepost to tackling today’s problems – a means to governance, circumstance dependent and temporary in nature. If so, reform conservatism represents more a visceral, fleeting policy response than a substantive value-based conservative philosophy upon which sustainable Republican majorities have typically been built.

Second, Levin leaves no doubt regarding his belief that bad government policy must be fixed by better government policy. I couldn’t disagree more. If there is anything that Reagan “instincts”taught us, it is that just because government has traditionally addressed a particular societal need that doesn’t mean that government should address that particular societal need. In this regard, there is some basis for a connection to “compassionate conservatism,” which urged this conclusion. Furthermore, Levin’s belief presumes that better government policy is possible, a conclusion to which I am unwilling to blindly subscribe. By example, rampant failure in many of America’s public schools doesn’t mean that the solution to our education problems lies with greater government intervention.

Finally, Levin’s belief that reform conservatism holds the key to electoral success by presenting “a governing vision that offers people a particular sense of what it would mean to elect real conservatives” is only valid if one concludes that reform conservatism is real conservatism. To date, reform conservatives have failed to make that sale.

Levin’s statement is telling on this point. Reform conservatism, as alluded to above, seems to be about a means of governance – this should tell us something. In this sense, it is seemingly more closely aligned with the quasi-liberal philosophies promulgated by progressive groups like the Democratic Leadership Council. By contrast, real conservatism isn’t about a means to govern or government accountability; it’s about a means to freedom. As captured later in Reaganism, real conservatism has traditionally been about individual liberty, accountability and opportunity – best achieved apart from government.

In its quest for individual freedom, real conservatism presumes adherence to certain core American values and liberties embodied in our founding documents. The theory goes – as long as reform conservatism’s principal focus is on governance, it will never get us “there.”

Further, there is no uniformity between its proponents on the essential tenets of reform conservatism. In the November 17, 2008 edition of National Review magazine, Reform School: Sarah Palin and the future of the GOP, Romesh Ponneru writes that his cadre of “reform conservatives” disagree with each other too much to call themselves a ‘movement.’

To be fair, Ponneru stresses there are areas of agreement which do unite the group. Unfortunately, for those attempting to persuade us of reform conservatism’s merits, the points of alleged agreement raise more questions than they provide answers, nor do they dispel the obvious conclusion that reform conservatism, in its current state, represents a seriously inadequate electoral philosophy.

What are these areas of agreement amongst reform conservatives? Ponneru points out that “[a]ll of us believe that the conservative program should be updated to apply longstanding principles to contemporary circumstances. All of us think that cracking down on earmarks, drilling, and preserving the Bush tax cuts are insufficient as a conservative domestic agenda, and that excessive spending is not the principal reason Republicans have been doing badly.” Ponneru concludes that Republican electoral defeats have resulted not from a failure “to demonstrate sufficient compassion for lower-middle class voters but because they have failed to show how conservative policies can benefit those voters.”

If this is the basis for consensus amongst reform conservatives, I’m confused. First, a huge red flag should go up about Ponneru’s casual reference to the ‘conservative program.’ Program? Sounds slick. Further, I have never thought of my conservative beliefs as fitting neatly into a ‘program’ and am certain that I wouldn’t support them if they did.

Second, what are the contemporary circumstances which we seek to address with reform conservatism? Core issues include a growing secularism in our country, a dire economic malaise typified by rising unemployment, worries over inflation, middle class economic anxiety, out of control government spending, ineffective government programs and a war against an enemy sworn to the destruction of our democratic, capitalistic way of life – these appear to be our contemporary circumstances.

Seems like we have been here before. Does it to you?

Let’s recount 1980 for you – a growing secularism in our country, a dire economic malaise typified by rising unemployment, worries over inflation, middle class economic anxiety, out of control government spending, ineffective government programs and a war against an enemy sworn to the destruction of our democratic, capitalistic way of life.

Perhaps, my comparison is too simplistic. Certainly, as an aside, David Frum in his thought-provoking book would suggest that issues, such as the environment and health care, play a more significant concern now than they ever played in the 1980s. Undoubtedly so – but, this doesn’t disturb my broader concern regarding Frum’s analysis. The seeming predicate for urging a shift in conservative focus is his assumption, in Comeback, that “Americans are trapped in obsolete politics, engaging in phony arguments over issues that are in fact largely settled.” On this point, Frum is incorrect.

By example, Frum writes that the battle between capitalism and socialism is over. I disagree. I don’t believe that as a matter of internal American politics and the role of government that the issue of wealth distribution is settled, let alone in the broader world. Government’s redistributive powers, at a minimum, have been the topic of much discussion by none other than our president-elect. Despite stump-speech denials to the contrary, such a concept is “socialistic.” But, then, Frum delivers the fatal blow to his own argument on this point, when he argues the merit of the conservative defense of American “nationhood” against the growing importance of multi-national governing organizations, like the European Union or the United Nations. It is undeniable that a cornerstone of those multi-national organizations is the notion of broader socialistic policies in the areas of wealth distribution, health care and trade – particularly as it relates to the industrial nations’ “collective” obligations to third world countries. While perhaps the debate over socialism, or planned economies, as an effective means of production may be over, it can not be said that the debate over socialism’s “back-end,” or wealth redistribution is anywhere near resolved.

Third, back to Ponneru’s points of agreement, he asserts that reform conservatives are united that ‘cracking down on earmarks, drilling, and preserving the Bush tax cuts are insufficient as a domestic policy agenda.’ Ok . . . but is this really a point of distinction with the broader, traditional conservative movement? Certainly, any inference that these limited areas of emphasis are the breadth of today’s conservative is misleading at best and disingenuous at worst. Respectfully, I challenge Ponneru to name one credible movement conservative who would subscribe to the McCain campaign agenda as the outer limits of the conservative gameplan.

Finally, if what Ponneru describes is reform conservatism, it lacks clarity. David Frum is among only a couple individuals who have attempted to put real meat on reform conservatism’s bones, but given the acknowledged absence of consensus, I am left to ponder, what is reform conservatism? Perhaps, more basically, reform to what end?

Reform connotes ‘re-form’ or ‘re-formulate.’ If that’s the case, by example, it is difficult to reconcile traditional conservatism which preaches smaller, more limited government with reform conservatism’s apparent excusal or tacit acceptance of recent ‘excessive government spending.’ These positions seem too disparate for reform conservatives to claim a rational, natural nexus. Not only that – it is incredibly presumptuous to conclude that the American electorate’s support of a candidate who endorses larger government spending necessarily means that, if given the option, they wouldn’t favor a smaller, more limited government.

Such a presumption is the bootstrap of all bootstraps. As voters, we chose between Democrats who openly speak of increased government spending in entitlements, education, etc. and the Republicans, who have talked a marginal game, but have delivered nothing but budget deficits and increased spending across the board. And, from the fact that a majority of Americans chose Democrats over faux-Democrats, reform conservatives surmise that Americans approve or are not troubled by excessive government spending, particularly in these tough economic times? Huh? When did we all become Keynesian?

Let me speak more directly to the most troubling aspect of reform conservatism – the apparent disdain for traditional conservatives. Contrary to the implication drawn from David Brooks’ noxious homily, Darkness at Dusk, in the November 11, 2008 New York Times, traditional conservatives are not entrenched relics, hell bent on marching like lemmings to the political cliff – nor are we all in lock step with a prospective Sarah Palin candidacy. There are numbers of prominent individuals who count themselves among traditional conservatives, whose governing philosophy could hardly be called stoic; and, then, there are others, who may elect to shed the title ‘traditional conservative,’ but whose aggressive agenda of tax reform, pro-growth policies, limited government, and private sector solutions to broader societal concerns clearly finds its roots in the tested principals of traditional conservatism.

The fact that Mr. Brooks and other reformers repeatedly bring up Governor Palin – he called her a ‘fatal cancer’ on the Republican Party – and her alleged lack of experience, knowledge, etc., to target traditional conservatives, says far more about their brand of elitism, than it does her competency. To his credit, Ponneru cautions against such attacks, as self-defeating and impractical when trying to persuade others to their cause. Brooks apparently doesn’t agree – his ominous warning to traditional conservatives that they “cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West coasts” reeks of an elitist whining to be heard, while insulting the very people he hopes to convert.

Frankly, we have a right to expect more from the ‘educated class.’ Merely occupying seats to the political right of Anna Quindlen and Frank Rich at the New York Times, without more, isn’t enough. If reform conservatives think that they will persuade this mid-40s, dual-degreed, educated conservative and others like me to sign on to their program, then they have more work to do. As a start, may I suggest a dash of humility?

Reform conservatives, like Brooks, seemingly engage in an endless stream of intellectual pontification, while their own reform ‘program’ is fatally short on specifics. Unfortunately for them, condescension does not a political philosophy make. Brooks claims that “[m]ost professional conservatives are lifelong Washingtonians who live comfortably as organization heads, lobbyists and publicists.” The glaring hypocrisy of such a statement coming from one of the media’s sheltered elites cannot be understated. More than that, however, Brooks’ supposition is sheer nonsense.

Conservatism is alive and well in the heartland – even amongst us professionals, who operate both within and without the conservative hierarchy. Then, of course, there are those darned, moose-huntin’, gun-totin’ ‘goober conservatives’ out here in the hinterland, embodied by Sarah Palin and her kinfolk – most recently lampooned by the likes of reform conservative, Peggy Noonan, and Kathleen Parker. As for Ms. Parker’s criticism – it’s not worth much more discussion. More troubling was Ms. Noonan’s criticism of Ms. Palin’s intellect, which called to mind her admittedly regrettable comparison of Ronald Reagan’s mind to ‘barren terrain.” We’ll see if Ms. Noonan is as quick to express regret for her personal commentary on Ms. Palin? I am not holding my breath.

Ironically, the ‘goober conservative’ class has far more respect for the reformist elites, who reflect little other than contempt for them. Contrary to the implication of Mr. Brooks’ pitiful call for respect of the ‘educated class,’ ‘goober conservatives’ do acknowledge that so-called elites, as Romesh Ponneru suggests, “have a significant role in developing a sensible politics.” But, Ponneru then overplays his hand, seemingly carving out a special niche for elites, arguing that “developing policies and strategies is necessarily an elite pursuit.” In its most generous construction, the implication is that not only is developing policy and strategy a necessary elite pursuit, but it is a uniquely elite pursuit. Horse hockey.

My father, a successful businessman, used to bemoan that the lawyers with whom he routinely dealt – little did he know at the time, I would become one – were ‘deal breakers.’ Politics is not altogether different – not only aren’t elitist individuals uniquely qualified to pass muster on policy and strategy, often times their highly nuanced positions lose the very audience they seek to persuade. Sure, in any given circumstance, elitist intellectuals might win the battle over policy, but such efforts often prove equally adept at losing the war.

Ultimately, the American electorate will not be persuaded by a reform conservative agenda, which surrenders adherence to long-held American conservative values for the latest iteration of ‘foundation think.’ And, apart from analyzing the pitfalls of the reform conservative agenda, of which there are many, in the absence of a more coalesced and uniform policy statement by its proponents, ‘foundation think’ is all that reform conservatism will ultimately represent. That is not a pathway to electoral success.

American voters, left, right and center, want to know the bottom line and are persuaded by leaders who speak to them plainly about the bottom line. Reagan Democrats weren’t persuaded by Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer – they were persuaded by an abiding, but relatively simple conservative ideology, uniquely American, and embodied in a charismatic leader, Ronald Reagan.

Contrasting President Reagan with recent conservative leaders reveals the essential problem with today’s conservative movement. The problem lies not with the conservative agenda – the problem lies in the absence of any credible political leadership advancing, but as importantly, keeping the conservative cause. The emergence of new conservative leaders offers hope that this tide is turning.

Alternatively, we can reflexively try to reform conservatism to match today’s issues and electorate, surrendering the issue of limited government amongst other conservative tenets to a speculative, issue by issue, guess as to what the American electorate expects and wants. While such selective reactive policy may be crafted and received well by the special interest such policy is intended to serve, such cafeteria conservatism will ultimately fail and traditional conservatism’s remnants will be lost in the process.

Real conservatism, by nature and design, is not a prescription for reactive government. Reform conservatism, which sees government as more than just a partner but a reactionary catalyst to change, will not work, nor serve our goals of individual liberty, freedom and accountability. We have seen this brand of failed conservatism in the past – Rockefeller Republicanism comes to mind – just a different frosting put on the same ol’ cake. We would be wise not to repeat that mistake.

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