In the wake of the effort to defund Obamacare, conservatives around Washington and around the country are wondering, “Where do we go from here?”
In Washington, insiders say we must choose either to become simply an obstructionist, ideological rump, or moderate our views and submit to the establishment’s leadership. These have always been Washington’s acceptable versions of conservatism: marginalized or squishy.
The challenge for conservatives today is to reject that false choice, and choose our own way forward: a way that is at once principled, positive, and confident.
Anti-establishment conservatives and libertarians don’t have to choose between being revolutionaries or reformers – history says we ought to be both.
After all, it was Ronald Reagan who authored the famous “11th Commandment” (“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”) and also primaried a sitting president of his own party. There is nothing inconsistent between support for competitive Republican primaries, and for a unifying, inclusive, positive, ideas-based politics.
There is nothing that prevents us from fighting to the last breath to repeal Obamacare, for example, while simultaneously developing the policies we want to replace it with.
Calvin Coolidge was right when he said it was more important to stop bad laws than pass good ones – but his own place in history was confirmed by what his administration did – cut taxes, reformed the budget, spurred tremendous economic growth – not what it didn’t do.
Indeed, putting the two together – having both the courage of our convictions as well as the policies of our convictions - is what real conservative leadership has always looked like.
Reagan refused to accept the media’s narrative about Republicans – that you have to either be a “thoughtful,” “serious” centrist, or a reckless, ignorant conservative. That’s why he was successful, and the Left hated him for it.
But Reagan’s victory was not just about his sunny personality. In the years between Reagan’s 1976 primary defeat and his 1980 victory, he and conservatives around the country went about the hard, heroic work of remaking the Republican Party, preparing it – politically and substantively - for new generation of conservative leadership.
Grassroots conservatives in that era infused the G.O.P. with new energy that put the liberal Old Guard on notice, and took over state parties from the discredited Nixon/Ford establishment. Meanwhile, conservative and libertarian intellectuals and elected officials – people like Jack Kemp, James Buckley, Milton Friedman, Antonin Scalia, and Irving Kristol, and most of all, Reagan himself – developed a whole new reform agenda that modernized and redefined conservatism and the Republican Party.
Peace through strength replaced détente. Supply-side economics replaced “green eye-shade” budgeting. Originalism replaced the “living constitution.” Pro-life replaced pro-Roe v. Wade. The establishment of that time was not moderate – they were outright liberals. And conservatives defeated them, outright, by translating “anti-establishment” into “pro-reform.”
Today, as in Reagan’s generation, conservatives must reapply our core conservative principles to fit the challenges of our time. We need to be aggressively pro-reform and show Americans we have alternatives – superior alternatives – to unaffordable and unfair big government.
Specifically, and most especially, this new conservative agenda must speak to the challenges and aspirations of those Americans too often ignored by both parties: the poor and middle class families and communities that big government is leaving behind.
As it did in the late 1970s, history is once again inviting conservatives to lead. After Reagan’s loss in 1976, conservatives didn’t simply start a “civil war” – they started a civil debate. And once they chose to lead with their ideas, the establishment never had a chance.
If conservatives want to build a new, principled Republican Party, we are first going to have to build a new, principled conservative agenda. We know we are going to have to reform the tax code, the budget, the welfare system, eliminate corporate welfare and cronyism, and much else: but how?
Consultants and insiders say this isn’t the time – for now we should just hammer away at the president. But Barack Obama is never going to be on another ballot. To enact the reforms all conservatives know we need, we need to win more than elections – we need to win a mandate.
To gain the political and moral authority to do what we need to do, conservatives have to put our ideas before the people, and ask for their support. And, as constitutionalists, and small-“r” republicans, we shouldn’t want it any other way.
If we mean to save the Republican Party and rescue American exceptionalism, conservatives today have to do more than fight the good fight – we have to win the Great Debate.
I can’t speak for all conservatives, but all conservatives should know, that’s where I’m going from here.