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Posted by on Apr 30, 2009 in Guest Contributor, Politics | 10 comments

Moderates? Who Needs ‘Em? (Guest Voice)

Moderates? Who Needs ‘Em?

by Rick Moran

What’s wrong with conservatism?

Philosophically, absolutely nothing. There is a family argument going on at the moment where some question how conservative principles can be translated into a set of issues and policies that would lead to actual conservative governance but beyond that, everything is just peachy, right?

Sarcasm aside, the question for the day is can political moderates be conservative too? Can you believe in conservative “First Principles” and believe in less ideological, realistic conservative governance at the same time?

(Note: This is the de facto position of the David Brooks, David Frum’s, Ross Douthat’s, and Kathleen Parker’s of the world.

Forget Specter. This was no “moderate” and, of course, neither was he a conservative – except around election time when all of a sudden he would discover his connection to Ronald Reagan and the conservatism he represented. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic had it about right, calling Specter an “Unprincipled Hack.” That just about covers it.

But looking at the larger picture, conservatives should be asking themselves some hard questions about the future.

The outpouring of “good riddance” wishes to Specter on the right included calls for other GOP moderates to join him. This “urge to purge” seems to be the fate of losing sides in elections as liberal activists made the same calls for ideological cleansing for two decades. The result: An electoral map that glowed in the dark it was so red. Not so today, of course, And while blame can be laid at the feet of Republicans more interested in their jobs than in advancing conservative governance, an equal amount of credit must go to the Democrats who put up more moderate, less ideological candidates in dozens of districts across the country despite complaints from their base.

While Kos and his Krew were getting excited about Ned Lamont who got creamed in the general election, Howard Dean was recruiting candidates like pro-gun, anti-abortion, fiscal conservative Heath Shuler in North Carolina who beat an 8 term Republican incumbent.

To clarify, if the reason one holds to conservative principles is something beyond idly exercising one’s brain, it should be obvious that one of the purposes of conservatism is that it be realized as a governing philosophy. For that to happen, conservatives need a political vessel to translate thought into actions. This is where the Republican party comes into play and why what happens to the party affects conservatism and vice versa. A defeat in a North Carolina district where the incumbent hadn’t been challenged in more than a decade could be explained away by the local peculiarities of that race including the celebrity factor and dissatisfaction with the incumbent Charles Taylor over his failure to vote on CAFTA. But you cannot explain away what has happened to the Republican party in the Northeast where unmitigated disaster has overtaken the party.

In 2006 and 2008, the Republican party was decimated in New England, the Northeast corridor, and the Mid-Atlantic states with additional losses in the upper Midwest and Mountain West. There are now 3 Republican Congressmen from the state of New York out of 29. New Hampshire has lost both GOP congressmen. The party is virtually a memory in Vermont and Connecticut.

Is the reason that long term incumbents like Sue Kelly ( NY-6 terms), Nancy Johnson (CT-12 terms), Jim Leach (IA-15 terms), and Charles Bass (NH-6 terms) lost in 2006 was that they weren’t conservative enough? When you consider that more than 98% of incumbents are successfully re-elected, questions must be raised about why GOP moderates in what used to be the strongest area of the country for Republicans were tipped over.

Perhaps my more conservative friends are right and if only the party would put forward “true” conservatives in the Northeast all would be well and Republicans would regain their position as the dominant party in New England and become competitive again in New York and Pennsylvania.

Pigs could fly too, but I’m not waiting for that to happen.

Conservatives interpret First Principles differently according to political realities, personality, temperament, and one’s own life experience. They are not the Ten Commandments carved in stone and where no discussion is allowed. Taking a principle like “limited government” and asking a Republican from the Northeast and a GOP southerner to define it, I daresay you would get two different answers. The point being, there are many paths to realizing conservative governance and I guarantee you it will take more than a few self-appointed guardians of conservatism defining “true” conservatism to achieve it.

Take a concept like “fiscal conservatism.” Let’s define it (arbitrarily) as “The State should not take from citizens more than is necessary for the maintenance of a just and moral society.” That is a broad conservative concept on which Northeasterners and Southerners would probably agree. But in interpreting that concept, the Northeastern conservative may believe that a “just and moral society” includes federal funds for S-Chip or Pell Grants to college students. It might mean less for defense and more for transportation. It could even mean raising taxes to pay for those programs.To the southerner, it might mean eliminating or drastically reducing those programs and cutting taxes.

One is considered a moderate, the other a “true” conservative. And yet both adhere to their interpretation of “fiscal conservatism.” Why should one interpretation be considered “more conservative” than the other?

Recognizing that many “moderates” that are left in the GOP subscribe to the idea of a slightly larger government in the sense that they believe that government has a bigger role to play in society than perhaps many who consider themselves “true” conservatives doesn’t mean that there is just cause to read them out of the Republican party. I’ve said this before but there is a difference between “ideology” and “philosophy.” And it appears to me that many who would be so quick to drum moderates out of the party for not being conservative enough are confusing the two concepts. There are broad areas of agreement where moderates and conservatives differ only in the interpretation of principles – ideology – not in philosophy.

We have lost the ability to articulate overarching principles in such a way that it would attract a broad spectrum of the American electorate. I think this introduction to an excellent short course in conservative thought at the First Principles website captures the essence of the right’s problem in this regard:

Since World War II, there has been a rebirth of conservative thought in America, beginning with pioneers such as William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, and Irving Kristol, and culminating with the electoral triumph of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Today, the conservative “movement” enjoys both political prominence and a sturdy institutional infrastructure of political organizations, charitable foundations, think tanks, publishing houses, magazines and journals, and other such entities. Because of the movement’s success, a growing number of ambitious students and young professionals are now attracted to careers that advance the conservative cause.

Unfortunately, many of conservatism’s elder statesmen have expressed a grave concern that the rising generation is not well grounded in the fundamental texts, arguments, ideas, and themes that originally inspired the movement. Lacking a firm foundation in first principles, responsible and reflective citizenship is impossible, since we are tossed about by the enthusiasms of the day. Conservative “talking heads” in the electronic media may be effective political combatants, but their short-term goals—winning votes, passing legislation, boosting ratings—often work against the more important goal of cultivating, exploring, and developing conservative principles in light of changing historical circumstances.

“Changing historical circumstances” and the recognition that although our principles may be immutable, how they are interpreted is up to each generation. My interpretation of First Principles differs broadly from most of you reading this. Does this mean we can’t be allies in the struggle to bring those principles to the job of governing a great nation? Chasing away those who agree with you in principle but differ with you on interpretation will only lead to permanent minority status for conservatives. I have to think we’re too smart to allow that to happen.

Rick Moran is Associate Editor of The American Thinker and Chicago Editor of Pajamas Media. His personal blog is Right Wing Nuthouse.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • Don Quijote

    The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

    Galbraith, John Kenneth

  • Ryan

    Rick, I think you would be surprised to find out how much discussion there is regarding the Ten Commandments.

    Also, keep in mind that conservative principles are extremely difficult sell to Americans – not because they’re conservative but because they’re, well, principles.

  • Marlowecan

    Far be it from me to disagree with Rick Moran…but it could just be that the GOP lost because conservatism has been dominant in the U.S. for a generation…since Reagan’s win in 1980.

    Politics, like the economy, is cyclical. Even great political movements gather moss…and entropy slows them down.
    Look at how FDR’s New Deal was withering until revitalized by LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s.

    For anyone despairing of the GOP…or crowing about the current preeminence of the Democrats…why not look to Great Britain?

    In 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected in a landslide. He was like a rock star…and he ushered in “Cool Britannia” and all that.
    The media loved him. A news presenter on the BBC. . . which is just as “objective” as the U.S. media . . . crowed that champagne corks were popping all through the Broadcast Center on election night 1997.

    Move ahead 13 years. . .Great Britain is bankrupt. . .welfare benefits are at record levels . . . the government seems unable to check Muslim radicals immigrating from Pakistan and denouncing British values (and occasionally blowing things up) while collecting welfare checks [the London bus and subway suicide bombers were also, oddly enough, multiple welfare fraudsters]…taxes have been increased on everything to pay for the rising benefits culture. . .crime is rising, and the nihilistic Chav culture is bringing “A Clockwork Orange” into everyday reality . . . .

    The result: Even the left-wing “Guardian” now concedes an overwhelming Conservative victory is inevitable next year…despite the fact the Conservative Party is filled with largely vacuous nonentities determined not to voice any opinion whatsoever. They are not Labour, and that is all that matters.

    Governments defeat themselves. . .and all political careers end in failure (unless one is lucky to die in office). Dig out a TIME magazine to see how the media laughed as the sainted Ronald Reagan left Washington in 1989.

    So I would say to Rick Moran. . .the Democrats will likely be out of power within a decade.
    Perhaps the American media will succeed in sheltering Obama from damage for two full terms…they have done an excellent job so far…but who will succeed him?

    The Wheel of Fortuna will turn. . .that much is eventual . . .and those like Karl Rove who believe they could engineer permanent majorities will always fall under the wheel.

  • kindness

    A large part of the reason that New England, NY & Mid Atlantic are no longer strongholds of republican representation is because their republicanism is different than that which the ‘Party’ holds true now. My family was true blue and republican all the way. They were fiscal conservatives and social liberals. They were pragmatic. None of those qualities hold true to the Republican Party today. The Party brooks no dissent on social issues where as in my experience the NE was somewhat more libertarian/liberal socially. Individual choice is not allowed in today’s Republican Party. The representatives that you mention that no longer represent their communities lost out because they were forced to vote for bills and viewpoints their communities did not support.

    Look at the pounding Specter is getting. He’s not a typical Democrat. He’s a much more typical north eastern Republican but the party doesn’t want him and actively has tried to boot him even though Tooney can’t & won’t win.

    btw – Markos isn’t some wild eyed fanatic. He’s much more pragmatic than the Republican leaders of today. And Lamont would have represented his constituents with a much higher approval rating than what Lieberman is getting today.

  • Rick
    You fail to mention the image problem. All you have to do is watch a Palin rally or a tea party. About 20% of the country may see that as conservatism but the other 80% see a crowd of lunatics. And those lunatics are being encouraged and inspired by Beck, Limbaugh and Hanity who are only in it for the ratings and the dollars – ideology has nothing to do with it.

  • It’s a perfect storm for today’s GOP. The disharmony between social and fiscal conservatives is boiling over. Most fiscal conservatives aren’t happy with the intolerance of the far right, but the social conservatives now insist on adherence to their moral interventionism. Social conservatives are not fully supportive of fiscal conservative’s agenda, as seen in the rapidly growing “creation care” (environmentalism) movement, and calls for “family-friendly” legislation that management doesn’t want. Meanwhile, the “trickle down” idea has crashed. It didn’t trickle down, and the greed at the top hurt those struggling in the middle. The rhetoric coming from the Fox crowd is a turn off to the young, as is the religious puritanism. The GOP has demonized intellectuals and academics, and urban dwellers, and has been anti-science. And, they continue to drive away blacks, Hispanics and Asians, not to mention Muslims. It’s a shrinking tent, folks, and there are strong arguments that unless the GOP changes course, they can’t count on a cyclical swing back.

    Let’s review. The GOP loses big among blacks and Hispanics, Jews, the young, academics, urban dwellers, union members, environmentalists, teachers and women.

    I don’t see much hope for the party unless it undergoes a serious rebranding.

  • JSpencer

    DQ led with a Galbraith quote, and Rick’s commentary brings another one to mind:

    “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

    In otherwords, Rick (and those who think along similar lines) still don’t seem to get it.

  • superdestroyer

    The conservatives are not interested in moderates because eight years of compassionate conservatism of the Bush Admnistraiton have been shown to be a total failure. Instead of cutting spending, the Bush Administraiton and the non-conservative Republicans in Congress spent their time expanding government, filling the budget full of pork, creating new entitlements, and treating conservative for fools. Then the Bush Adminstraiton decided to spit in the face of conservatives by proposing an idiotic amnesty program that would raise taxes, increase the size of government, and make living conditions worse.

    If moderates want some support from conservatives, they are going to have to demonstrrates that they are not just another idiot big government, big spending Republican.

  • shannonlee

    SD, you have it completely twisted. Many moderates are fiscal conservatives and social liberals. We wanted exactly the opposite of what the Bush Admin did……we want less government…period. Less spending and less telling us what we can and cannot do in our own bedrooms. And lets not forget the wire tapping.

  • superdestroyer


    If moderates want less government than why do so-called moderates lik Megan McCain want to answer every problem or preceive problem with another government program. If a politicians does not react to every problem with a goenrment problem, they are called selfish and cruel.

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