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.