Weary of Wonkery

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Whether the next four years are spend under an Obama administration or a McCain administration, one thing that may be said with certainty is that conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success — and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism. Either administration will be enough to make principled conservatives cringe — though I think that an Obama one would visit greater damage upon the country.

There are lots of contenders out there wanting present the new conservative policies that will bring the GOP back to relevance. Ross Douthat is very much at the forefront of that, with his Grand New Party out in bookstores.

And there are plenty of interesting proposals out there from a consumption or flat tax to a per capita income tax to private retirement accounts replacing Social Security to college scholarship programs for public service programs to proposals for a radical overhaul of the US elementary education system. Many of these are interesting, some of them are admirable, and perhaps a few are good ideas. And yet as one combs through all the contenders for the next killer platform plank, a certain weariness sets in, at least for this particular conservative. Because the fact is that policies are not our daily bread. Indeed, ideally, government policies should have fairly little impact on our daily lives. We should be able to go through most days busy with the doings of our families, churches and businesses and not really have it impinge on us often what state or country we live in.

This, it seems to me, is the dilemma of the policy wonk — and the conservative one in particular. Perhaps this is otherwise for progressives (I leave it to our principled progressive readers to speak to that point) but for conservatives the activities and policies of the state ought not impinge on one’s daily life much. The state should keep us from being attacked, but not involve us in unneeded conflicts; help those in desperate need because of natural disaster, unemployment or illness, but not insert itself and its programs into the normal and natural cycle of life, work, education and leisure; enforce laws and punish crimes for the common good, but not seek to proscriptively rule every aspect of citizens lives.

In this regard, the conservative movement is in a difficult position if it seeks to bring itself back to prominence through coming up with exciting new policies that everyone will love, because at a fairly basic level, the remolding society through detailed government policies is fundamentally un-conservative. (And also, I would argue, unrealistic.)

So conservatives are faced with a difficult task as they find their way again and seek to rebuild their movement: We must present a politically attractive and viable message while at the same time convincingly communicating to people that not every problem is a nail for which the federal government is the ideal hammer. This is hard, especially when running for federal office, in that one’s message then becomes, “Vote for me. I’ll present a vision for our country in which I can’t fix all your problems.”

When running against someone whose message is essentially, “Vote for me; I can fix all your problems.” This requires that one be a much better communicator and a communicate a much more attractive cultural vision than one’s opponent. And right now, the opposing candidate is a very good communicator.

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  1. One word: liberty

    It seems that with each initiative/referendum that comes about, we end up with a more complex set of regulations intended to make our lives easier/better.

    For instance, we here in WA are deciding on a home health care initiative, cloaked in the language care for the vulnerable. What is more likely to come about should this pass, is more and more encumbrance and hindrance of those trying to provide the care by more red tape.

    I think the principled conservative has a steep hill to climb in that our society tends to look for solutions from our government rather than ourselves. This is evident from the rhetoric from both the left and the right these days.

  2. “…conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success — and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism.”

    I am all for conservatives spending their allotted time in the wilderness coming up with new ideas and/or new framing for good old ideas, and I think it’s important for the GOP to sort out how conservative it wants to be. The problem I have with the coming conservative civil war (which may have some very good results) was best expressed by Megan McArdle’s discussion the financial crisis: “Isn’t it marvelous how the financial crisis has been caused entirely by things that you were opposed to before the crisis happened?” To that end, a couple of points:

    1) Bush was incompetent. Let’s look at three of the major failures of his terms in office”

    a) The deficit. He cut taxes, increased spending, and ignored the resulting deficit. This isn’t conservative (or liberal). It’s just incompetent, and it does not take a major re-tooling of conservative philosophy to avoid this.

    b) Katrina. Hurricane relief is not a policy problem, it is a competence problem.

    c) Iraq was the major disaster of the Bush presidency. The failures in Iraq (both in finding WMD’s and establishing security) are what caused the public to turn on Bush. Granted, this was partially a policy difficulty, but Iraq (at the time of the invasion) was supported by almost 70% of the country, and by pundits with divergent approaches to foreign policy. For example, I didn’t think it met just war criteria; many people I respect did. In any case, I do not think the public will have any appetite for extensive military involvement oversees for quite some time, and so I do not think this is an area where the conservative movement has to do that much intellectual spadework for ’10, ’12, or ’16.

    2) The major reasons Obama is winning is that Bush is very unpopular, the economy tanked within the last six weeks, and McCain is not a great candidate. In that order. Bush and McCain are going away. Neither will run again. The economic crises was caused by a convergence of events, none of which were ‘big-picture’ intramural policy debates within the Republican party prior to the crisis.

    In short McCain is likely to lose by between 3%-8% in a year in which nearly everything has gone wrong for the Republican party. That doesn’t look like a party that is collapsing to me. I think Douthat makes good points regarding the fact that conservatives are in some sense a victim of their own successes as the center has moved rightward on welfare reform, the second amendment, and crime over the last twenty years, but I don’t think the poll numbers indicate that it’s time to blow up the Republican party. It’s been a rough two years, but ‘this too will pass.’

  3. The problem I have with the coming conservative civil war (which may have some very good results) was best expressed by Megan McArdle’s discussion the financial crisis: “Isn’t it marvelous how the financial crisis has been caused entirely by things that you were opposed to before the crisis happened?”

    Heh. Ain’t that the truth. And certainly, the various claims as to where the conservative movement needs to go now mostly seem to fit that model.

    In that regard, I found very amusing the “Death of Conservatism” article which Ross Douthat linked to as being very emblematic of the various epitaphs for the movement being penned right now, except that this one was written in 1992:


  4. Wasn’t it just a few years ago, when Democrats lost the presidency and congress in 2004, that we saw lots of articles about how liberals were no longer in touch with the American public, liberalism needed to become more relevant, etc.>?

  5. That’s a good link, Darwin. A well-made case that was not exactly vindicated by events.

    It seems to me that many of the loudest voices (e.g. Brooks) represent the smallest constituencies of the conservative movement. More broadly, I think pundits (and amateur pundits) project a concern about issues onto the general public that just isn’t there.

    S.B. – It seems like it was ten years ago, but yes, in 2004 the Democratic party was in complete disarray – in desperate need of a re-tooling to return to relevance in a center-right nation according to many pundits. Granted, it is unlikely that there will be a convergence of events quite like Katrina/Iraq failure/economic collapse within the next four-eight years, but it does mean that a strong candidate may have slightly less than even odds shot in ’12 or worst-case ’16.

    The political brilliance of Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid is unlikely to banish the Republican party to the wilderness for a generation. That said, Iraq has damaged the conservative advantage in foreign policy in the near-term, and it will take a while for conservatives to find their footing over the next several years.

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