After compassionate conservatism

Our friends at the Claremont Institute and the Claremont Review of Books have once again afforded us the privilege of rolling out a few of my favorite pieces from the new summer issue. Everything I think I know about American politics I’ve learned from the folks affiliated with the institute and the CRB. The magazine also has friends in high places; thirty copies of each new issue are sent out to the White House by overnight mail upon publication. Subscriptions to the CRB are only $14.95 a year; subscribe here.

“Compassionate conservatism? I don’t know what that is,” once quipped Robin Williams. “Sounds kind of like a Volvo with a gun rack.” There is something incongruous about the slogan, isn’t there? “Republican discontent is driven by a growing sense of philosophical malaise,” writes Andrew Busch in the CRB’s new summer issue, “a sense that the party has become unmoored from its most basic philosophical commitments.”

President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” of course deserves a share of the blame, for a genuine conservatism should occupy itself with limiting government power rather than extending its reach. Professor Busch argues that for the GOP to win in 2006 and beyond, it must recover its standing as the party of limited, constitutional government: “After compassionate conservatism.” While acknowledging President Bush’s contribution to Republican successes over the past six years, Professor Busch writes:

Bush has neglected the critical task—carried out by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich—of advancing a public argument that connects his otherwise disparate policy decisions to a broader philosophical framework. He has failed to articulate the philosophical argument for limited government that once defined the Republican Party. At the same time he has failed to win broad acceptance for his alternative, so-called compassionate conservatism. To a large extent, he has abandoned the systematic promotion of public philosophy altogether.

Republicans have more to lose than Democrats by failing to advance a public philosophy. Because the policies they offer usually promise concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, it is easier for Democrats to assemble a coalition on the basis of material interest without direct reliance on general principles. In addition, the institutions primarily responsible for interpreting the world and conveying ideas to the public—the educational system, the mass media, and popular culture—advance liberal ideology on the Democrats’ behalf. Although Republicans now have some alternative institutions and media outlets to promote the conservative cause, much of the burden still rests on the party itself.

For four decades, the Republican electoral realignment kept rolling due in part to the party’s substantial efforts to persuade the nation of conservative principles. Because Reagan made a persistent argument, today’s 30-44 year-olds who came of age during his presidency are some of America’s most Republican-leaning voters. There is no evidence that a similar “Bush cohort” will arise: in 2004, the youngest voters gave John Kerry his biggest margins. Reagan’s oft-repeated vision of limited constitutional government played an important role in putting Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on their path to the Supreme Court. It is far from clear that Bush will inspire the next generation of conservative jurists to take their place.

Don’t miss this important essay.

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