We’ve been here before, indeed

In a post called “We’ve Been Here Before,” John wrote about the need “to develop policy approaches that have unified, conservative themes; that can appeal to voters who are not already committed conservatives; that build on the experience of successful application of conservative principles to the problems of prior generations; [and] that hold out a real hope of tackling our intractable problems. . . .” I’m all for this project, of course. I write only to argue against the view that the project is necessary for future electoral success.

The Democrats won’t be ousted from power when the Republicans develop great conservative policies with cross-over appeal; the Democrats will be ousted when the electorate concludes that they have screwed things up. For this reason, the real case for formulating new conservative policies is that such policies will help Republicans/conservatives govern better when they return to power, not that they are likely to hasten that day.

Consider this year’s election. The liberal Democrats did not return to power because of this or that domestic policy idea or because, more generally, they had conducted a sober reassessment of liberal dogma following prior setbacks. They returned to power, without having revised much of anything, because the electorate was sick of the Republican administration. This scenario is the rule in presidential politics, not the exception.

There are exceptions, though. In 2000, the Republicans recaptured the White House (albeit through an electoral fluke) even though the public wasn’t particularly sick of Democratic rule. That year, it mattered that President Bush added some wrinkles, in the form of compassionate conservatism, to the traditional playbook.

Notice, though, that Bush was able to do this essentially on the fly. His new wrinkles weren’t the product of soul-searching and intellectual ferment that began when the Republicans were swept out of the White House in 1992. The Republican response at that time, spearheaded by Newt Gingrich (a politician not a think tank resident), was basically to double-down on Reaganism. Only after Gingrich’s revolution fizzled and it became clear that 2000 would not be a “throw the bums out” election, did Bush and his team cobble together the themes that would work in 2000. And a turn of a phrase (“the soft bigotry of low expectations”), not a detailed educational policy initiative, worked the magic. In other words, it was the quick ingenuity of politicians, not the deep, long-term thinking of intellectuals, that made the difference.

For better or for worse, Bush turned out to be serious about compassionate conservatism. Thus, once he was in office, this philosophy became the operative new approach that would incorporate conservative themes, while appealing to a new generation and offering potential solutions to intractable problems. Ironically, No Child Left Behind and the Bush prescription drug benefit plan might well have prominent places in the “new thinking” that certain conservative intellectuals have embarked upon, had these programs not already been enacted. Indeed, these programs are fairly popular and arguably successful on their own terms, whatever the ideological objections may be.

It is instructive, in any case, to recall that five years ago (give or take) more than a few conservative intellectuals had plenty of praise for compassionate or “big government” conservatism. When the praise died down it was mainly because Bush had become hugely unpopular for reasons having nothing to do with the demerits of compassionate conservatism.

The problem for conservatives, then, is not a lack significant new thinking since Reagan. The problem, rather, is two-fold: (1) some of the new thinking has been flawed and (2) for reasons mostly unrelated to the first problem, Bush’s second term was quite difficult, and conservatives are viewed as responsible, at least in part, for the difficulty.

So by all means, let a thousand flowers bloom when it comes to thinking about applying conservative principles in new ways to difficult problems. Just don’t let anyone sell you flowers on the premise that conservatives are doomed unless you purchase them.

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