The Conservative Crackup

The Not-So-Grand, Really-Old-Idea Party
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Nov. 5 2008 10:22 AM

The Conservative Crackup

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Tucker, Ross, Jim, Kathleen, and Christine,

Ronald Reagan attracted me to his side in 1980 with five words: "family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom." It was Barack Obama who spoke in those timeless terms in this election, and he received his just reward Tuesday evening. What's more, he spoke about them by using well-considered, new ideas—for example, universal health insurance, as well as a national commitment (and not just an anemic executive order) for faith-based and often neighborhood social-service delivery.

How might Republicans catch up? With respect to family, it has been a good many years since the Supreme Court approved vouchers, yet Republicans have yet to pursue the opportunity. A nationwide voucher effort for math and science, or a voucher for full tuition, for low-achieving children would have plenty of social-science research and support behind it. It would also put families back in charge of the upbringing of their children.

The right to life remains a highly important and sensitive topic. Republicans have been trying to sell themselves for so long on the basis of judicial appointments and the supposed "fifth vote" to overturn Roe, sometimes you wonder if they realize how selecting judges on that basis disserves the rule of law. It also keeps Republicans perennially looking like the gang that can't shoot straight—given the number of "fifth votes" they've already appointed to the court, from Sandra Day O'Connor to Anthony Kennedy to David Souter.

The Democrats had a brilliant strategy on abortion this year: Don't play the futile court speculation game. Instead, Obama's team promoted life in ways that don't depend upon a Supreme Court vacancy and cooperating nominee. Specifically, Obama had the Dems commit to promote life with enhanced social and economic assistance. This idea had traction—the Catholic vote literally switched from Republican to Democrat, going (in preliminary numbers) 55-45 for Obama nationwide, which is amazing given the amount of outright lies and falsehoods the GOP was purveying about the president-elect on this issue. (Not to mention the co-conspiring clergy the Republicans captured, who were literally preaching that voters would go to hell for voting for Barack.) The Republicans became the party of fear and damnation rather than solution or respect for life. As a consequence, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia are in the Democratic, not the Republican, column.

It's admittedly hard to untie the abortion knot, but here's a thought: Republicans could have moved a constitutional amendment that would presume life to begin at conception, while further providing that no government, federal or state, is competent to legislate on the question absent a supermajority. The effect? Taking the Supreme Court's "activist" thumb off the scale against life while at the same time avoiding the criminalization of a woman's freedom. This is not the ideal Catholic position, but it's closer, and the Catholic Church has less standing to complain about a grant of freedom that could then be fairly influenced by the moral instruction associated with a woman's religious choice.

Of course, respecting the dignity of work requires Republicans to think past the pretense of the unregulated market, which as an ideal has never truly existed. One might expect that Republicans, as the proponents of the benefits of vibrant competition, would not promote antitrust principles that reduce competition by making mergers and consolidation too available. Incentives promoting both employment security and better work/family balance are also worth exploring.

As for peace, it is well past time that the neoconservatives be given a good swift boot out of the Pentagon, if not the town. Then Republicans could give up trying to sell us the stale bill of goods that Iraq is the central front of anything or that the surge is working. Trade, too, remains an opportunity for expanded freedom. Our principles of international trade should match the stronger EU market integration that minimizes impediments to commerce, rather than permit even the most heavy-handed regulation so long as it is facially nondiscriminatory between in-state and out-of-state commerce.

Finally, beyond these somewhat wonkish ideas for policy innovation, Republicans ought to remember occasionally that they are—or at least were—the party of Lincoln, and ought to promote civil and human rights. That is better than dragging one's feet on reasonable ways to break up the systematic racism or gender stereotypes that still inhabit much of our culture.

The GOP also needs to recruit some new blood. Ron Paul was young at heart and amusingly nonconformist, and Sarah Palin was well-dressed, if somewhat goofy in demeanor. Mitt Romney looked, thought, and acted like a president, which is probably why a party that indulges far too much gratuitous intramural sniping over whether Hayek or von Mises is the better thinker eliminated him with embarrassing sniping about his faith.

Given the historic opportunities embodied by the talented and inspiring Barack Obama, it is not clear to me that any GOP candidate could have prevailed. But one thing is obvious even to the man on the street: A campaign without a fresh face or new ideas was more of the same—and if nothing succeeds like success, nothing new succeeds at even less.

Welcome to the wilderness. It is time to think, rather than grouse or govern.

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