New conservatives for a new century
I wrote a lot on Wednesday, so I am going to keep this short: What are conservatives to make of Republican politicians like John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Huckabee, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist? With McCain the 2008 Republican nominee, these politicians represent the near future of the GOP. Each is conservative on some issues but not on others. Each in his own way is comfortable with government power. Each is popular. And each is generally considered a success.
This is paradoxical. The Republican party rank and file is overwhelmingly conservative, but it is the nontraditional conservative GOP pols -- starting with George W. Bush -- who get all the attention. This suggests that the Republican grass-roots voter has been hoodwinked into supporting moderates -- or that the interests and priorities of the conservative grass roots are changing.
To paraphrase the late William F. Buckley Jr., McCain is "conservative" but not "a conservative." Yet most conservatives seem satisfied with that. McCain was not their first choice, but they are going to support him in November. Trust me on this.
Why? The success of conservative policies in the closing decades of the 20th century has left us with a different set of social problems in the new century. And because many conservatives seem unable to articulate solutions to these problems (think healthcare and inequality) or deny the problems exist at all (global warming and a broken immigration regime that cannot be reformed through enforcement "attrition" alone), moderates and Democrats claim the voters' allegiance. Conservatives can win some fights in such a climate, but they do not have the same advantage they had when Ronald Reagan was president or Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House. That is because they do not have a prominent spokesman who can advance an "a conservative" agenda. There are young conservative leaders, mostly in the House of Representatives. But these congressmen do not shape the debate. Nor do they have any real power.
Conservatives are thus in the same position they were in prior to Reagan's ascent. As they work on new policies to address new issues, they must also work with the "conservative" politicians who can actually shape public policy. That means they will often have to find new ways to make government work rather than nurse their instinctive distrust of the state. The goals of conservatism -- a strong national defense, low taxes and minimal regulation, and the defense of traditional American values -- remain the same. It is the conservative context that has changed. And unless conservatives find a way to work productively in this new context, incrementally advancing their agenda in a cheerful and optimistic spirit, they will soon find themselves on the political margins.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at the Weekly Standard and author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."
Big-government conservatives aren't conservative
We've got a number of disagreements to get to, so let me start by emphasizing an area on which we agree. You are quite right that conservatives are going to have to come up with plausible policy solutions to the problems of today, not those of 1980 or 1994. If conservatism cannot cope with rising economic anxiety, demands for healthcare reform or evolving environmental concerns, it will not survive as a viable governing philosophy. President Reagan did not come to power by defending abstract conservative principles alone -- he was elected in part because he was seen as having the better solutions to stagflation, Soviet expansionism and social unrest. There are no Reagans in our stable today.
I'm not optimistic about John McCain. His commitment to duty, honor and patriotism is admirable. But he doesn't seem to care very much about domestic policy, which makes him an unlikely candidate for closing the conservative-ideas deficit. To the extent that he thinks about domestic policy, his instincts lean toward activist government and bipartisanship for its own sake. McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman don't add up to a winning conservative platform for the future.