11.11.2008

REPACKAGING THE CONSERVATIVE BRAND

BY CINCINNATUS

The dust from last week’s election is still settling, the debate over how the Republicans lost still rages while precious bits of empirical evidence supporting both arguments are beginning to slowly bubble to the surface. The Republicans, it is said, will now enter into a bitter civil war over the future of the Party, with battles on ideology, policy and leadership looming. David Brooks discusses the impending struggle in this New York Times piece, recognizing two camps: the “Traditional” conservatives, who seek to return to the ideals of the Reagan and Republican Revolutions of the 80s and 90s, and the “Reformer” conservatives, who believe that the rhetoric of the past is a losing strategy and that inequality, global warming and other issues unconventional to conservatism should take center stage. Brooks concludes that Traditionalists will win out in the short term, much to the detriment of the Party. I find this argument and the debate in general amusing, truth be told. It all presupposes that Traditionalists, by definition, espouse a message that cannot be contemporized and cannot resound with younger voters and other demographics with which Democrats made gains this year. It also assumes that, in order to be taken seriously on issues such as inequality, global warming, etc, you have to sacrifice conservative principles and accept the premises of liberalism, the current owners of said issues. Finally, it takes for granted that it was conservatism that cost the Republicans the election this year, while evidence increasingly shows the opposite.

I will explain once again. President-Elect Obama’s victory over John McCain was the result of a well-run campaign by an extremely talented and well-spoken face of change arguing for middle class tax cuts in the midst of an economic crisis under an unpopular Republican administration. Got all that? I’ve already beaten to death the fact that Obama ran on a centrist platform based upon the conservative principle of tax cuts, deceptive though it may have been. Furthermore, it cannot be overstated that Obama’s articulate dialogue with the American people was a key to his success. His cool-headed demeanor and comfort with both oratory and debate were absolutely essential to the cultivation of his persona of gravitas and confidence. And let’s be honest, the historicity of his candidacy helped him a great deal. I wouldn’t credit luck entirely with his victory, but good timing certainly had a lot to do with it.

So what does this change for conservatism? Well, not a whole lot, apart from a few things. The message of Brook’s “Traditional” conservatives is not dead or irrelevant, it has simply been poorly related to the average voter and, most importantly, younger voters. Young voters tend to be more idealistic, distrustful of government and, now more than ever, greatly concerned about their education and viability in the job market. These are not ideas antithetical to conservatism; they are part and parcel of it. Part of the problem is that the Republican Party has been characterized as the party of old, rich white men. Obama’s candidacy made this contrast all the more stark, when one considers John McCain. Sarah Palin helped to challenge this image, to be sure, and there are many others in the Party (such as those recognized in The Children Of The Revolution article
The Bizarrobamas) that don’t fit the traditional Republican mold. They are dynamic and capable leaders and strong “Traditional” conservatives or libertarians, but due to entrenched, Old Guard leadership they have not yet ascended to national prominence. That all has to change.

Reviving conservatism means repackaging, not reforming, its message. A big part of that, as Obama demonstrates, is who is delivering that message. Sarah Palin energized the Republican Party far more than John McCain, but her prominence was limited and her image reshaped to conform to the message of his campaign. Over the course of the next several months, Governor Palin will articulate what her particular message is, and I promise you that it will deviate somewhat from the talking points she was confined to as a vice-presidential candidate. This is good. It is also good that conservatives like Bobby Jindal, Michael Steele, and South Carolina
Senator Jim DeMint are on the ascent and demanding changes to the Republican leadership. Any one of these people is capable of carrying the torch for the conservatism of the future and relating to voters.

But how do conservatives relate their message to voters, particularly young voters, you may ask? Well, talking about the Constitution and the principles of our nation’s founding a lot more would help. There seems to be a sense out there that liberals have a monopoly on idealism. It isn’t so. Conservatives are just as idealistic, but in a more practical sense, as we have the words of our nation’s founders to back up our message. I guarantee, the next candidate that quotes the Founding Fathers frequently, talks about them and the Constitution throughout his candidacy, will win as long as his core message of conservatism is sound. Rather than making “government cool again,” as Barack Obama said, how about making George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson cool again? How about using their words to frame the debate about our modern day issues? There is no more appropriate way to position oneself on the moral high ground.

Some are convinced that the religious element of the conservative movement has become a drag. I’ve yet to be persuaded. However, if this is indeed the case, it does not harm us in the slightest. Conservatives have generally cherished a candidate’s character as highly as their ideals. Let the individual candidate reflect whatever moral messages we want conservatism to convey, but if the overt discussion of religion and its bearing on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage is in fact detrimental to success, then turn the volume down on that rhetoric and amp up the discussion on government, taxes and national defense. Will the religious right be disenfranchised? That is up to them. If they stay home on election day often enough, they’ll have to live with candidates whose views on social issues are so diametrically opposed to their own that they will soon find it intolerable and, worse still, irreversible. So no, I do not think that a minimization of the overt discussion of moral issues will alienate the religious elements of conservatism.


In sum, we should not tear ourselves to pieces out of rabid panic that we are shrinking into irrelevance. We need not move further left, or reform our platform to reflect the issues in liberal terms. What would that serve? Only to limit the voters’ choices and betray our ideals. If the Republican Party can bring itself to foster a leadership revolution that sees a younger generation take the reins and frame its principles with eloquence and empathy, then all that remains is the interminable wait until 2010.

3 comments:

Luscus said...

Mr. Wheat -

While I admire your faith in conservatism, I fear that you have substituted a one-dimensional understanding of party identity rather than one recognizing an identity textured by its composition as a coalition of positions.

The party did not lose because it moved left or moved right. The party lost because voters left. Reagan won his mandate not due to his conservatism, but because he assembled a broad party out of several smaller groups. The Obama campaign spent significant funds pursuing "independents". The republican party had already lost their votes - in 2000, many of those voters were not ambiguously in the middle.

A successful republican party needs to appeal to a majority of voters. The Rovian strategy of pursuing "values voters" at the expense of purely fiscal conservatives or "paleoconservatives" on foreign policy has had the complete opposite effect of the "permanent majority" he sought. I'm not saying that the party should reject the religious right. I'm saying that they shouldn't have the reins.

The republican party must remain the standard-bearer for conservatism. But that conservatism must be focused on good and successful governance, on achievement and discipline rather than ideological gimmickry and absolutism. A conservatism whose focus is on the maximum efficiency of government rather than the absolute size; a conservatism whose fiscal discipline is long-term oriented, and maintained even when its own pet projects arrive at the funding board; a conservatism that uses its military strength to pursue justice and maintain stability through concert; a conservatism that discriminates only on ability, but also one that provides opportunities for the economically disadvantaged; a conservatism that has mastery over all of the tools of statecraft, foreign and domestic; a conservatism that is both technocratically oriented and popularly inspiring.

Ben Wheat said...

I don't think we're in disagreement at all, you seem to be arguing for the supremacy of traditional core conservative principles (this should not be confused with George W Bush's "neoconservatism"), just reiterated for a new generation. The conservative message can appeal to a broad coalition, as you say, and as I argue in the article, by focusing on preserving the core elements while tailoring the rhetoric to each individual group. The Republican Party had lost the desire to do that until last week due to an atrophy of ideas and a laziness that prevented them from campaigning 24/7, not just when an election was imminent. Conservatism can appeal to young voters, and can and once did appeal to Hispanic voters, it appeals to working class voters. One day, it could even appeal to black voters, who knows. But the lack of creativity and the notion that Rove's Republican coalition was a lock certainly hasn't helped us.

Luscus said...

Where we do disagree, is at the crux of Mr. Brooks' article.

I do not believe he means to say that Republicans need to sacrifice principles to attract voters. I'm fairly certain he does not. He instead advocates both a restructuring of priorities and the application of conservative principles to policy areas that our current electorate finds pressing and urgent and where they find Republican positions shallow or ignorant.

Brooks' "Reformists" argue that the rhetoric of the past is indeed a losing strategy. They argue that conservative principles should be applied to all issues (and especially those the electorate finds pressing and urgent) regardless of the opponent's position. Reagan spoke to all Americans, not just to those he considered from the "real America". Reformists want an end to the culture wars and the Rovian focus on divisive and irrelevent issues to drum up votes. We want an end to that 'partisan for partisan's sake' BS. We want to be led by example, not by our greed for power.