Conservatism’s Identity Crisis

January 10, 2008

Liberals have every reason to be pleased with the three remaining Democratic presidential candidates and what they portend for the vitality of political liberalism in the Democratic Party. The same cannot be said for conservatives concerning the Republican candidates and the vitality of conservatism.

There isn’t a dime’s worth of ideological difference between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. They just present their respective brands of statism in different ways. In the Democratic Party, big-government liberalism is alive, well, robust and vibrant.

Hillary might resume “Third Way” Clintonian politics if she wins the nomination, but for now, she’s bragging that her health-care plan is more Marxist than Barack’s.

But for Republicans, there’s a fierce intramural debate not just over how conservative the party should be but also over the very definition of conservatism.

This debate wouldn’t be as significant if it were limited to the candidates alone, but a growing number of conservative intellectuals have also surrendered to the oxymoronic notion that conservatism must adapt to survive as a powerful political force in this nation.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum is an example. In his new book, “Comeback, Conservatism That Can Win Again,” he argues that Republicans need a new approach because they can no longer win elections on the conservative ideas that catapulted them to power in the 1980s.

Apart from Frum’s book, which I’ve yet to read, conservatism faces serious challenges, owing to these (and other) factors:

• President George W. Bush, through his “compassionate conservatism” — including its faith based initiatives, its greater federal role in education, its immigration policy and its excessive spending — has diluted and muddled conservatism.

• Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee appears prepared to expand on Bush’s compassionate conservatism to a degree even more objectionable to Reagan conservatives.

• There is a strong element of isolationism within the conservative tent, typified, variously, by Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. A strain of protectionism, contrasted with Ronald Reagan’s affinity for Milton Friedman-style free trade, is also present.

• There exists a purist neoconservative faction within the conservative movement. The difficulties this presents are compounded by antiwar liberals who portray this faction as much larger than it is.

• On one level, the War on Terror unites and strengthens conservatives and their cause. But the war is so important that many conservatives are willing to abandon social conservatism to ensure we have a strong enough commander in chief to lead us in the war. This abandonment, if it occurs, could be the last straw for some evangelicals.

• Among the current slate of GOP presidential candidates, those closest to Reagan conservatism have recent liberal records and/or difficulty gaining electoral traction.

Before the explosion of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” seemed decidedly on the outs among conservatives. Indeed, many believe Republicans lost the 2006 congressional elections, not because of Iraq but because of Bush’s betrayal of domestic conservative principles — other than his tax policy.

But Huckabee has resurrected compassionate conservatism, apparently reading the Gospel as mandating a greater, more intrusive and more “compassionate” role for the government. Huckabee objects to criticisms of his conservative bona fides, but his rhetoric and sometimes his record on health care, education, foreign policy, federal smoking bans, terrorists, criminals and economic producers gives this conservative pause. I hope I’m way off base, especially if he wins the nomination.

The Buchanan/Paul antiwar isolationism, I believe, is neither good for conservatism nor the national interest. That said, this strain gains some strength from arguable excesses of the foreign policy preferences of true neoconservatives.

The true neoconservative — as opposed to the loose definition of that term supplied by antiwar liberals — is a former Democrat who favors a more energetic role for government in domestic policy and a more proactive approach to foreign policy. He possibly even has an appetite for invading nations that don’t represent a discernible threat to our national interest, because he believes in the transformative, contagious power of democracy.

I couldn’t have greater appreciation for the role of neoconservatives in the war, but I think the conservative movement would have more credibility and be less threatening to impressionable moderates if we clarified that we are not nation builders and would only attack (and thereafter help to rebuild) nations we believe represent threats to our national interest, like — yes — Iraq. We do believe in republican government (and hope democracy spreads) but don’t regard it as a panacea for all the world’s problems.

Considering the extreme liberalism of all the Democratic candidates and the nation’s still mostly conservative majority, Republicans would be well-positioned for the general 2008 elections, especially with the turnaround in Iraq. But unless conservatives work through their present identity crisis and regain a clearer sense of who they are, Democrats will have the advantage.