“Reform” is the word on the lips of most of the nearly 9,000 attendees at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). It’s a young crowd with a good mix of seasoned veterans to leaven the enthusiasm of the college kids. Wide-eyed and earnest, the younger generation, raised on the conservative infotainment offered up by talk radio and other mass media conservative stars, also seem to have embraced the message of reform. In short, if this CPAC conference’s main objective is to point the way to a conservative comeback, it’s gotten off to a good start.
The speakers and panels so far have been making all the right noises about having learned their lessons from the 2006 and 2008 electoral debacles. Political defeat, like the prospect of being hanged, concentrates the mind wonderfully. And there seems to be a grim determination underpinning the talk of reform and change — as if the movement has taken the defeats to heart and is truly chastened by the experience.
Of this I have no doubt. But talking about reform while failing to address some fundamental problems with the conservative movement itself may see any real effort at change an exercise in wishful thinking.
Classic conservative principles are timeless; immutable tenets that have inspired great changes in government over the last 400 years and spoken passionately and plainly to the needs and hopes of ordinary people. Since the end of World War II, those classical principles have informed a devastating critique of the welfare state, presenting a reasoned and logical alternative to statism and dependency. Conservatism has stood for human liberty based on the fundamental idea of natural law; that from his first breath, man is born free.
But conservatism has gone off the rails, becoming in some respects a parody of itself. A philosophy that is all about honoring and conserving tradition while allowing for change that buttresses and supports important aspects of the past, has been hijacked by ideologues who brook no deviation from a dogma that limits rather than expands human freedom. Conservatism has become loud, obnoxious, closed-minded, and puerile, while its classical tradition of tolerance and hard-headed rationalism has been abandoned in favor of emotional jags and a vicious parochialism that eschews debate for “litmus tests” on ideological purity.
Can CPAC accomplish anything that will begin to address what conservatism has become — both the perception and reality?
Not when some major conservative figures kid themselves that there is success in unity and victory in simply standing up and saying “no” to the Obama bailout culture:
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) on Thursday claimed the unanimous House Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s stimulus package was a turning point for the conservative movement.
“We lost that legislative battle, but we won the argument,” Pence said in a speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “We won because we got back to basics.”
“Welcome to the beginning of the comeback,” Pence added. “Republicans will be faithful and loyal in our opposition to the liberal Democrats’ agenda.
Such feel good bromides do not convince anyone that the unity Pence is talking about extends much beyond opposition to the radical liberal ideas of the Democrats. If conservatives could unite on what positive alternatives to Obama’s spending plans they can present, that would be a different story. That would show a movement ready to compete in the marketplace of ideas once again.
But this is a question of tactics and not a recognition that something is fundamentally wrong. Pence is one of the more thoughtful lawmakers on the Hill but his appearance at CPAC was more as a cheerleader than critic. His belief that Republicans “lost their way” may be accurate, but his hopeful rhetoric about a “great American awakening” was almost surreal. There is plenty of frustration with the president’s spending and bailouts but this has yet to translate into opposition. The latest polls show a wide majority of citizens backing the president’s gamble that spending trillions of dollars will not hasten or cause a collapse but actually bring the economy back to life. That hardly seems like a national “awakening” no matter how you spin it.
Pence isn’t the only conservative whose optimism, while certainly welcome and a definite part of any reform that needs to take place, nevertheless seems strangely out of place. David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, is equally Pollyannish:
“Voters didn’t reject conservatism — they just said ‘no, you can’t’ to the Republican Party after it had failed to walk the conservatism it had talked,” ACU Chairman David A. Keene said this week.
“Republicans lost their credibility as the party of the center-right when they became specialists in earmarks and the Bush White House presided over huge increases in discretionary spending,” he added.
While there may be an agreement by conservatives regarding that critique, it presupposes that there were not other, more fundamental aspects of what conservatism has become that were roundly rejected by huge swaths of the American electorate. The movement is seen as intolerant of gays, immigrants, and other non-white, non-middle class citizens — a perception that the Republican Party does little to counter and makes attacking conservatism on these issues extremely easy. When one of the stars of the conservative movement (and a CPAC speaker on Saturday), Ann Coulter, can get up in front of conservatives at the CPAC conference in 2007 and refer to Arabs as “ragheads” to loud applause, there is more to reform than just the message.
Until conservatives can practice some painful introspection, looking with a self-critical eye at the reasons for the debacles of 2006 and 2008, most in the movement will continue to delude themselves that simply reaffirming conservative love of small government, low taxes, and less regulation will be enough to convince a majority of Americans that they recognize their shortcomings and have changed their tune. There must be a reckoning with those who violate the very nature of conservatism by obstinately adhering to exclusionary, anti-intellectual precepts that have thrown classical conservatism over in favor of ranting, ideological tantrums.