We're Going to Need a Bigger Tent

The moment in the movie Jaws where we first get a glimpse of how huge that shark really is, occurs when Chief Brody, shoveling chum into the water, is surprised when the shark surfaces and the beast's mouth looks like it could swallow Quint's boat with very little trouble.

"We're going to need a bigger boat," says Brody.

Such a moment may have arrived for many conservatives. The size and scope of the problems facing America, facing the Republican Party, and facing conservatism could finally wake up many on the right who have been kidding themselves that conservatism and the party through which its ideas and principles are made flesh would find revival in shrinking its numbers rather than expanding them.

We're going to need a bigger tent if the GOP and conservatism are going to make a comeback.

Not exactly an earth-shatteringly original idea, but you've got to crawl before you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. And since this is one of the fundamental debates about "whither the GOP" and "where goeth conservatism," we should never tire of bringing up the subject nor flag in our efforts to reach a consensus.

The reuniting of social conservatives and libertarians as a necessary step in making conservatism relevant again was one of the conclusions drawn by an interesting gathering of conservative politicians, pundits, and intellectuals at a symposium sponsored by the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal last week. Entitled "Making Conservatism Credible Again," a stellar panel that included Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (one of the more interesting conservative politicians in the country in my book), American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, conservative writer Yuval Levin, and the longtime editor at the National Review, Rich Lowry. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan also addressed the group but had pressing business on the Hill and couldn't stay to participate in the panel discussion.

Both Ryan and Daniels believe in a more pragmatic brand of conservatism and there have been whispers about both possibly throwing their hat in the ring in 2012. Daniels will no doubt get a serious look by the party. He's a populist without being a class warrior. He's conservative but uses a different vocabulary to talk about his principles and beliefs than anyone else that comes to mind. He reminds me a little of Sarah Palin in how he can connect to working class Americans.

But at the moment, Daniels has quashed any such speculation, saying during the symposium: "I've only ever run for or held one office. It's the last one I'm going to hold." Not exactly Shermanesque in its certainty, but good enough for now.

Presidential politics aside, the group was diverse enough to make the discussion a worthwhile attempt to examine the state of conservatism from several different points of view and come up with a rough consensus on some of the things that Republicans could be doing to get back in the game.

The event got underway with each participant giving some opening remarks and after reading them, you would be excused if you felt you needed a double dose of Prozac. All agreed that the Republican Party had a long way to go to become viable again. All agreed that in order to regain credibility, conservatism had to first reunite the warring factions (something it was pointed out that Reagan did successful following the defeat of Gerald Ford). Beyond that, all agreed that conservatism had to become credible again by addressing the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans.

Again, nothing very radical or surprising. But I found that reading over how each participant saw conservatism, how they defined it, to be a wonderful exercise in positive reinforcement.

For instance, here's Rep. Ryan on "the great conservative purpose of government:"

Nowhere was the Western tradition epitomized more memorably than in our Declaration of Independence. By "the laws of nature and of nature's God," all human beings are created equal, not in height, or skills, or knowledge, or color, or other nonessentials, but equal in certain inalienable rights -- to live, to be free, and to fulfill their best individual potential, including the right to the "material" such as property needed to do this. Each individual is unique and possesses rights and dignity. There are no group or collective right in the Declaration. Nor does basic human equality imply "equal result." It means "equal opportunity": every person has a right not to be prevented from pursuing happiness, from developing his or her potential. The results should differ from one to another because "justice" or "fairness" is giving each individual what each has earned or merited. That's what fairness is.

The great conservative purpose of government is to secure these natural rights under popular consent. Protecting every person's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness should be the great and only mission of legitimate government.

Ryan also gave one of the best rationales I've seen for why the social cons and libertarians need each other:

A “libertarian” who wants limited government should embrace the means to his freedom: thriving mediating institutions that create the moral preconditions for economic markets and choice. A “social issues” conservative with a zeal for righteousness should insist on a free market economy to supply the material needs for families, schools, and churches that inspire moral and spiritual life. In a nutshell, the notion of separating the social from the economic issues is a false choice. They stem from the same root.

Both great wings of conservatism need each other. They complement and complete each other. A prosperous moral community is a prerequisite for a just and ordered society and the idea that either side of this current divide can exist independently is a mirage.

Some of the best thinking coming from the symposium occurred when panelists gave rational and reasoned critiques of the "shock and awe statism" of the first few months of the Obama administration. Pajamas Media blogger Roger Kimball was at the symposium and summarizes Arthur Brooks' thoughts on Obama's attacks on free market capitalism:

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the panels moderator, articulated two core points: 1) a defense of the capitalist system has to be made primarily in moral not economic terms and 2) conservatism needs to offer not only criticism of left-liberal policies but also practical answers to real-life questions.