We're Going to Need a Bigger Tent

Yuval Levin gave a big thumbs up to the word "no." There is so much being done that conservatives disagree with in a fundamental way that we shouldn't be intimidated into lowering our voices in opposition:

No gets a bad rap. It’s a wonderful word. It’s at the core of any idea of freedom. We certainly shouldn’t be simply the party of “no,” of course. We need to be able to offer an alternative. We need to be able to offer our own way. We need, more importantly, to have a sense of what it is we want, of why it is we’re involved in politics, and of what it is we think is good for America.

But we also need, I think, to have a sense of what it means to be in the opposition. Conservatives are out of power in Washington in a way that we have not been in a long time -- fifteen years or so. We’re out of power in the White House, out of power in both houses of Congress. And being so completely in the opposition means that a lot of the time, the particular political and policy judgments that you face present themselves as yes or no questions. You don’t get to have as much of a role in shaping policy. You get to vote on it. You get to argue about it. And a lot of that presents itself, unfortunately, as yes or no. Will you accept as a general matter the approach of the party in power, try to work within it, or do your priorities and your ideas and your beliefs about what’s good for America mean that you have to respectfully disagree, and explain why, and explain where you stand?

Rich Lowry had an especially effective analysis, talking about Obama's full-out assault on American exceptionalism:

If you just look at these very quick four things that represent a thumbnail sketch of American exceptionalism, every single one of them is under threat today. And this is the fundamental radicalism of the Obama vision –- literally, the radicalism because it attacks at our roots what we are as a people and as a nation.

Lowry's denunciation of Obama's attacks on America's superpower status, our dominant role in world affairs, our history as a "middle class nation with aspirations," and the continuing assault on personal responsibility and self-reliance was devastating and oh so true. The president is remaking America into something it is not and never was. An attack on the foundations of America is an attack on the idea of America itself.

Lowry offered some good political advice for conservatives as well:

[A]lthough Reagan was an ideologue in the best sense of the word -- he had a few key ideas that undergirded his view of the world -- we shouldn’t forget that he was an intensely practical man as well. He was concerned with practical successes in the political arena, and was willing to compromise to get those successes. So, yes, we need principles and a return to principles, but principles without prudence is folly.

Now, on the other hand, flexibility without a philosophical grounding becomes mere opportunism. What we need to try to hit is that sweet spot of statesmanship which Reagan did, and which we need to try to do, and which is much easier said than done -- which is why I prefer being a political pundit and leaving the statesmanship to the likes of Governor Daniels.

"Flexibilty without a philosophical grounding" defines the Republican Party at the top today. Stacy McCain explains with typical élan:

Anyone who has spent much time in Washington -- and I've been here since November 1997 -- can understand this. Influence is everything in Washington, and the GOP is currently at a low ebb of influence, on the wrong end of a power dynamic of Democratic dominance comparable to 1993 or 1977, if not indeed to 1965.

In such a situation, Republicans are like Fredo Corleone getting slapped around by the Democratic Moe Green:

As McCain points out, the situation invites philosophical sell outs in order to regain power and influence. Hence, if real reform is to be achieved, it must come from the bottom up -- something with which the entire panel at the symposium agreed.

Arthur Brooks perhaps put it best:

[O]nce the Republicans start to remember principles over sheer power, they perhaps will start to win again and become the voice of conservatism that they once were and perhaps can be in the future.

As for the panel discussion, two themes emerged that bear looking into. First, conservatives must find ways to talk to young people to get them thinking about conservatism again and to get them excited about conservative ideas. The appalling Rasmussen poll that showed that adults under 30 are equally divided on whether capitalism or socialism is a better economic system was troubling but no cause for panic, according to the panelists. Wait until most of those younger people come face to face with high taxes and raising a family and eventually they will see that capitalism, for all its faults, is the best economic system for themselves and their families.

Secondly, conservatives must find a way to connect with the ordinary American again. Mitch Daniels used the "e" word -- empathy -- which, in this case, simply means being able to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes in order to discover how they live and what's important to them:

I think we probably didn’t give the right illustrations, but I think you heard each of us, in different ways, recognize that to be credible, and really to earn the right to try and lead any part of this country, we have to not only address ourselves but begin by putting ourselves in the shoes of the large majority of American citizens, and to reserve our greatest concern -- our greatest concern -- for those who share the least in the blessings that freedom brings to this country.

And you’re right to remind us of Jack Kemp, because in his every breath, he started from the standpoint of the citizen who hadn’t gotten up the ladder yet. And he will always be as great a role model in that respect as we can look to.

As for conservatism re-engaging America's youth, there was no talk of abandoning a conservative social agenda that, at the moment, seems to be one of the things that bothers many of today's young people. Instead, Mitch Daniels pointed out that the young are attracted to "energy and action. The young are experimental, and I think naturally gravitate to folks who are in motion."

Yuval Levin had this thought:

And I think being evidently in touch with the problems of the moment is something that we’ve had a problem with. It’s something that younger voters in particular are attuned to. It’s also a generation that has grown up with a lot of choices, a lot of control over their own life, a kind of internet generation -- and iTunes and eBay and Facebook -- that is not going to take well to the experience of going to a Department of Motor Vehicles-type situation to get a doctor; that is not going to take well to economic control at the top.

If we can make that case in a way that really explains what it is that they’re saying when they say that socialism makes more sense that capitalism, if we can explain what it is that we’re arguing about in these terms, and talk about debt in a way that speaks to their lives -- I mean, it has always been a problem to explain the meaning of debt in the abstract, but we’re getting to a point where the meaning of debt is not in the abstract. The meaning of debt is very, very real, and the effect on the next generation is growing easier and easier to explain. It still makes for a kind of dull economic argument, but if conservatives can find a way to speak in the language of youth about the meaning and the effect of all of this, I think that will speak to some younger voters.

I would recommend reading the transcript and watching some video clips from the symposium. It is gatherings like this that synthesize and highlight what is happening in conservatism and stimulate others to think along similar lines.