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.

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.