Thoughts on Conservatism at Restoration Weekend
At Restoration Weekend in West Palm Beach, Florida -- the annual gathering of the David Horowitz Freedom Center -- I heard the leading conservative analysts and many political leaders present their views of what led to the disastrous defeat of Mitt Romney one short week ago. Politicians were represented by Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and others, and the roster of prominent speakers included Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens, Steve Moore, Pat Caddell, Monica Crowley, Michael Reagan, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and scores more. Everyone addressed the issues of what happened and what can we do in the future. Eventually, all the videos of the events will appear on Frontpagemag.com. When they do, watch Charles Krauthammer’s analysis, to me the highlight of the weekend, and Bret Stephens' very important presentation on foreign policy and the Middle East. Both were brilliant and essential.
The event did lead me to think anew of the reasons for our defeat, and to consider the question once more of what reforms, if any, conservatism and the Republican Party in particular must make. The speeches reminded me of the old Jewish aphorism -- that when you hear two Jews arguing, you are listening to 20 different opinions. Michael Reagan began by talking about the need to build an inclusive movement and party that do not leave out scores of Americans that many conservatives seem to believe are beyond hope. His father, he reminded us, began as a liberal Democrat and knew how to speak to those whose ranks he had left. The next morning, Santorum argued for putting the social issues many call divisive front and center, and denied that he and other candidates hurt Romney’s chances by seeking to destroy him during the primaries. And so it went, the entire weekend long.
So now, here are some of my own thoughts from after the weekend's conclusion:
1. The Republican Party has to moderate its policy on immigration.
This is not simply because it needs to win the votes of Hispanic Americans. It is because a less harsh policy is in our country’s interest, and to treat or appear to treat a growing percentage of our country’s citizens as somehow anti-American means that our movement is doomed to oblivion. To some extent, this is already being done. In last week’s New Yorker, the political reporter Ryan Lizza spent much time with Texas Republicans, and showed how the largest state Republican Party in our country has rejected its once tough restrictionist policy. As Ted Cruz, the senator-elect from Texas, told him, “‘If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community,’ he said, ‘in a few short years Republicans will no longer be the majority party in our state.’ He ticked off some statistics: in 2004, George W. Bush won forty-four per cent of the Hispanic vote nationally; in 2008, John McCain won just thirty-one per cent. On Tuesday, Romney fared even worse.”
This demographic truth, however, does not mean that a policy based on self-deportation, mass arrests of illegal immigrants, or building a complete barrier to illegal immigration via a fence or more border agents is the answer. The Texas Republicans once held such a tough approach, but this past year, at its state convention, the party voted overwhelmingly to change its policy. Lizza writes:
In 2010, the platform of the Republican Party of Texas included some of the country’s most restrictionist language on immigration. It referred repeatedly to “illegal aliens” and called for an “unimpeded deportation process,” elimination of all government benefits to unauthorized immigrants, and the adoption of policies that would mirror the controversial “Show me your papers” provision of Arizona’s immigration law.
Early this year, Martinez de Vara and his allies from the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans decided that they would rewrite the state Party platform on immigration. “There was a minority in the Party that was vocal and basically hijacking that issue,” he said. “And so we took it to the convention.” The Republican Party of Texas’s convention includes some nine thousand delegates. They met in early June, in Fort Worth. Martinez de Vara pushed new language through a subcommittee on immigration that he chaired and then through a full committee. Munisteri, the Party chairman, made sure that the issue received a thorough hearing, a move that angered a significant faction of his party. The debate came down to a contentious floor fight in which the new language was challenged four times. Martinez de Vara rose at one point and delivered the soliloquy that he gave me about how building a wall and confiscating property was big government. “When I said that on the floor of the Republican Party of Texas convention,” he said, “with nine thousand of the most diehard conservatives, people who paid two or three thousand dollars to go to Fort Worth and participate, I got seventy-five per cent of the vote. Because they all know it’s true!”
The platform no longer refers to “illegal aliens” and no longer has any language that could be construed as calling for Arizona-style laws. Instead, it proposes a “common ground” to find market-based solutions and “the application of effective, practical and reasonable measures to secure our borders.” Rather than expelling eleven million immigrants, it says, “Mass deportation of these individuals would neither be equitable nor practical.” Most significant, Martinez de Vara won adoption of language calling for a temporary-worker program. At around the time that Mitt Romney was winning the primary by attacking his opponents for being too soft on immigration, the largest state Republican Party in America was ridding its platform of its most restrictionist immigration language and calling for a program to allow unauthorized immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally and work.
2. We need a truce on divisive social issues.
Let us take opposition to gay marriage as the major example. Last week, gay marriage initiatives were passed in states in which they were defeated in previous years. The voters, not the courts, made their judgement known. While we must protect the rights of those who are fiercely opposed to it on religious or other grounds, and respect and seek to understand their opposition to the measure, we must accept the fact that to young people today, including young Republicans, the measure is seen as a civil rights issue whose time has come.
How do we answer the young Republican woman who, in the Wall Street Journal a week ago, wrote that most of her friends view the Republicans as “social bigots” and complained that “the right has done nothing to welcome young people.” Sarah Westwood argues that “Republicans don’t have a future unless they break up with the religious right and the gay-bashing, Bible-thumping fringe that gives the party such a bad rap with every young voter.” She may be too harsh, and does not appreciate the need to build coalitions of people with different views on the issues she raises. But at the very least, I think, Mitch Daniels is correct that we need a “truce” on emphasizing the social issues.
3. Show in concrete detail how pro-growth and free market policies benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy few.
Mitt Romney’s 47% remark during his closed fundraiser, and his reiteration of it last week, shows that he was unable to grasp just how his depicting almost half the populace as takers who wanted handouts was extremely harmful. John Podhoretz writes:
He was displaying the same obtuseness about the wants and needs of ordinary people that did more to torpedo his campaign than any goodies Obama might have had to dole out.
Bobby Jindal, the brilliant and effective governor of Louisiana, raged against Romney in response. The former candidate was “absolutely wrong,” he said. Romney was “dividing the American voters.” Republicans, Jindal asserted, “need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American Dream.”
As the Republican nominee, it was Romney’s job to find a way to speak to some of those groups of voters and offer practical solutions to their difficulties that both resonated with them and sounded plausible to them.
Podhoretz is correct when he says that we need to do more than just advocate pro-business policies that do not resonate with those who actually are working very hard and are falling behind each day. Free market policies cannot just benefit risk-takers and entrepreneurs, “at the expense of everything else.” In Wisconsin, the same people who voted in Scott Walker despite a huge nationwide campaign to defeat him by the Left voted this time to put Republicans in local offices. Yet they elected Tammy Baldwin as senator and Barack Obama for president.
Romney may have won the white working-class vote, but many of that group stayed home this time (he got fewer votes than McCain did four years ago from this part of the population). Emphasizing the power of entrepreneurs, as one friend e-mailed me, “only sails past the working-class anxiety about fraying safety nets and lack of job security.” It is not enough to call for small government. We need to support government measures that are effective in meeting the demands of those who are worried about their future, and who have been obeying the rules of the game, raising their families, and working hard all of their lives.
Scott Walker was able to win his fight because he showed regular citizens of his state that his policies helped them and that public sector workers were a privileged group that was living off the largesse of the state and was way ahead of private sector workers -- including union members -- whose taxes were paying for their great advantages and perks. Clearly, these same voters were scared by Romney’s message, in a way they were not by the message of Scott Walker a year ago.
These same points were made at The Corner last week by Yuval Levin, who is one of the intellectual luminaries of the conservative movement, and from whom I always gain much knowledge. Levin writes:
The story of this election is not massive turnout of the Democratic base but exceptionally depressed turnout of a portion of the electorate that, when it votes, tends to vote Republican. Those were after all the two parts of President Obama’s cynical and substance-free campaign strategy: to work the most intensely committed and reliable parts of his base into a frenzy while persuading the least committed and reliable part of the Republican base (white working-class voters) that Mitt Romney didn’t deserve their support so they should just sit it out. Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the sophistication of the former effort—finding every last tiny niche in the patchwork of clamoring interest groups that makes up the Democratic coalition and telling it exactly what it wanted to hear. But the election returns suggest the latter effort—using any low and mendacious tactic required to tell working-class voters (especially white, Midwestern ones) that Mitt Romney was an evil and uncaring plutocrat—was by far the more successful and important. Those voters were not going to support Obama, but they could be kept away from Romney, and evidently they were.
He adds: “It would seem that the commonly voiced concerns that Romney would have trouble connecting with working-class voters and that the attacks on him as a vulture capitalist might work were basically right.”
4. It’s the culture, stupid.
I made this argument in a previous column. I only wish to add a few more points. We need more than Fox News as a television outlet to counter the forces of the Left. We need documentaries that tell about our recent past that are solid, forceful, and accurate, and that can counter the mendacious current project of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick that will be used throughout our universities by the left-wing academics after its TV run is over. More of that ilk are undoubtedly on the drawing boards, by the successors of Howard Zinn who are carrying on his enterprise. So far, I have not heard of any similar projects underway by conservatives.
We need humor shows with wide appeal that will not tilt so obviously to the left as both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do, but that will take on the foibles of conservatives and Republicans as well as those of Democrats and liberals, and that will have the kind of influence and ratings as those now on Comedy Central.
We need to urge that conservatives not hand over academia to the left, and to consider going into the humanities as well as business and politics. If only those on the left continue to dominate, it only means future generations will continue to frame their beliefs on the miseducation they received during their college years.
We need to show Hollywood that good films with a conservative message can be made and be profitable -- and not just right-wing agitprop such as recent unnamed movies have proved to be, and that were as bad and unwatchable as their leftist counterparts.
All of the above, I think, has to be taken into consideration. We have a strong economic case to make. Robert Pollock noted yesterday we should be able to show that the blue state social model has failed. Since the 1970s, he writes,
[T]here's been a growing scholarly consensus that the blue state social model of high taxes and generous social welfare benefits risks creating a culture of dependency and slow growth. That's why Bill Clinton signed welfare reform. There are mountains of empirical data showing more job creation in states that tax and regulate lightly. Weak economies do not reduce inequality.
Yet the Left, emphasizing inequality as its main issue, argues in favor of more redistributionist measures, legislative increases in the minimum wage, more taxes on business, and more statist measures that increase the power of government in cahoots with large corporations. As Pollock quips, “attachment to the blue state model reminds one of the communist apologists who insisted in the face of all evidence that the system just hadn't been tried hard enough. At least they'll be getting their laboratory in the years ahead. California has just voted to double down on blue state policies with higher taxes and Democratic supermajorities in the state government.”
As we all know, California is drowning and scores are leaving, making cities like San Diego basket cases. All we need are individuals and candidates who can explain carefully and logically why the Left’s policies are harmful and wrong for the nation. Hopefully, by 2016 someone who can do that job will be the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.
image courtesy shutterstock / newyear