You are here:   Counterpoints > Grand Old Mess
Grand Old Mess
July/August 2009

Any conservative leader who hopes to offer a compelling political alternative to the breathtaking liberalism of Barack Obama faces a diagnostic muddle: what is it that actually ails conservatism?

The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, one of Obama's most trenchant critics, sees a political movement that is "completely incoherent, fractured, and inconsistent." Jim DeMint, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, said: "I don't want us to have power until we have principles." Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council, warns that although religious conservatives reject Obama's social agenda, many no longer believe the Republican Party reflects their basic values. "And to the degree that the party is not moving with them," he says, "they are not going to move with it."

It suggests something about the Republican Party — something deeply disquieting — that its lead opposition figure is Dick Cheney, perhaps the most reviled former Vice-President in modern times. There are, to be sure, more attractive faces who might thwart Obama's worst domestic and foreign policy schemes — including Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina — but their influence is limited. Nor is conservatism getting much help from its think-tanks, which have proffered pathetically few new ideas to broaden its political appeal. The result, as one conservative columnist describes it, is a GOP that seems "determined to rule the kingdom of irrelevance".

The problem is a massive leadership void, a space being filled by radio and television personalities. Conservative media draw important battle lines, but they also duplicate the vices of the political Left: contempt for opponents, rigid political orthodoxy, and a habit of preaching to the converted. It is a doleful irony that conservatives who trumpet the legacy of Ronald Reagan mostly ignore the great strength of his political appeal — his determination to join moral certitude with a politics of inclusion, his ability to advance conservative principles with plain talk and moral suasion.  

These skills are essential in the adulatory age of Obama. No conservative challenge to liberalism can succeed which discards its core ideals, especially a belief in the dignity of human life in all its stages. Yet such conservatism should be in the spirit of the late Jack Kemp, who blended traditional values, fiscal discipline, and a genuine concern for minorities and the urban poor. Likewise, Obama's foreign policy must be confronted by a conservatism anchored in moral realism: confidence in the enduring appeal of American democracy, tempered by a sober view of its limits in an undemocratic and often violent world. "America is still the abiding alternative to tyranny," Reagan said. "That is our purpose in the world — nothing more and nothing less." Until conservatives produce national leaders with a renewed sense of purpose — morally coherent and powerfully defended-they can expect a long sojourn in the wilderness. 

August 7th, 2009
7:08 PM
Aside from the burden of the short-term legacy of George W. Bush, a big problem for the Republican Party is that they have been dominated for a while by political insider types and elitists, who want to make sure they continue to get invited to the right cocktail parties in Washington DC, and keep their personal power. I think that great numbers of Americans are disgusted at how both major political parties seem to be in an elitist cocoon. Sarah Palin might be looked upon with contempt by the Smug Set of political commentators, but many people still find her attractive because of her common sense approach to issues like energy, her respect for traditional values, her refusal to apologize for the USA, and her attempts to reform Alaskan government. Because of the incredible onslaught against her, she might not be able to recover as a politician, but I think there is a great hunger out there for someone of similar qualities. And like Palin, Ronald Reagan was continually attacked in vicious, personal ways throughout the 70's and 80's by his political opponents and the self-designated elites. Yet many regular Americans appreciated Reagan's greatness.

July 17th, 2009
3:07 AM
Yes a "conservative" movement that has Russ Limbaugh and the other hooligans on Fox "news" as its public face is in deep doo-doo trouble. Everybody likes to point to the "great man" Reagan as a template for bringing some good old time integrity to the party. As a counter to this sentiment (because it IS pure sentimentality) I much prefer the picture of the Reagan years presented on this website.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.