Green Shoots On The Right I

Spring Snowstorm Hits Northern Scotland

Joining Ponnuru, Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner try to save the GOP from itself:

[I]t is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.

They ask for some intellectual honesty as a precondition of renewal:

Republicans need to express and demonstrate a commitment to the common good, a powerful and deeply conservative concept. There is an impression—exaggerated but not wholly without merit—that the GOP is hyper-individualistic. During the Republican convention, for example, we repeatedly heard about the virtues of individual liberty but almost nothing about the importance of community or social solidarity, and of the obligations and attachments we have to each other. Even Republican figures who espouse relatively moderate policy prescriptions often sound like libertarians run amok.

This is true – but it seems to me equally true that the spending recklessness of the Bush-Cheney era made that libertarian turn inevitable, vital and important, if the party is to regain any credibility on fiscal matters. The utopian ideals and dystopian means by which the last Republican president promised to end tyranny on earth also require a slightly more robust critique than this:

In every presidential election since the Nixon–Humphrey contest in 1968, Republicans began with a significant lead in this respect. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, this potent issue was largely taken off the table. Nor has the decidedly mixed legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade worked to bolster the Republicans’ electoral advantage in the conduct of foreign policy; if anything, the opposite is the case.

At some point, “decidedly mixed legacy” will become “huge fucking errors”. Then we’ll see the ice really break up. But this is a vital shift among the more thoughtful and flexible of the conservative intelligentsia:

Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage.

Amen. And the defense of the free market from the corrupting concentration of wealth among the very few is a truly important building bloc for renewal. Wehner and Ponnuru are dead-on here:

Republicans could begin by becoming visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare: the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations. Such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. They also increase federal spending.

Conservatives should want to gut corporate welfare, simplify the tax code (because Obama can’t or won’t), and break up the banks as a champion of middle class bottom-up entrepreneurialism and growth.

Prison reform would also, in my view, not only be a vital measure, but also rebrand the GOP rather radically, by showing its concern for the entire polity, including even criminals, because the government should not be indifferent to any segment of its citizens, even the shadow nation that now lives behind bars in often horrifying conditions. On social issues, this is an endorsement of the Rauch-Blankenhorn approach:

Republicans need to make their own inner peace with working with those who both support gay marriage and are committed to strengthening the institution of marriage.

Pete and Ramesh use two historical examples of political parties reforming themselves – the Democrats under Clinton and the Labour Party under Blair. It’s odd to me that they don’t talk about the more obvious parallel: how the British Tories tried to climb their way back to relevance after becoming deeply branded as the “nasty party” in 1997. They needed a new leader who showed he backed the welfare state – using socialized medicine for a special needs child; who represented the next generation – by backing marriage equality for conservative reasons; and who signaled a new commitment to the common good by embracing the fight against climate change. Even then, his fiscal austerity in this period, which I broadly supported, has clearly failed – to reinvigorate the private sector, increase growth and reduce the debt. In retrospect, I see the milder deficit contractions under Obama to be closer to the sweet spot of growth and debt-trimming we currently need.

As I wrote yesterday, I suspect that the increasingly potent force of global capitalism will require the right to buttress the welfare state rather than dismantle it, at least in the short and medium term. The times might also suggest a slower path back to fiscal balance than I first thought was possible. In Britain, the Tories have the previous Labour government to blame for all the domestic and war spending and debt they inherited. And the public still agrees with them on blaming Labour. But here’s a sign that conservatives in America need to notice. Even when the Tories can blame the other party for the massive debt before the Great Recession (which gave the government almost no fiscal room to maneuver), the public is still souring on them badly. Labour leads the Conservatives by 42 – 31 percent in the polls, and Cameron’s move to the middle has also created an opening for the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant far right party, UKIP, which is now polling at 8 percent, just behind the Liberal Democrats at 12.

In other words, in” this present crisis,” as someone once said, government may have to be part of the solution. Finding what part that is, honing policies that can better address soaring social inequality, a corrupt tax code, the abuse of market power by the financial and healthcare industries, a chaotic, incoherent immigration system, a prison-industrial complex of often unspeakable brutality: that’s the task we need to take on. It may mean a crippling split on the right, as we’ve seen in the UK, where the Tea Party equivalent is separate from the Tories and at 8 percent. That could keep empowering the Democrats in the US as Labour’s internal splits effectively kept Thatcher in power for more than a decade (she never commanded anywhere near 50 percent in the general elections she won).

But the only way past this desert for American conservatism is through it. And Ponnuru and Wehner deserve props for saying so – and so clearly and sincerely.

(Photo: A daffodil in bloom stands in the snow near the Spittal of Glenshee on April 3, 2012 in Glenshee, Scotland. Snow has returned to parts of Scotland just a week after the country experienced record high temperatures for March. By Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.)