By Benjamin Cole
Last month, I joined more than 8,000 other conservatives from across the country for the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. Throughout its three-day program, disempowered and occasionally distraught conservatives plotted endlessly an array of strategies to resurrect a party smarting from two cycles of election-day drubbings.
A line-up of aspiring party leaders was organized to fulfill a tall order: soothe the pain and fire up the faithful. In this regard, CPAC 2009 was equal parts analgesic and epinephrine.
The pain conservatives feel is acute, however, and the internal tensions are profound. The fusion of the 1970s and 80s whereby fiscal and social conservatives forged an alliance with economic and political libertarians is suffering the threat of fission in the age of Obama. Today, everybody is pointing fingers at the other guy, looking for a plausible scapegoat.
Fiscal conservatives blame social conservatives for debacles like the Terri Schiavo incident; social conservatives point out the fiscal irresponsibility of the Republican Congress that allowed the national debt to reach $10 trillion and the budget deficit to swell.
Compounding the electoral losses we Republicans have faced are the personal losses we have experienced. In the last six years, we have buried three of our greatest heroes: The president, Ronald Reagan; the philosopher, William F. Buckley; and the preacher, Jerry Falwell.
The loss of these influential conservatives has left a vacuum that could have been filled by George W. Bush had he not become political kryptonite thanks to a wild-eyed federal spending spree, a tanked economy, and a prolonged and expensive war. And while blaming Dubya helps salve the conscience of recklessly complicit congressional leaders, it does little to revive a party experiencing its lowest level of political power since the aftermath of Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter.
So conservatives arrived at CPAC, so to speak, between Barack and a hard place.
If you listened to media reports after CPAC, you might be convinced that Rush Limbaugh’s red-meat keynote was the apex of the event. But for me, the highlights were the speeches given by men like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a compelling leader of the next generation in Congress, whose “Roadmap for America’s Future” offers real policy initiatives for entitlement and tax reform that empower Americans to direct their own lives with the kind of liberty that the Founders envisioned.
Or the speech by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who continues to generate ideas by the bushelful for reforming America’s health-care system and addressing our energy crisis.
Or Indiana Rep. Mike Pence’s sober counsel to conservatives “in the wilderness” of political power that no circumstance of electoral defeat should force them to jettison their first principles.
What I saw and heard were conservatives figuring out how we came so far from our basic commitments to strengthen families, eliminate waste, cut spending, defend liberty and unleash American industries and entrepreneurs to compete in a global marketplace.
Conservatives again were reminded that the movement is about principles, not personalities.
Sure, there are some incredible challenges ahead for conservatives and for the nation. Those who once stood for limiting the size of the federal government will have to deal with the bloated bureaucracies that have grown in the last eight years. Those who oppose unrestricted abortion rights will have to prepare themselves for the judicial confirmation battles ahead. Those who believe in the fundamental justice of capitalism will have to hold the line against calls for greater regulation and nationalization of financial markets.
Being in the minority, however, is not only about holding the line. It’s about reforming and renewing your commitments. It’s about articulating what conservatives are for as much as what we’re against. With this in mind, I suggest a few commitments for conservatives.
First, we must recognize that the same guiding faith that causes us to speak out against injustices to the unborn should cause us to withhold our curses of fellow countrymen on the other side of the political aisle.
Second, we must be as fierce in our indictment of corporate corruption as we are in our defense of deregulated free markets. With the same breath we must steadfastly explain why our ideas offer a better future for all Americans, not just privileges for a fraction thereof.
Third, conservatives need to get back to basics and refuse liberals further opportunities to pin the label “obstructionist” on us. To be conservative does not mean total opposition to change or progress. What it does mean is adapting to new challenges without forsaking the tradition of one’s fathers. It means that we look to the Constitution –as adopted and amended by the states — as the fixed star in the constellation of our politics. Every legislative initiative, every policy proposal is judged by it. Conservatives in the Congress must remember that they too have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and that interpreting the document is as much a responsibility of the legislative branch as it is of the judicial.
Fourth, conservatives must be guided by the prudence of prioritization. That is, we must discern which battles are worth fighting now and which ones can wait for later. When the economy is in a free-fall and success in Afghanistan is hanging by a thread, it’s not time to be introducing constitutional amendments on flag burning or school prayer. Conservatives waste valuable time and resources by focusing their efforts on issues that don’t pass the basic test of prudential prioritization. Pandering to one’s base is not leadership in a time of national crisis.
Fifth, conservatives need to learn a new language of compassion. Regrettably, compassionate conservatism got a black eye in the past eight years. So much that sailed through Congress under President Bush’s agenda of compassion has resulted in greater disparities in wealth and more intense political division. The concept of social justice is almost alien to conservatives, but the time is long past for us to cede liberals total claim to any area of public policy. The incidence of poverty, illiteracy and other social ills are major concerns in America, and they should be major concerns for conservatives. There is a reason that a community organizer ended up in the White House, and cracking jokes about President Obama’s record of service in Chicago is not going to win the hearts and minds of the voters.
For the time being, Republicans exist in the land of the judges with no king in Israel and every man doing that which is right in his own eyes. Until the dust settles from 2008 and a unifying man or woman rises who has the personal character and political savvy to lead the disparate conservative tribes, Republicans are, as Rep. Pence said, “in the wilderness.”
But like Israel of old, the wilderness is a good place to reacquaint yourselves with where you came from, remind yourselves where you’re going, and figure out how to bring as many people with you as possible.