The New Republicans
The conservative movement is separated into two competing viewpoints. There are those conservatives who believe that the Republican party should embrace the ideas of the Reagan Revolution by calling for low taxes, a balanced budget, and traditional values. These people tend to be populist conservative leaders—pundits like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, or bloggers such as Michelle Malkin or Ace of Spades. This line of thought dominates the grassroots of the GOP.
Then there are those who think that the Reagan mold is outdated, and that the GOP needs to move in a new direction. This direction typically involves abandoning social conservatives, raising taxes, implementing some form of universal heathcare, and taking action against climate change. At times, this wing of conservatism attempts to make the Republican party more attractive to a larger base of voters; at others, it attempts to achieve liberal goals though conservative methods. This line of the thought is much less organized and dogmatical than the more established traditional wing of conservatism.
Backers of this view are rarely well-known commentators, but they do seem to occupy positions of the power in the GOP. (The GOP’s positions on immigration and global warming, for example, don’t mesh very well with its conservative base). While it’s not certain that the GOP leadership really follows any coherent philosophy, it has certainly turned its back on Reaganism and embraced a more populist (at least from a liberal point of view) attitude. Other proponents of remaking conservatism involve the neocons at the Weekly Standard (not all, but some such as David Frum), and paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan.
Reagan conservatives accuse the new conservatives “watering down” conservatism, while the new conservatives believe that the traditionalists are overstaying their welcome—the issues they support may have been relevant in the eighties, but their day is past. (I hesitate to call the new breed of conservatives “neoconservatives,” since the neoconservatives really joined the Right in the seventies due Left’s passivism in the face of the threat of the Soviet Union, and not necessarily to remake the movement. In any case, the term has been so hijacked by liberals to mean simply a Bad Person that it is virtually meaningless anyway).
Both sides are convinced that their position in indisputably the right one, and don’t want to hear anything to the contrary. Many traditional conservatives have vowed never to support the somewhat moderate John McCain, while many new conservatives (who seemed to congregate around Rudy Giuliani) sneer at the naivety of their conservative rivals.
So who is correct? Both are, at least in part. The conservative movement really is stuck in the past, and has not adapted to new realities. The conservative movement’s adulation of Ronald Reagan is counterproductive—Reagan was a great President, but he wasn’t flawless, and anyhow served twenty years ago. It’s time to move on—conservatives should respect Reagan, but they should stop selling themselves as exact replicas of him.
Also, Republicans still make cutting spending, cutting taxes, and fighting foreign enemies the cornerstone of their campaigns (at least at the presidential level). Unfortunately, these issues are not the vital issues they once were. Cutting spending is a cliché—everyone promises to, but no one actually does, and no one thinks that the Republicans will. Cutting taxes is admirable, but high taxes are not the problem they were in the early eighties, and don’t resonate with people to the same degree they did then. Fighting foreign enemies is the one issue that has stayed current—Americans always want to be protected.
Instead of promoting tax cuts (which are, it should be noted, a good thing), Republicans should focus on cutting regulation and the size of government. The federal government is far too big and unwieldy, and has expanded far too rapidly. Reducing the size of, say, HUD and like government programs would probably improve both the country and the GOP’s electoral chances.
The new conservatives are correct in their insistence on updating the GOP’s message—but they confuse “updating” with “rebuilding.” The conservative platform may not be perfect, and may need a bit of modernizing, but it is a strong foundation, and one conservatives should stick with.