Commentary Magazine


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Partners in the Conservative Revival

Both Bill Kristol and Peter Berkowitz have taken up the issue of conservative reform and the respective tasks of wonkish conservative innovators and the grassroots Tea Party movement. The mainstream media like to portray the two groups — the reformers and the Tea Partiers – in opposition in a party civil war (as if Rep. Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin were in competition for the soul of the GOP). But as Kristol and Berkowitz explain, the two aspects of the revived conservative movement are compatible, and each is essential in its own realm.

Kristol reminds us that the Tea Party movement has helped to unnerve and beat back the liberal statists, but that is the beginning and not the end of a conservative resurgence:

We already have a Middle American populist reaction against the government schemes of pointy-headed intellectuals. Barack Obama got the highest percentage of the votes of any Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964; Republicans look to be on track this year to replicate their 47-seat House pick-up in 1966.

What comes next? That’s up to us—especially to us conservatives. We’re not doomed to repeat the pretty miserable political, social, and economic performance of 1967-80. …

Can conservatives develop a program, an agenda, and a governing vision that would, in the words of Federalist 39, vindicate “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government”?

And Berkowitz provides a helpful review of the history of conservative reform, pointing toward those whose task it will be to provide an alternative to Obamaism:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan are among those officeholders in the process of recovering reform as a conservative virtue. In November, Meg Whitman, the new Republican nominee in California, and Brian Sandoval, the new Republican nominee for governor in Nevada, stand a good chance to join their ranks.

Today’s conservative reformers appreciate that within its limited sphere government should be excellent. Promoting individual responsibility, self-reliance and opportunity requires targeted action, beginning with health-care reform that really controls costs by eliminating barriers on insurance companies operating across state lines and limiting malpractice damages; public-sector reform that reins in unions by reducing benefits and expanding accountability; and education reform that through school-choice programs gives parents, particularly in low income and minority communities, greater control over their children’s education.

None of this is to underestimate or denigrate the intellectual underpinnings of the Tea Party movement. Despite the media indictment (Racists! Know-nothings!), it is perhaps the most wonkish popular uprising we’ve had in the past century. It is the CATO  Institute’s dream mass movement — based on self-reliance, limited government, sound money, fiscal discipline, and market economics. Many of the protesters like to carry copies of the Constitution. For every inflammatory hand-painted sign that CNN films, there are dozens quoting James Madison, challenging the “bailout nation,” and contesting the constitutionality of an individual health-care insurance mandate. It’s certainly a step up from “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” But it is not a methodology for governing nor an agenda for what would follow Obamaism. You don’t write legislation in mass gatherings seeking to discredit and upend those in power. And it’s unrealistic and misguided to expect a mass movement to decimate a political agenda, defeat liberal one-party rule, defend itself against incessant media attacks – and come up with a health-care alternative, a scheme for entitlement reform, and proposals to tame the debt. (The latter is the work of Ryan, Daniels, Christie, et. al.)

The media narrative that the conservative movement is riven with conflict is, as is so much else the media spew, a distortion intended to bolster the spirits of the left and paint the right in the most disagreeable light possible. We actually have witnessed a rather effective division of labor on the right, with reformers and Tea Partiers collaborating on common goals. They share a mutual desire to put a stake through the heart of the statist agenda of one-party Democratic rule and to find a better alternative. The first task is well under way; the latter is just beginning.