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Conservatism Must Avoid Conformity

As his interview earlier this week with Charlie Rose demonstrated, Governor Jeb Bush is fluent and in command of the issues, which is not surprising to anyone who knows him. There’s an active intelligence and engagement with public policy matters that makes him allergic to talking points.

But there are several others elements in the interview that I want to focus on, including Bush’s style. I don’t mean that in the shallow sense of the word. Rather, what I have in mind is a particular temperament and disposition in approaching politics and the wider world.

For one thing, there’s an admirable candor and genuineness in Bush, including his love and admiration for his brother and father and his principled and bountiful attitude on immigration. He also possesses a generosity of spirit, including his praise for President Obama on several national security issues. That’s not to say Bush didn’t articulate a powerful and effective case against the president or on behalf of conservatism. He did. Indeed, the fact that the former Florida governor wasn’t robotically critical of the president makes his criticisms more, not less, effective. And Bush is clearly a man without rancor, proving that principled individuals don’t have to be angry ones.

Beyond all that, though, Bush spoke about the importance of a “divergence of thought” and the dangers of orthodoxy when it comes to American political parties. He’s a man who clearly enjoys intellectual give-and-take; he talked about the good that emerges from “flourishing policy discussions.” Here Governor Bush is onto something important, which is that conservatism needs to avoid the mindset that demands conformity to the point of stifling silliness.

For example, in his interview with Rose, Bush reiterated that he would of course accept a hypothetical debt deal that included $10 in real spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. This brought to mind one of the low points of the GOP primary, in which all eight candidates indicated they’d walk away from such a deal. We all understand why; if any of the candidates had said they would accept the deal, they would have been accused of being a RINO, moderate, weak, unprincipled and unconservative.

I argued at the time that lower taxes are a very good idea, but it is not a talisman. And if we have reached a point where Republicans running for president cannot envision (or at least admit to) any scenario in which they would raise taxes, even if as a result they could substantially roll back the modern welfare state, then it’s time to consider loosening the philosophical straitjacket they are in.

A philosophical movement and political party are better when they are drawn more to vigorous and spirited debates rather than excommunication. That is, I think, what Jeb Bush was saying; and he was right to say it.