Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservatism

Compromise and the American Constitution

In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
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In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
 The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery. And so compromises were made in terms of representation (the South wanted slaves counted as full persons in order to increase their representation in Congress; eventually slaves were considered three-fifths of a person); in terms of delaying the prohibition on the importation of slaves (until the year 1808); and in dealing with escaped slaves (those who fled to non-slave states would be returned to their masters if caught).

Slavery was a moral obscenity–but in the words of Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the more enlightened founders hoped is that the Constitution would put in place the elements to end slavery. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” 

In her splendid book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

I understand that among conservatives these days the idea of compromise is out of favor. And for understandable reasons: In Barack Obama the right is facing an unusually rigid and dogmatic individual, one who is himself averse to compromise and is intentionally polarizing. (Polarizing the electorate turned out to be his only ticket to reelection.)  

But perhaps because compromise as a concept is so unpopular these days–at least if my recent correspondence and conversations with those on the right is any indication–it is important that those of us who are conservative remind ourselves of its virtues. To point out that compromise is not always synonymous with weakness. That our problems, as significant as they are, pale in comparison to what the founders faced. And that compromise still belongs, in the words of Rauch, in the “constitutional pantheon.” Even the Obama presidency, as frustrating as it might be, cannot undo the marvelous handiwork and enduring insights of James Madison.

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Conservatives and the Quest for Political Purification

For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

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For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

What a shame all this melodrama is a mirage, a farce, a game.

The choice is not, and never has been, between those willing to defund ObamaCare and those willing to fund it. That supposed choice is in fact an illusion. To defund the ACA would require the House and Senate to pass new legislation, which Barack Obama would have to sign. And no one, not even Senators Cruz, Paul, Lee and Rubio, believes the president would do that. 

All the posturing that’s being done to present this as a battle between Intrepid Republicans versus the Surrender Caucus is nothing more than political theater.

It also appears that Captain Courageous himself, Ted Cruz, and some of his colleagues are now engaging—at least for now—in a premature surrender. House Republicans are incensed at Cruz for going wobbly on the filibuster he once seemed to favor, putting all the responsibility back on the House.

“For weeks, House Republicans have said the prospects of passing a defund bill in the Senate are grim, and Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rubio have responded by saying nothing is impossible if we fight hard enough. Now they are getting exactly what they asked for, and they issue a press release conceding defeat and refusing to join the fight they demanded in every TV appearance. It’s time they put their money where their mouths are, and do something other than talk,” a House GOP leadership aide told National Review. And Representative Sean Duffy took to Twitter, saying, “House agrees to send ‪#CR to Senate that defunds Obamacare. ‪@SenTedCruz & ‪@SenMikeLee refuse to fight. Wave white flag and surrender.”

There will be plenty of twists and turns ahead, so we’ll have to see how this all plays out. (Mr. Cruz may have to move forward on a filibuster just to save face.) But it does raise the question: How did this silly idea become all the rage?

For some the answer has to do with pent up fury in need of an outlet, and the effort to defund the ACA is that outlet. It also appeals to those who find it satisfying to turn every debate into an apocalyptic clash. And even if Republicans fail, at least they “fought the good fight.” (Ronald Reagan referred to people of this mindset as those who enjoyed “going off the cliff with all flags flying.”)

But there’s also a tendency among some on the right—not all, certainly, but some—to go in search of heretics. They seek to purify the conservative movement—to eliminate from it the defilement, the debasement, and the corruption they see all around them—and they bring to this task an almost religious zeal. They are the Keepers of the Tablets. And they are in a near constant state of agitation. Living in an imperfect world while demanding perfection (or your version of perfection) from others can be hard. 

This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies. Such things have always been with us; and some of the uncontained passions and anger will eventually burn out. The question is how much damage will be done in the process. 

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Stop and Frisk vs. Gun Control

Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

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Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

He closes the column on a similar note:

In fact, stop-and-frisk is not a tremendous success but a tremendous failure, because such stops turn up contraband only 2 percent of the time. In other words: 98 times out of 100 the officer’s suspicion is unjustified.

If any other program had a 98 percent failure rate, conservatives would hold it up as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with big government. That they’re so eager to defend a failing program when it happens to target minorities makes their professed concern for “the most vulnerable” ring a trifle hollow.

There are a few important points here in response. First, the point of stop and frisk is not ultimately to confiscate guns, and thus its success should not be measured by a target at which it most certainly is not aiming. That is not to say gun confiscation is irrelevant to stop and frisk. But the tactic is not a guessing game to locate guns; it is an evidence-based procedure to prevent crime.

To the extent that there is some form of gun control involved, there is a crucial difference: the police are seeking to control the use of illegal guns, not the possession of legal guns. One can, therefore, support both stop and frisk and a robust respect for the Second Amendment. Yet it is the Fourth Amendment that seems to trouble Hinkle more anyway, and here we get into the thorny issue of profiling. Hinkle writes:

By the same token, just because most perpetrators in New York are black or Hispanic does not mean most blacks or Hispanics are perpetrators. After all, most homicides are committed with guns – but that does not mean most gun owners commit homicide.

Quite right. Then Hinkle adds:

The NYPD’s defenders also contend the police did not stop and frisk minorities at random; they stopped those who acted suspiciously. This is true only if you consider perfectly normal behavior suspicious.

This again omits a crucial aspect of the tactic. “Suspicious” behavior doesn’t mean someone looks like they’re about to commit a crime, however that would look. It also includes people who match the descriptions of suspects. This was something Scheindlin and the press learned when those subjected to the stop and frisk tactic began testifying, ostensibly for the plaintiffs. When they told their stories, a different picture began to emerge, as the New York Times reported in April:

One man was stopped and frisked because of his expensive red leather jacket — similar to one that a murder suspect was wearing in a wanted poster. Another man was stopped after a woman complained to the police that he was following her. Still another was stopped by officers who had watched him jostle the door of a home, trying to get in.

This is basic police work. Take the second case, for example: a woman complained to police that a certain man was following her. The police stopped the man to question him. Hinkle’s grading system rates that stop a “failure” because the man presumably didn’t have an illegal gun on him. Scheindlin made similar mistakes in her finding, which is one reason the city is challenging the ruling.

There is one point on which both conservatives and libertarians can agree: that a tactic is successful or effective doesn’t make it constitutional. Hinkle is right to warn of the slippery slope such a mindset would lead to, and conservatives shouldn’t be hostile toward such reminders. But sometimes it’s worth pointing that libertarians should avoid the reverse fallacy, and remember that just because something is effective doesn’t mean it’s authoritarian or abusive.

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Wanted: A Republican Governing Agenda

The New York Times reports on a study issued yesterday by two former Census Bureau officials. The study shows that although median annual household income rose to $52,100 in June, from its recent low of $50,700 in August 2011, it remained $2,400 lower—a 4.4 percent decline—than in June 2009, when the recession ended.

According to the Times:

Since the end of the recession … household income has declined for all but a few population groups. Some of the largest percentage declines occurred for groups whose income was already well below the median, like African-Americans, Southerners, people who did not attend college, and households headed by people under age 25.

“Groups with low incomes tended to have steeper declines in income,” said Gordon W. Green Jr., who wrote the report with John F. Coder, a colleague at Sentier Research, which specializes in analyzing household economic data.

Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 were the only group in the study that experienced a statistically significant increase in post-recession income, helped perhaps by the decision of some older workers to remain in the work force or re-enter it.

There are several things to make of these findings, the first of which is that we’ve seen a decline in median income in the aftermath of a recession. During a recovery. That’s a fairly remarkable (and discouraging) development.

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The New York Times reports on a study issued yesterday by two former Census Bureau officials. The study shows that although median annual household income rose to $52,100 in June, from its recent low of $50,700 in August 2011, it remained $2,400 lower—a 4.4 percent decline—than in June 2009, when the recession ended.

According to the Times:

Since the end of the recession … household income has declined for all but a few population groups. Some of the largest percentage declines occurred for groups whose income was already well below the median, like African-Americans, Southerners, people who did not attend college, and households headed by people under age 25.

“Groups with low incomes tended to have steeper declines in income,” said Gordon W. Green Jr., who wrote the report with John F. Coder, a colleague at Sentier Research, which specializes in analyzing household economic data.

Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 were the only group in the study that experienced a statistically significant increase in post-recession income, helped perhaps by the decision of some older workers to remain in the work force or re-enter it.

There are several things to make of these findings, the first of which is that we’ve seen a decline in median income in the aftermath of a recession. During a recovery. That’s a fairly remarkable (and discouraging) development.

As for President Obama’s response to all this, a recent editorial by the Wall Street Journal gets it quite right: “For four and a half years, Mr. Obama has focused his policies on reducing inequality rather than increasing growth. The predictable result has been more inequality and less growth… The core problem has been Mr. Obama’s focus on spreading the wealth rather than creating it.”

Mr. Obama, then, is not only not up to confronting the problems of this era; he is exacerbating them. But even those of us who are critics of the president should admit that the problems afflicting the American economy–including (but not exclusive to) wage stagnation among the middle class, less social mobility among the lower class, and increased inequality–predate the Obama presidency. They are complex and defy simplistic partisan explanations.

Depending on which trend we’re talking about, they are rooted in deep cultural shifts (including a weakening marriage culture), globalization and advances in technology (which have moved us toward an economy that favors skilled over unskilled labor), a decline in workforce participation rates, rising health care costs, educational mediocrity (and downright awful education for the underclass), the structure of our entitlement programs (our transfer payments are increasingly regressive and benefit households headed by older adults, who tend to be wealthier than young adults), a byzantine tax code, and slow growth (the post-2008 recession growth rate has been roughly 2 percent).

In the face of America’s deep cultural and structural problems, assembling an agenda–including a comprehensive social-capital agenda that equips Americans, especially poor Americans, with the skills, values and habits that will allow them to succeed in a modern, free society–is a hugely complicated task. It will require a thoroughgoing reform agenda focused on entitlements, education, immigration, our financial system, and our tax code. A lot of good work is being done by policy experts and public intellectuals, by governors, and some members of Congress. (At a later date I’ll lay out what I think would constitute the broad outlines of an agenda, but for starters it might be worth reading thisthis, and this.)

For the most part, however, Republicans and conservatives sound out of touch, their solutions stale, as if they fail to take into account new circumstances. And it is no wonder that Republican policies seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. I’ve argued before that “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.” It doesn’t help, of course, that prominent Republicans occupy their time pursuing tactics that are unworkable and qualify as primal screams (e.g., threatening to shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded).

The public is in the process of concluding that President Obama and the Democratic Party, the embodiments of reactionary liberalism, are intellectually bankrupt. They are overmatched by events. This affords an opening for Republicans to put forward a positive governing vision. The elements of a conservative reform agenda certainly exist. But for the GOP to win over new hearts and minds will require the party to embrace that agenda more fully than it has; to overcome some old (bad) habits, to put a new frame on events, and to convince the public that they are the party of modernization, reform, and renewal.

It still has some distance to go. 

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Why Tone in American Politics Matters

Michael Medved is a very intelligent and sober conservative commentator, and earlier this week he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading. 

He quotes Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who last month said this: “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges. Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”

Medved shows why this claim is false, citing (among others) Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush (who faced more conservative challengers in the primary). He also points out that George W. Bush, while conservative by any reasonable definition, ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative,” winning an election in which the environment favored Democrats. Of course, Medved points out, moderate candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than are conservative candidates. “Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities, and they display no longstanding ideological voting pattern,” he writes. “They embrace charismatic candidates, whether conservative (Reagan), ‘compassionate conservative’ (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or progressive (Obama).”

Mr. Medved is quite right. Americans aren’t a particularly ideological people. And candidate quality and likeability are huge factors in presidential elections. Arguably the candidate deemed by the public to be the most likeable has won in every election since 1972, with the exception of Richard Nixon. (Even Jimmy Carter was fairly likeable in 1976, when his pettiness and bitterness were not so apparent.)

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Michael Medved is a very intelligent and sober conservative commentator, and earlier this week he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading. 

He quotes Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who last month said this: “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges. Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”

Medved shows why this claim is false, citing (among others) Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush (who faced more conservative challengers in the primary). He also points out that George W. Bush, while conservative by any reasonable definition, ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative,” winning an election in which the environment favored Democrats. Of course, Medved points out, moderate candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than are conservative candidates. “Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities, and they display no longstanding ideological voting pattern,” he writes. “They embrace charismatic candidates, whether conservative (Reagan), ‘compassionate conservative’ (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or progressive (Obama).”

Mr. Medved is quite right. Americans aren’t a particularly ideological people. And candidate quality and likeability are huge factors in presidential elections. Arguably the candidate deemed by the public to be the most likeable has won in every election since 1972, with the exception of Richard Nixon. (Even Jimmy Carter was fairly likeable in 1976, when his pettiness and bitterness were not so apparent.)

Some on the right seem to think that the key to victory is for the GOP candidate to be angrier, to sound tougher, to be more confrontational. As one GOP voter put it at a recent town hall meeting with his representative, Andy Harris, House Speaker John Boehner needs to start “defying” Obama and threatening him with impeachment if he doesn’t “start obeying the laws!” As this constituent put it, “Listen, we’re dying out here because you guys are being nice guys!” He added, “We’re losing the country! I want to see more defiance!” 

The willingness to fight for a cause is often an admirable thing, and many of us were drawn to politics in large part because of a desire to advance a set of convictions. That effort elicits opposition, which in turn leads to clashes. That is the nature of politics in a republic and something that can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided. Politics ain’t beanbag.    

But in choosing to fight, one needs to pick the most favorable terrain possible–and even then (and whenever possible) to wage battles with affability, a touch of grace, and in a manner that projects steadiness and reasonableness. Winsomeness, equanimity, and a moderate temperament (which is different than moderate policies) are what most voters are looking for in candidates–especially from people who have strong philosophical convictions. It’s a mistake to assume that in order to be principled one has to be alienating and agitated.

In 1990 William Weld ran against John Silber for the governorship of Massachusetts. Silber was a brilliant man–an academic trained in philosophy who became president of Boston University. But he was also combative and angry. As the campaign drew to a close, Silber amped up his personal attacks on Weld, characterizing him as an ”orange-headed WASP” and a ”back-stabbing SOB.” To which Weld responded, ”The voters are considering whether they want to be yelled at for four years. I don’t think they do.”

Weld won.

We all know from our own experiences that in human interaction, tone and countenance matter, and not simply for stylistic or superficial reasons. They in fact manifest one’s attitude toward life and toward others. They reveal an orientation of the heart. And that can matter more than what you believe the top corporate tax rate ought to be.

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Libertarian Populism’s Emerging Agenda

In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

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In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

I’ve written about this before, in comparing the Gary Johnson model of political influence with the Rand Paul model. Johnson, a libertarian, could not convince enough Republicans of the righteousness of his candidacy, and simply bolted the party to run for president as a Libertarian instead of doing something that would have required some measure of cooperation with the GOP but would also have done a great deal to advance libertarianism: run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico.

Rand Paul revealed the folly of the Gary Johnson model, where the candidate blames the voters for his own limitations. Paul ran for Senate, won, and now is considered a plausible first-tier candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Libertarian populism’s emergence is partially indebted to Paul’s success as a Republican, because that is where libertarians (and Libertarians) can find enough sympathetic voters to advance their agenda. In that sense, Domenech is on to something with his Fusionism, though I have two concerns about the ingredients of the mix, and they apply to the other two lessons on my list.

The next lesson has to do with social conservatism. The two highest profile social issues are gay marriage and abortion. Self-described libertarians will simply never sign on to outlawing gay marriage. (That leaves open the question of whether there is a sensible get-the-government-out-of-marriage-altogether compromise, which I think there is.) On the other issue, what is the libertarian position on abortion? Conveniently enough, Reason magazine editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie in 2011 took that as their “ask a libertarian” question of the day and gave a brief video response. They both agreed that, technically, there is no such thing as a “libertarian position on abortion” since there is no litmus test for admission to libertarianism. Well, OK–but how do Welch and Gillespie feel about it? From their answer, it’s clear they think abortion should be at least as legal as it is now.

So what happens when, in Domenech’s formulation, the reliable social conservatives are also the most reliable economic conservatives? In the Reason video, Welch says that about 30 percent or so of self-described libertarians are also pro-life. If he’s right, then 70 percent of them aren’t, and that has to be reconciled. If at least 70 percent of libertarians support abortion and gay marriage, how does libertarian populism survive the contradiction?

More broadly, I ask this question because the two most recognizable libertarians in the U.S. Congress right now are Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash–both of whom are staunchly pro-life. Amash told Reason in an interview that abortion violates the unborn child’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, and he seemed to suggest abortion should be legal until no later than three days after conception. I should note that I don’t think this should be a contradiction, it just seems like it is. Amash and Paul are correct: the unborn child is the same human person before and after what we consider “viability,” and they therefore have rights. I’m always baffled by a “libertarian” argument that assigns full human rights only to some people and not others.

The third lesson is that libertarians have been somewhat vague on foreign policy, and there doesn’t currently seem to be a libertarian populist foreign policy. This is to be expected, because the internationalist foreign policy has been dominant in the GOP and conservative movement for some time now, so it makes some sense that libertarians would define their foreign policy prescriptions by what they are against, instead of what they are for. But that question will have to be answered, and we once again return to Paul and Amash.

For an example of the intra-libertarian confusion on this, we can turn to a column in the Daily Caller by John Glaser, headlined “Nonintervention must be part of a ‘libertarian populist’ agenda.” Glaser sings the praises of Justin Amash on bringing the GOP back to where he thinks it belongs on foreign policy. But what does “nonintervention” mean to Glaser? Something very different from what it means to Amash. Glaser says the “bipartisan establishment is already leading America into waging dangerous economic warfare on Iran.” But as I’ve pointed out before, Amash supports that “economic warfare.” He supports sanctions on Iran and has even counseled keeping military action on the table. In Glaser’s definition, Justin Amash is no libertarian populist; he’s a dangerous member of the dreaded bipartisan establishment! Good luck forming a winning electoral coalition on those principles.

I don’t mean to suggest that Glaser speaks for other libertarian populists–I imagine he doesn’t. But back in the Jesse Walker post I linked to, Walker says he interprets libertarian populists as proposing “a new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties.” But “anti-imperial” is an exaggerated response to a straw man. He says nothing else about foreign affairs in that post.

Again, all this seems to be in the formational process, and nobody claims to have all the answers. Additionally, this is a moment when libertarians should be heeded on a host of issues, since their warnings about, say, over-regulation were prescient and their fidelity to constitutional principles is both admirable and necessary. But the prevailing conservative mainstream is pro-life and tends to support an internationalist posture to protect global free trade and America’s traditional postwar role in the world. If libertarians want to provide an alternative to that, it will be a valuable discussion to have; but it will be equally fascinating to discover if and how the current elected libertarians will even have a place in that movement.

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The Real GOP Clash: Governors v. Congress

One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.

This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:

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One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.

This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:

For Christie, the villain is always specific: not government, not socialism, not impersonal historical forces, but one moron in particular—the teachers union, or Steve Sweeney, or in this case Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist, high-mindedly denouncing government while his state is on its dole. “He’s not the first politician to try to use me to get attention,” Christie said later, dismissing Paul’s slight. “And I’m sure he won’t be the last.”

What Christie is doing when he starts arguments with other Republicans—and it is telling that what looks very much like a presidential run has begun with a sequence of fights—is offering his party the chance to preserve its anger, while trading in its revolutionaries for a furious institutionalist.

A good, and often overlooked, example of this is the issue of collective bargaining. Christie was one of the early conservative governors to take on the public unions. But other governors, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan, went further by attempting to rein in the unions’ organizing power through collective bargaining restrictions or right-to-work laws.

When Christie was asked about collective bargaining, his response was characteristically blunt. “I love collective bargaining,” he said, later adding: “I’ve said let’s get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there’s someone in that room representing you,” he said. There are no molehills, only mountains. Christie wasn’t trying to destroy every last vestige of the practice, and so he had to “love” it.

But there was a good–and simple–reason Christie wasn’t fighting to restrict collective bargaining or take other such steps: Walker and Snyder had Republican majorities in their respective state senates, so they could pass legislation on the strength of Republican votes. Christie has no such electoral advantage; his rhetorical agility is essential to his success because he constantly has to put state Republicans on his back and carry them. He isn’t used to having numbers on his side. He can’t outvote the Democrats, so he enlists the public in an uber-populist quest to overwhelm the political opposition. And that brings us to another point of conflict in Christie’s interaction with the national GOP: the relationship between the states and the federal government.

The most famous issue that pitted Christie against the GOP’s conservative congressional caucus was disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore. Christie is an emotional and combatant governor who was in no mood to count nickels while his state was suffering. He saw the House’s reticence to rush through an aid bill because of concerns over pork-barrel spending as callous and miserly.

But his fellow Republicans had legitimate concerns. Why does every bill Congress passes have to shell out wasteful spending intended to protect incumbents? And isn’t the callous move here not to temporarily hold up a spending bill but rather to lard up an ostensible relief bill with self-serving earmarks? Nonetheless, such conflicts are an inevitable result of Republican success: the GOP now controls 30 governorships, and the states’ relationship to the federal government will often mean those governors are put at odds with their ideological allies in Congress.

Today’s New York Times carries yet another example. “Worried about the potential impact on the fragile economies in their states,” the Times reports, “Republican governors this weekend warned their counterparts in Congress not to shut down the federal government as part of an effort to block financing for President Obama’s health care law.” It’s not the supposed squishes, either. Scott Walker is opposed to risking a government shutdown over ObamaCare, as is Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who declined ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid in his state, so he can hardly be considered a willing collaborator on the health law.

GOP control of the House and the majority of state governorships will put the two in conflict time and again. It’s not about conservatives vs. RINOs, or establishment vs. the grassroots, or even internationalists vs. libertarians. There is certainly an ideological component to it, but the greater challenge is going to be how conservatives respond when two undeniably conservative factions are in conflict–and they’re both right.

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What Rush Hath Wrought

Let’s now pause to take a moment to render praise to someone who rarely fails to do the same for himself. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. While the date passed largely without notice in much of the media, it is nonetheless a significant milestone that, regardless of whether you love Rush or hate him, deserves to be noted. Though he will never draw the sort of accolades and awards that mainstream media liberals routinely bestow on each other in pompous ceremonies, Limbaugh is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in the history of broadcasting. Though he was hardly the first or the only conservative talker on the air, Limbaugh’s unique mix of biting conservative commentary, humor, and braggadocio helped transform the political landscape of America.

I think there are three main points to be made about Rush on his silver anniversary.

The first is that Rush’s radio revolution was made possible because it filled a void in the world of broadcasting. The 1987 repeal of the so-called fairness doctrine, which hindered the ability of radio stations to run talk shows that operated from a specific point of view, cleared the way for both conservatives and liberals to take to the airwaves. The reason why conservative talk shows succeeded (in Rush’s case on a scale no one could have imagined before he did it) and left-wing hosts have generally flopped is that in a media world where liberals dominated most daily newspapers and all the broadcast television networks there was a huge audience that was dying to hear someone they agreed with. As with the subsequent development of Fox News, Rush’s success was the product of the fact that there was an underserved niche in the market that made up approximately half of the American people who thought of themselves as conservatives.

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Let’s now pause to take a moment to render praise to someone who rarely fails to do the same for himself. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. While the date passed largely without notice in much of the media, it is nonetheless a significant milestone that, regardless of whether you love Rush or hate him, deserves to be noted. Though he will never draw the sort of accolades and awards that mainstream media liberals routinely bestow on each other in pompous ceremonies, Limbaugh is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in the history of broadcasting. Though he was hardly the first or the only conservative talker on the air, Limbaugh’s unique mix of biting conservative commentary, humor, and braggadocio helped transform the political landscape of America.

I think there are three main points to be made about Rush on his silver anniversary.

The first is that Rush’s radio revolution was made possible because it filled a void in the world of broadcasting. The 1987 repeal of the so-called fairness doctrine, which hindered the ability of radio stations to run talk shows that operated from a specific point of view, cleared the way for both conservatives and liberals to take to the airwaves. The reason why conservative talk shows succeeded (in Rush’s case on a scale no one could have imagined before he did it) and left-wing hosts have generally flopped is that in a media world where liberals dominated most daily newspapers and all the broadcast television networks there was a huge audience that was dying to hear someone they agreed with. As with the subsequent development of Fox News, Rush’s success was the product of the fact that there was an underserved niche in the market that made up approximately half of the American people who thought of themselves as conservatives.

That factor along with the fact that Rush’s show was both entertaining and always spoke to the news of the day contributed to making it an instant hit. Thinking back on this period of American political history, what is most remarkable is that it wasn’t long after it became nationally syndicated that Limbaugh assumed his current perch as perhaps the most influential radio talker in the country. By the time of the Republican landslide in the 1994 congressional elections, Rush was already an icon of the right and public enemy No. 1 to the left.

What was most disconcerting about Rush’s ascendance to his liberal antagonists was not so much the clever way he parodied objects of his derision like Bill Clinton but the fact that it was quickly apparent that there was no going back to the pre-Limbaugh status quo. Prior to his rise, impudent conservatives had no place on the national spectrum. Talk radio—as well as Fox News on TV, which came along a few years later—changed forever the American public square in which a few liberal talking heads had been the arbiters of what could and could not be said on the air.

The second point to be made about Rush is that notwithstanding his importance in changing the way we think about media and politics, he is not the pope of the Republican Party or the conservative movement.

The left prefers its conservative villains to be as sinister as possible so it was always necessary to account for Rush’s huge audience by portraying him as either being the front man for a dark right-wing conspiracy or as the evil Svengali hypnotizing a docile audience of hayseeds and fools into supporting policies that are against their interests.

But the key to understanding Limbaugh’s perennial appeal is that he has always been a sounding board for conservative sentiment in this country, not its manufacturer. Limbaugh has thrived not by dictating to his audience but because he has followed it and appealed to the issues and stories they care about. To note this fact is not to discount or deny that he is one of the country’s opinion leaders, but it is a mistake to think that what he has done is anything other than provide a platform for the views of his listeners and to appeal to what they think is simple common sense.

Lastly, it is equally a myth to claim that Limbaugh has coarsened the tenor of America’s political debate. Though he has sometimes erred by using misleading terms like “feminazis” and memorably called free contraception advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut” in an awkward effort to skewer her position, most of what Limbaugh says is merely blunt conservatism, often presented with a satirical tone. Most liberals who denounce Limbaugh have probably never actually listened to his show and have little idea of how central humor has always been to his popularity.

What Limbaugh has done is to shoot a great many liberal sacred cows on a regular basis, and that isn’t something the left and its media gatekeepers were ever willing to accept. The notion that he is uniquely disrespectful or nasty is not only a distortion of his own record. It also reflects a stark double standard by which the mainstream media’s dismissal or even slanders of the right are treated as unexceptional while conservative denunciations of liberals are seen as beyond the pale.

Talk radio, like any medium, is a mixed bag. Some of its practitioners bring a lot to the table while some are mere windbags or even dangerous demagogues. Limbaugh is neither of those. His national popularity is a continuing testament both to his talent and to the enduring appeal of his brand. His breakthrough still disconcerts his opponents who long to tell conservatives to shut up. Thanks to Rush that will never happen. Even those Americans who don’t always agree with him should be happy about that. 

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The GOP Is More Serious Than Sarah Palin

In a recent interview, former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin indicated she was open to leaving the GOP and starting a third party. After expressing her enthusiasm for the name “The Freedom Party,” Palin went on to say this: 

If the GOP continues to back away from the planks in our platform, from the principles that built this party of Lincoln and of Reagan, then yeah, more and more of us are gonna start saying, “You know, what’s wrong with being an independent?” Kind of, with that libertarian streak that much of us have. In other words, we want government to back off and not infringe upon our rights. I think there will be a lot of us who start saying, “GOP, if you abandon us, what–we have nowhere else to go except to become more independent and not enlisted in a, one or the other of the private majority parties that rule in our nation — either a Democrat or a Republican.” Remember these are private parties. And no one forces us to be enlisted in either party.

Let’s begin with this observation: Ms. Palin is a fierce opponent of immigration reform, and any openness by the Republican leadership in the House would move her a good deal closer to abandoning the GOP. Which of course makes her reference to both Lincoln and Reagan odd, since Reagan was an advocate of amnesty and as president granted it to millions of illegal immigrants (“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale). 

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In a recent interview, former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin indicated she was open to leaving the GOP and starting a third party. After expressing her enthusiasm for the name “The Freedom Party,” Palin went on to say this: 

If the GOP continues to back away from the planks in our platform, from the principles that built this party of Lincoln and of Reagan, then yeah, more and more of us are gonna start saying, “You know, what’s wrong with being an independent?” Kind of, with that libertarian streak that much of us have. In other words, we want government to back off and not infringe upon our rights. I think there will be a lot of us who start saying, “GOP, if you abandon us, what–we have nowhere else to go except to become more independent and not enlisted in a, one or the other of the private majority parties that rule in our nation — either a Democrat or a Republican.” Remember these are private parties. And no one forces us to be enlisted in either party.

Let’s begin with this observation: Ms. Palin is a fierce opponent of immigration reform, and any openness by the Republican leadership in the House would move her a good deal closer to abandoning the GOP. Which of course makes her reference to both Lincoln and Reagan odd, since Reagan was an advocate of amnesty and as president granted it to millions of illegal immigrants (“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale). 

As for Lincoln, in a new biography on him, Rich Lowry points out that “Lincoln was broadly pro-immigration… Clearly, Lincoln’s default position today would be generosity toward immigrants. The effectively permanent status as second-class citizens of millions of illegal immigrants would be anathema to him.” In their tone and substantive approach to legal and illegal immigration, then, people like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are far closer to Reagan and Lincoln than Ms. Palin is.

And what about the broader indictment by Palin, which is that the GOP is moving away from its principles and becoming a less conservative party? That charge–shared by some others on the right–strikes me as rather wide of the mark. After all, in many respects the GOP is becoming more amenable to her brand of Tea Party conservatism than it was in and prior to 2008–when Palin was a proud Republican and the party’s vice presidential pick.

For example, a smaller percentage of GOP senators voted for immigration reform last month than was the case in 2006. Representative Paul Ryan has on several occasions now presented a very serious plan to re-limit government and reform entitlements, especially Medicare–and in doing so he has gone far beyond anything that Ronald Reagan ever proposed. And to the astonishment of many, Ryan secured the support of virtually the entire Republican House. In addition, the GOP has uniformly opposed higher taxes. (Compare this once again to Reagan, who in 1982 signed what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history.) In fact, congressional Republicans have consistently been pushing for tax cuts. They accepted sequester cuts earlier this year, when many on the right predicted they would buckle. House and Senate Republicans have also opposed, almost to a person, the Affordable Care Act, and pushed for its repeal. Republicans voted en masse against the 2009 stimulus package. The GOP remains staunchly pro-life. It has opposed the president’s gun control and climate change agenda. And many Republicans have backed away from a larger federal role in education. Then there are Republican governors, current and recent, many of whom are conservative, successful and reform-oriented. 

Let’s stipulate that no party is perfect, that different currents exist within political parties, and that key figures within them will act in ways with which we disagree. The GOP certainly isn’t fully abiding by my recommendations. That said, where precisely is this great abandonment of principle we’re supposedly seeing? The GOP is in many ways a more conservative party today than it was during the Reagan years.

Several things are happening, I think. One is that some elements within the GOP base are in an agitated mood, spoiling for a fight, eager to make themselves look principled by constantly asserting the GOP is unprincipled. It’s similar to a quarrelsome marriage; every word one spouse says is interpreted in the worst possible light by the other. Sarah Palin and those like her are now disposed to attack the GOP, and perhaps even looking for reasons to break from it. But let’s be clear: It’s being driven by her/their frame of mind, not the heresies of the Republican Party. 

The other thing that is occurring is that Palin and those like her have undergone a fairly dramatic shift in the last few years. One telling example is her reaction to Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency leaks. Palin has gone out of her way to defend Snowden  and asserted that America is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” This is a silly charge–and evidence that Palin has lurched in a much more libertarian direction since she enthusiastically agreed to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008.

It may also be that Palin, having quit after serving less than one term as governor, is simply not very serious about, or even all that interested in, governing. She does seem better suited to compose tweets and star in reality shows than to carry out the duties of governing.

But Ms. Palin is right about this: No one forces us to be enlisted in either party. She is free to leave the GOP at any time, for any reason. And there may be more than a few Republicans who hope she will, if only so that they do not have to spend any more time explaining to the rest of the world why the GOP, for all its shortcomings, is far more serious than Sarah Palin.

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Is “Forced Fatherhood” Actually Forced?

If there’s one thing that liberals seem uncomfortable with above all else, it’s the importance of personal responsibility. With many issues that divide the right and the left, most come down to conservatives’ understanding that a need exists for individuals to be accountable for their own actions. As conservatives, we believe it is important to plan and provide for our own health care, retirement and finances, and families. Liberals, however, believe that this responsibility rests also with the government and fellow citizens, hence their promotion of ObamaCare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and public housing in place of private and charitable solutions to genuine poverty.

In yesterday’s New York Times we witnessed a jaw-dropping example of this phenomenon as Laurie Shrage, a professor of “gender studies” argues that just because a man impregnates a woman doesn’t mean he should be legally considered his child’s father. Shrage contends that only when a man chooses to take on that mantle should he be legally and socially required to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, especially as it pertains to financial obligations like child support.  Read More

If there’s one thing that liberals seem uncomfortable with above all else, it’s the importance of personal responsibility. With many issues that divide the right and the left, most come down to conservatives’ understanding that a need exists for individuals to be accountable for their own actions. As conservatives, we believe it is important to plan and provide for our own health care, retirement and finances, and families. Liberals, however, believe that this responsibility rests also with the government and fellow citizens, hence their promotion of ObamaCare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and public housing in place of private and charitable solutions to genuine poverty.

In yesterday’s New York Times we witnessed a jaw-dropping example of this phenomenon as Laurie Shrage, a professor of “gender studies” argues that just because a man impregnates a woman doesn’t mean he should be legally considered his child’s father. Shrage contends that only when a man chooses to take on that mantle should he be legally and socially required to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, especially as it pertains to financial obligations like child support. 

It should go without saying, but it appears it’s necessary to address: there is no such thing as forced fatherhood. Biologically, men are in a unique position to choose, far more than woman are, when and where sexual intercourse takes place. If a male partner is uninterested in becoming a parent, the choice is simple: don’t engage in sexual intercourse. Despite this simple and indisputable scientific fact, Shrage seems determined to set back feminism back 30 years, leaving women as the sole responsible parties for the children that they brought into the world with an act that biologically takes two to perform.

There is an undeniable and tragic correlation between poverty and households headed by single mothers. It’s a commentary on just how far liberalism has fallen when a woman takes to the pages of the Times to advocate a position that does nothing but set back her fellow women, families and America’s poor. If fractured American families have any hope of reversing this heartbreaking trend, women of all political stripes need to send the message to men that fatherhood is a virtue, a blessing, and that it is a choice that is made before their partner gets pregnant, not after. For the sake of our society, it’s time for men to take more responsibility, not less, for their reproductive choices. 

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The Virtue of Gratitude

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin was awarded on Wednesday night the Bradley Prize for 2013. (The other worthy recipients were Paul Clement, Mitch Daniels, and Roger Ailes.)

Yuval’s remarks are beautifully crafted, insightful and even moving. One really should read them in their entirety, for what they say about gratitude.

Yuval points out that conservatives tend to demonstrate thankfulness for “what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” It is because conservatives understand, or should understand, the fallen nature of man and the imperfection of life on this earth that we tend to appreciate incremental improvements instead of expecting perfection. We also understand that there will be missteps and setbacks along the way. This way of looking at the world also prevents, or should prevent, conservatives from being in a near-constant state of anger and agitation.

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My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin was awarded on Wednesday night the Bradley Prize for 2013. (The other worthy recipients were Paul Clement, Mitch Daniels, and Roger Ailes.)

Yuval’s remarks are beautifully crafted, insightful and even moving. One really should read them in their entirety, for what they say about gratitude.

Yuval points out that conservatives tend to demonstrate thankfulness for “what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” It is because conservatives understand, or should understand, the fallen nature of man and the imperfection of life on this earth that we tend to appreciate incremental improvements instead of expecting perfection. We also understand that there will be missteps and setbacks along the way. This way of looking at the world also prevents, or should prevent, conservatives from being in a near-constant state of anger and agitation.

But gratitude is also a human virtue, among the most attractive and winsome one can find in an individual. It can have something to do with circumstances, of course. There are times when grief and sadness overwhelm gratitude, at least for a season. But as a general matter, over the course of a lifetime, gratitude has a good deal more to do with an attitude of mind and an orientation of the heart than with outside conditions. It includes the ability to be content in the moment, even in moments of some challenge and hardship, rather than always striving, always feeling as if we are getting less than we deserve, never content with what we have.

The Scottish author John Buchan wrote, “I was brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy, and I have never learned the art of discontent.” He added, “It seems to me that those who loudly proclaim their disenchantment with life have never been really enchanted by it. Their complaints about the low levels they dwell in ring hollow, for they have not known the uplands.” To be in the company of people who are genuinely enchanted with life is among the greatest gifts life affords. 

Gratitude is also a theological virtue, one animating both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. (The eucharist, the most important sacrament in the Christian church, comes from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving.”) The Jewish and Christian reasons for gratitude have to do with the goodness of God, an appreciation for His intervention in human affairs and the beauty of His creation, and confidence that there is purpose even in the midst of hardships. And for some of us there is also belief in a place “afar from the sphere of our sorrows,” one that is our true home and marks the beginning of a new story after this story.

The Bradley Foundation has done a great service by rewarding relatively early in his career an individual who is already having a tremendous influence on conservatism and American politics. Yuval Levin’s speech about the power and implications of a grateful heart demonstrates why he is worthy of the award he received, and why there’s so much to look forward to in the years ahead.

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In Praise of Brooks’s Conservative Vision

David Brooks’s most recent column on Edward Snowden is powerful and beautifully calibrated. Brooks refers to Snowden, who leaked top-secret information on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, as the “ultimate unmediated man.” He appears to be the product of one of the more unfortunate trends of our age:

the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments… Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

Brooks goes on to list the people and things Snowden betrayed–a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures, honesty and integrity, his oaths, his friends, his employers, the cause of open government, the privacy of us all, and the Constitution. 

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David Brooks’s most recent column on Edward Snowden is powerful and beautifully calibrated. Brooks refers to Snowden, who leaked top-secret information on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, as the “ultimate unmediated man.” He appears to be the product of one of the more unfortunate trends of our age:

the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments… Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

Brooks goes on to list the people and things Snowden betrayed–a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures, honesty and integrity, his oaths, his friends, his employers, the cause of open government, the privacy of us all, and the Constitution. 

Brooks is not only right in what he says; he has articulated a deeply conservative vision of society, social arrangements, authority and the (invisible) bonds that hold us together. It seems to me that among conservatives this whole way of looking at things has been lost, or at least partially obscured, in recent years, as a libertarian impulse gains greater and greater velocity within the conservative movement.

I believe libertarians have important contributions to make and critiques to offer–but conservatism is a richer and deeper philosophy that better takes into account human life and human experiences. And while conservatism gives appropriate reverence to liberty as a political principle, it understands that a devotion to liberty is not enough to sustain a society, or an individual human life.   

That is, I think, what David Brooks was getting at; and it’s worth careful reflection. 

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Laura Ingraham and Me (Round Two)

Laura Ingraham and I had some differences over a number of political matters that made their way into print (see here and here). Laura asked me to appear on her program, which I did this morning. You can listen to our conversation here.

We discussed my post on Phyllis Schlafly, Laura’s response to it, immigration, the Iraq war, and the Bush legacy. I should say that Laura was a very gracious and fair-minded host–and while our differences on some issues remain, I appreciated her generosity of spirit in having me on, and in how she conducted the interview. And whether one agrees with Laura or with me on the issues we discussed, I think you’ll agree with my assessment of her.

Laura Ingraham and I had some differences over a number of political matters that made their way into print (see here and here). Laura asked me to appear on her program, which I did this morning. You can listen to our conversation here.

We discussed my post on Phyllis Schlafly, Laura’s response to it, immigration, the Iraq war, and the Bush legacy. I should say that Laura was a very gracious and fair-minded host–and while our differences on some issues remain, I appreciated her generosity of spirit in having me on, and in how she conducted the interview. And whether one agrees with Laura or with me on the issues we discussed, I think you’ll agree with my assessment of her.

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Responding to Laura Ingraham

My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 

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My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 


Ms. Ingraham repeatedly invokes the mantra “How dare ex-Bushies” criticize Schlafly. After all, Ingraham is saying, George W. Bush and all those associated with him are not true conservatives, having undermined conservatism at every turn. So what is Ingraham’s specific indictment against Bush?

There’s a lot to sort through, and much of it is jumbled. But let’s deal with it as best we can. For starters, Ingraham says the Bush administration “drove so many people away from conservatism.” But that assertion is wrong, as this Gallup poll demonstrates. When George W. Bush won the presidency, 38 percent of the country identified itself as conservative (half of that figure identified itself as liberal). The number of self-identified conservatives fluctuated between a low of 37 percent and a high of 40 percent during the Bush presidency. The country’s political ideology during the Bush years was quite stable. And Republicans during the Bush years became substantially more conservative, less moderate, and less liberal.

As for Ingraham’s claim that most Americans consider the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be “pointless”: For the entire Bush presidency the number of Americans who said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan never rose above 34 percent, according to the Gallup organization. Public support for the Iraq war did drop–but it increased after Bush embraced a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the so-called surge), one of the most impressive demonstrations of presidential leadership in our lifetime. It’s also worth pointing out that Ingraham aggressively supported both conflicts, including in Iraq (see here, here, here and here). For most of the last decade she got the point of both wars–and was highly quite critical of those who did not. 

Ms. Ingraham complains that Bush “refused to enforce immigration law as the people demanded.” Back to reality: Under Bush we saw substantially increased border security, he ended “catch and release,” and illegal immigration declined virtually every year Bush was in office. Ms. Ingraham also excoriates Bush for fighting for “amnesty for illegal aliens.” Actually, Bush didn’t support amnesty for illegal aliens. Amnesty means to exempt from penalty, and Bush’s policies required penalties for those who break the law but wanted to apply for citizenship. What Ingraham doesn’t mention is that the one president who did sign legislation granting full-scale amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants was her political hero (and mine) Ronald Reagan. In a 1984 presidential debate, in fact, Reagan went so far as to say, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” The mind reels at the critical things Ingraham would say about Bush if he had actually had Reagan’s record on amnesty. 

For the purposes of this discussion it might be helpful to stay with the Bush-Reagan comparison, since Reagan is the gold standard for conservatives and ranks among the greatest presidents in our history. It’s therefore illustrative to take the issues Ingraham has selected and measure Bush’s actual policies and achievements against Reagan, if only to put them in a real (as opposed to a make-believe) context.

Ingraham charges that Bush “ran up huge budget deficits.” False. The budget deficit during Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent of GDP, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent and considerably below what it was under Reagan (when it went as high as 6 percent of GDP and averaged 4.2 percent).

On spending: over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. During fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. As Keith Hennessey has pointed out, “even at its highest point during the Bush tenure, spending as a share of GDP was still lower than the lowest year of the Reagan Administration.”

Ms. Ingraham has long had something of an obsession with Harriet Miers, who was never seated on the Supreme Court. But both Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor were. Unlike Antonin Scalia, Reagan’s greatest Supreme Court appointment, Kennedy and O’Connor turned out to be fairly problematic from an originalist perspective and both refused to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Schlafly called Roe v. Wade “the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court” and said that it “is responsible for the killing of millions of unborn babies.”)

As for the “ex-Bushies” who “practically destroyed the GOP”: George W. Bush won both presidential campaigns he ran in. During his tenure the GOP reached its high-water mark of influence, when it controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. And in 2002, Republicans regained their majority in the Senate and added seats in the House–only the second election in American history in which a president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate in the first midterm election. The GOP didn’t maintain that position, losing 29 House seats in 2006 (one more than the historic average). There’s no question that in Bush’s second term he encountered political difficulties that he didn’t face in his first term. But a fair-minded reading of the record makes it clear that Ingraham’s claims are ludicrously exaggerated.

What Ingraham has done is to string together a series of incorrect and misleading assertions, even as she consistently overlooks Bush’s conservative achievements on taxes (he cut them several times and unlike Reagan, never raised them) and growth (during the Bush years America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation), culture of life and marriage issues, the Second Amendment, support for Israel, missile defense, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, and his anti-terrorism policies, to name just a few. Keith Hennessey also points out that Bush “proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.” 

What appears to have occurred is that Ingraham’s anti-Bush animus, whatever its origins, has crippled her ability to think clearly about him or his record.

I’ll close by making a broader point. Much of the left has come to symbolize an ad hominem impulse in American politics–the habit of replacing reasoned arguments with personal attacks. It’s a shame that Ingraham–whom I’ve known for years and have always had a cordial personal relationship with–has taken to employing this tactic. Rather than offer a calm and informed dissent to what I wrote, she has instead opted to post a piece that is sloppy and unserious. It’s a shame, since intemperate minds are an obstacle to conservative success.

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What Is True Conservatism?

In a recent column, Michael Gerson wrote about modern conservatism’s “two distinct architectural styles.” One approach within conservatism, he said, celebrates those who seek to apply abstract principles in their purest form. The alternative approach is more disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances.

What’s worth noting, I think, is that many of those in the first camp consider themselves to be more principled and authentically conservative than those in the second, who are often derided as RINOs and “squishes,” as part of the much-derided “establishment” and who go along to get along. These politicians continually back away from fights like shutting down the federal government, preventing an increase in the debt ceiling, going over the fiscal cliff and filibustering background checks. The failure to engage these battles, and many others, is a sign of infidelity to conservatism.

Now, it’s not as if this critique never applies. There are certainly Republicans who claim to be conservative but don’t have deep convictions, who are in politics not because they care about advancing ideas as much as they care about power and titles. But what is of more interest to me is the divide over what a genuine conservative temperament and cast of mind is. A new book on Edmund Burke, by the British MP Jesse Norman, helps illuminate this matter. Given the contours of the current debate, it’s worth recalling what Burke, whom Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” actually believed.

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In a recent column, Michael Gerson wrote about modern conservatism’s “two distinct architectural styles.” One approach within conservatism, he said, celebrates those who seek to apply abstract principles in their purest form. The alternative approach is more disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances.

What’s worth noting, I think, is that many of those in the first camp consider themselves to be more principled and authentically conservative than those in the second, who are often derided as RINOs and “squishes,” as part of the much-derided “establishment” and who go along to get along. These politicians continually back away from fights like shutting down the federal government, preventing an increase in the debt ceiling, going over the fiscal cliff and filibustering background checks. The failure to engage these battles, and many others, is a sign of infidelity to conservatism.

Now, it’s not as if this critique never applies. There are certainly Republicans who claim to be conservative but don’t have deep convictions, who are in politics not because they care about advancing ideas as much as they care about power and titles. But what is of more interest to me is the divide over what a genuine conservative temperament and cast of mind is. A new book on Edmund Burke, by the British MP Jesse Norman, helps illuminate this matter. Given the contours of the current debate, it’s worth recalling what Burke, whom Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” actually believed.

Let’s start with moderation, a word many modern-day conservatives instinctively recoil from but which Burke referred to as “a virtue not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue.”

According to Norman, Burke believed the proper attitude of those who aspire to power is “humility, modesty and a sense of public duty.” He was “anti-ideological in spirit,” deeply distrustful of zealotry and believed self-correcting reforms, while certainly necessary, should be limited, discriminating, and proportionate. For Burke, Norman argues, universal principles were never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation. 

“Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect,” according to Burke. “The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

“The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics,” he wrote elsewhere. “They admit of exceptions, they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic but by the rules of prudence.”

A Burkean approach would never insist on absolute consistency in conducting human affairs. Politics is about carefully balancing competing principles, ever alert to the dangers posed by unintended consequences. It involves taking into account public sentiments, what Burke called the “temper of the people.” Nor is politics ever as simple as saying we believe in liberty and limited government and therefore the application of those principles is self-evident. Burke’s view, according to Norman, is that “perfection is not given to man, and so politics is an intrinsically messy business… The function of politics, then, is primarily one of reconciliation and enablement.” What deeply concerned Burke were people of “intemperate minds.” What is required of statesmen is wisdom and good judgment, sobriety, foresight and prudence.

Now Burke’s interpretation of conservatism was not written on stone tablets delivered on Mt. Sinai–and even if it were, merely to invoke Burke does not mean one is properly applying his insights to the here and now. But it does strike me that as this debate intensifies, and as various people lay claim to being the True Conservatives, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the greatest exponent of conservatism actually believed.

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Taxes, Immigration, and the Senate’s Identity Crisis

As Bethany has previously written, the problems with the new Internet sales tax, which passed the Senate this week, were depressingly obvious–even as the bill received Republican support. But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the bill is not that Republicans should have known better, but that they did know better and voted against both economic common sense and the best interests of small businesses around the country.

The legislation would have forced businesses to pay sales taxes in the home state of every online customer, thus adding a burden to doing business that large retailers could handle but their upstart competitors could not. But to listen to Republicans defending their votes in support of the measure, you could be forgiven for thinking that upholding crony capitalism was a virtue of the bill, not an unfortunate element to be downplayed. (Though it was called the Marketplace Fairness Act, Grover Norquist more accurately referred to it as the “Let People in Alabama Loot People in New York Act.”) Here, for example, is how John Thune is quoted by the New York Times:

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As Bethany has previously written, the problems with the new Internet sales tax, which passed the Senate this week, were depressingly obvious–even as the bill received Republican support. But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the bill is not that Republicans should have known better, but that they did know better and voted against both economic common sense and the best interests of small businesses around the country.

The legislation would have forced businesses to pay sales taxes in the home state of every online customer, thus adding a burden to doing business that large retailers could handle but their upstart competitors could not. But to listen to Republicans defending their votes in support of the measure, you could be forgiven for thinking that upholding crony capitalism was a virtue of the bill, not an unfortunate element to be downplayed. (Though it was called the Marketplace Fairness Act, Grover Norquist more accurately referred to it as the “Let People in Alabama Loot People in New York Act.”) Here, for example, is how John Thune is quoted by the New York Times:

“It’s obviously an issue that can be divisive for Republicans because a lot of the antitax groups are weighing in against it,” Senator Thune said. “But in states like mine where you’ve got a lot of smaller retailers trying to compete in smaller communities, people are going to do their business online, and that has grown dramatically over the last few years.”

Antitax groups are against it, but Thune wants to protect his favored businesses and let the government get involved in picking winners and losers. There is a bright spot, however. The Times had reported on the bill’s momentum: “Earlier test votes won as many as 75 yeses. And House action, once seemingly unthinkable, may be unstoppable.” But Speaker of the House John Boehner is signaling that reality is closer to the former than the latter, according to the LA Times:

House Speaker John A. Boehner said he probably won’t support legislation allowing states to require that larger retailers collect sales taxes on Internet purchases.

And a key House committee chairman said his panel would take a “more thoughtful” approach to the bill, which passed the Senate overwhelmingly Monday.

The comments signaled that momentum from Monday’s easy passage of the bill in the Senate won’t lead to quick House action on the controversial issue.

All to the good, but it draws attention to an interesting dynamic at play in the Congress of 2013: namely, a bit of a role reversal between the upper and lower chambers. Traditionally, because the House can pass bills on simple majority and because revenue-raising legislation originates there, the lower chamber has played an activist role to the Senate’s deliberative role. The Senate gives every state the same number of representatives, which forces regional accommodation when crafting or amending legislation. Senators also represent entire states rather than increasingly gerrymandered districts, so addressing constituent concerns in each bill is a more complicated process.

Of course the most recognizable reason for these traditional roles is the existence of the filibuster in the Senate, which doesn’t exist in the House. It can therefore be difficult to even get to a vote.

Yet for all the attention paid to the filibuster’s use by Republicans, two things remain true: the Senate has been able to pass major liberal legislation, like ObamaCare and financial regulation, and Boehner’s House has become a break on the Senate’s penchant for far-reaching legislation.

The Internet sales tax bill is an example of a bill that was passed by the Senate but faces far dimmer prospects in the House. More significant is the fact that the House’s new role has slowed down the Senate as well. From the perspective of conservatives, this is a moderating effect; to liberals, who were wondering if the Senate could possibly get any slower, it’s the opposite. But either way, the message has come through loud and clear.

To see how this plays itself out, one need look no further than the immigration reform effort. The question of whether the final immigration bill could pass the House is not just implicit; it’s invoked almost constantly by the bill’s supporters. In order to pass the House, immigration reform proponents believe (correctly) that it would almost surely need to do more than just pass the Senate. It will need broad bipartisan support that includes conservatives who are popular with the grassroots to give cover to their counterparts in the House. Additionally, the bill’s chief proponent, Marco Rubio, has been warning his fellow senators in the “gang of eight” that the bill cannot pass the House as currently constructed–a clear exhortation to take House conservative concerns about border security into consideration when amending the bill.

The reviews of this role reversal will likely be mixed, even among conservatives. There will be many on the right justifiably frustrated if the immigration reform effort stalls in the Senate because of the fear of House Republicans. But it will also be difficult to argue against the House’s instinctive distrust of crony capitalist bills like the Internet tax hike. Senate Republicans might also wonder why, especially on the issue of market distorting tax increases, they need the House to slow them down in the first place.

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Conservatism and the Limitations of Self-Reliance

In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore has written a review of Jesse Norman’s new biography on the man Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” Edmund Burke (h/t Peggy Noonan).

Mr. Moore’s review includes this elegant conclusion:

As his struggles for America, Ireland and Corsica showed, Burke was no automatic defender of existing authority. But what he understood, and expressed with immense rhetorical power, was how human beings stand in relation to one another. Although they are morally autonomous individuals, they do not – cannot – live in isolation. In our language, laws, institutions, religion, and in our families, we are part of a continuum.

Society is ”a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’’. It is not society that keeps mankind in chains, but the pretence that now is the only time that matters. Almost every piece of rot you hear in politics comes from those who wish to lock man into what WH Auden called ”the prison of his days’’. It is comforting that the Burkean Jesse Norman is in the House of Commons to tell them when they are wrong.

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In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore has written a review of Jesse Norman’s new biography on the man Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” Edmund Burke (h/t Peggy Noonan).

Mr. Moore’s review includes this elegant conclusion:

As his struggles for America, Ireland and Corsica showed, Burke was no automatic defender of existing authority. But what he understood, and expressed with immense rhetorical power, was how human beings stand in relation to one another. Although they are morally autonomous individuals, they do not – cannot – live in isolation. In our language, laws, institutions, religion, and in our families, we are part of a continuum.

Society is ”a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’’. It is not society that keeps mankind in chains, but the pretence that now is the only time that matters. Almost every piece of rot you hear in politics comes from those who wish to lock man into what WH Auden called ”the prison of his days’’. It is comforting that the Burkean Jesse Norman is in the House of Commons to tell them when they are wrong.

It strikes me that this ancient insight–of how we do not live in isolation, that we are part of a continuum–has been a bit neglected by American conservatives in recent years. The emphasis one hears these days has to do almost solely with liberty, which of course is vital. But there is also the trap of hyper-individualism. What’s missing, I think, is an appropriate appreciation–or at least a public appreciation–for community, social solidarity, and the common good; for the obligations and attachments we have to each other and the role institutions play in forming those attachments.

It’s not exactly clear to me why conservatives have neglected these matters. It may be the result of a counter-reaction to President Obama’s expansion of the size, scope, and reach of the federal government, combined with a growing libertarian impulse within conservatism. Whatever the explanation, conservatives are making an error–a political error, a philosophical error, a human error–in ignoring (at least in our public language) this understanding of the richness and fullness of life.

Conservatism has never been simply about being left alone. It is not exclusively about self-reliance, individual drive and “rugged individualism,” as important as these things are. We need to be careful about portraying life in a constricted way, since our characters and personalities and sensibilities are shaped by so many other factors and forces and people all along the way.

Self-reliance surely has a place in our lives. But we also rely on families and friends–and for many of us, on a community of fellow believers–to help us walk through periods of doubt and hardship and failure, as well as to share in our joys and achievements and milestones. We are a part of the main. And I imagine most of us are far more dependent than we ever fully admit on the grace and generosity, the sacrifice and love of others.

Less often than I should, when recalling the most important and supportive people in my life–the ones who have left an imprint on me that will never fade and blessed me in ways I can never fully repay–I have thought back to the words of St. Paul, in his letter to the saints at Philippi: “I thank my God upon my every remembrance of you.”

The human loves, C.S. Lewis said, can be glorious images of Divine love. We depend on both, and we should probably say so more often than we do.

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Gun Control and American “Givenness”

The New York Times reports that gun-control advocates are not dissuaded by their recent failure to get first a gun ban and then a background checks bill passed. They are pressing on with attempts to further regulate gun ownership. As I noted and as the Washington Post explained, Americans basically came to see the Toomey-Manchin bill as representative of the fight to restrict gun ownership, and the attempts by the government to impose such restrictions unnerved them. This bothers supporters of gun control for cultural reasons, and I think it’s worth explaining where gun-rights supporters are coming from.

In February, Timothy Noah wrote a perceptive column about how liberals were no longer always talking about liberal policies in “non-liberal language.” But gun control was an exception. “Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not,” Noah wrote. “But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.”

Noah’s column was headlined “How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’,” and the example of gun ownership as the outlier–gun owners are the real “real Americans” no matter how many, or how few, of them there actually are–is instructive. As anyone who has been told by gun control supporters that tyranny is not on the agenda and therefore the Founders’ concern for the right to bear arms is just a bit dated can attest, concern about the slippery slope argument on guns is downright puzzling to the left. But it’s actually much easier to understand than it seems.

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The New York Times reports that gun-control advocates are not dissuaded by their recent failure to get first a gun ban and then a background checks bill passed. They are pressing on with attempts to further regulate gun ownership. As I noted and as the Washington Post explained, Americans basically came to see the Toomey-Manchin bill as representative of the fight to restrict gun ownership, and the attempts by the government to impose such restrictions unnerved them. This bothers supporters of gun control for cultural reasons, and I think it’s worth explaining where gun-rights supporters are coming from.

In February, Timothy Noah wrote a perceptive column about how liberals were no longer always talking about liberal policies in “non-liberal language.” But gun control was an exception. “Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not,” Noah wrote. “But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.”

Noah’s column was headlined “How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’,” and the example of gun ownership as the outlier–gun owners are the real “real Americans” no matter how many, or how few, of them there actually are–is instructive. As anyone who has been told by gun control supporters that tyranny is not on the agenda and therefore the Founders’ concern for the right to bear arms is just a bit dated can attest, concern about the slippery slope argument on guns is downright puzzling to the left. But it’s actually much easier to understand than it seems.

Exactly 60 years ago, in the April 1953 issue of COMMENTARY, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote an eloquent essay that sheds light on this issue without actually discussing gun rights. The piece was titled “Our Unspoken National Faith: Why Americans Need No Ideology,” and it was adapted from his then-forthcoming book The Genius of American Politics. The purpose of Boorstin’s essay, as indicated in the title, is to explain why Americans have developed such successful political institutions without a tradition of impressive modern political theorizing. Americans are, Boorstin noted, surprisingly uninterested in political philosophy for a country that has experienced such magnificent political achievement.

Boorstin’s aim is to explain what he calls “givenness,” briefly defined as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.” There are three aspects to American “givenness,” according to Boorstin. First, that our values are a gift from the past; second, that we continue to receive our values as a gift from the present; and third, a belief in the continuity of American history, which helps explain how his first and second parts of “givenness” can coexist. “Our feeling of continuity in our history makes it easy for us to see the Founding Fathers as our contemporaries. It induces us to draw heavily on the materials of our history, but always in a distinctly non-historical frame of mind,” he writes.

We haven’t felt the need to invent mythical American prophets because that’s how we see our Founders. And we haven’t felt the need to develop a uniting political theory because we believe the nation was founded on an already complete theory that we happily accepted. One major reason for this is the recency of our founding. Boorstin calls us “primitivistic” in comparison to Europeans, who–for obvious reasons–don’t see themselves in their earliest settlers.

This explains the left-right divide over constitutional interpretation. Both liberals and conservatives have taken to claiming their constitutional righteousness in terms of its “originalism.” Neither side’s leading judicial theorists, however, tend to argue that it doesn’t matter what the Founders thought at the time. “We are haunted by a fear that capricious changes in theory might imperil our institutions,” Boorstin writes. “This is our kind of conservatism.” Later, he adds: “What need has either party for an explicit political theory where both must be spokesmen of the original American doctrine on which the nation was founded?”

Boorstin admits that the second facet of “givenness” is vague, but it boils down to accepting that our founding value system is being constantly upheld and reinvigorated by the simple experience of American life. And here he quotes Frederick Jackson Turner writing about the idealized American frontierland and how we translate that into our value system. Turner’s quote, in turn, provides some perspective on Noah’s remark about “real Americans”:

The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

Indeed, Boorstin notes that we admire not extraordinary men but men “who possessed the commonplace virtues to an extraordinary degree.” The third facet of “givenness,” continuity between the first two, is both a goal and a fact of life–though this, too, has much to do with America’s youth and is probably far from a given if the United States reaches in the future the age that Europe is now. American political convention has an authenticity, Boorstin writes, guided by “the axiom that institutions are not and should not be the grand creations of men toward large ends and outspoken values; rather they are organisms which grow out of the soil in which they are rooted and out of the tradition from which they have sprung.” He concludes:

Our history has fitted us, even against our will, to understand the meaning of conservatism. We have become the exemplars of the continuity of history and of the fruits which came from cultivating institutions suited to a time and place, in continuity with the past.

How this applies, precisely 60 years later, to the gun debate is twofold. First, liberals have been frustrated by the fact that lower population states, in conservative and gun-friendly regions of the country, hold disproportionate sway in the Senate thanks to each state having the same number of senators, and thus votes. But they should also keep in mind that this doesn’t bother others nearly as much because these states, as we see from Turner’s description of the frontier in American consciousness, hold disproportionate sway over much of America’s national and cultural identity. Guns are only part of this, but a recognizable part.

Second, unlike many other policy fights, gun rights have special resonance because the right to bear arms is written explicitly. We can, and do, argue over whose right that is and what arms they may bear, but few rights were so clearly declared to exist or jealously guarded by the Founders as this one. And that helps explain how Americans can simultaneously support universal background checks in theory yet seem to suddenly get cold feet when it is time for Congress to vote. They don’t take it lightly when their rights are on the table. That may be frustrating for lawmakers, but it’s part of the genius of American politics.

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Debating How to Save the GOP

Last week I had a discussion/debate with Ben Domenech at Furman University to discuss “How to Save the GOP,” a topic that was inspired, in part, by the essay in COMMENTARY that I co-authored with Michael Gerson. Our conversation covered the 2012 election, social issues, the case for limited and effective government, and the 2016 presidential contest. For those interested, a link to the event can be found here

Last week I had a discussion/debate with Ben Domenech at Furman University to discuss “How to Save the GOP,” a topic that was inspired, in part, by the essay in COMMENTARY that I co-authored with Michael Gerson. Our conversation covered the 2012 election, social issues, the case for limited and effective government, and the 2016 presidential contest. For those interested, a link to the event can be found here

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Thatcher and the Politics of Prudence

Yesterday Mark Levin, popular radio talk show host and best-selling author, suggested (without mentioning my name) that my post on Margaret Thatcher was fundamentally at odds with, and even schizophrenic with, my post last week, in which I spoke about a conservatism that “places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments.”

How could I praise political moderation and prudence one week and the Iron Lady the next?

A fair question, and one that affords me an opportunity to explain why the Thatcher example actually underscores my point about the conservative temperament and political moderation rightly understood.

Margaret Thatcher was a tower of political strength–principled, strong, determined, and courageous. (A nice summary of her accomplishments can be found here.) But what was the one area, as both a candidate and as prime minister, she stayed away from? The National Health Service–England’s socialized medical system. In fact, in her memoirs she praised the NHS. And Thatcher promised in her 1982 Conservative Party Conference speech that the NHS was “safe with us.”

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Yesterday Mark Levin, popular radio talk show host and best-selling author, suggested (without mentioning my name) that my post on Margaret Thatcher was fundamentally at odds with, and even schizophrenic with, my post last week, in which I spoke about a conservatism that “places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments.”

How could I praise political moderation and prudence one week and the Iron Lady the next?

A fair question, and one that affords me an opportunity to explain why the Thatcher example actually underscores my point about the conservative temperament and political moderation rightly understood.

Margaret Thatcher was a tower of political strength–principled, strong, determined, and courageous. (A nice summary of her accomplishments can be found here.) But what was the one area, as both a candidate and as prime minister, she stayed away from? The National Health Service–England’s socialized medical system. In fact, in her memoirs she praised the NHS. And Thatcher promised in her 1982 Conservative Party Conference speech that the NHS was “safe with us.”

This is similar to what Ronald Reagan did with the New Deal, promising not to dismantle it. On the contrary, Reagan spoke about our nation’s “ironclad commitment to Social Security.” Reagan, in 1980, even went so far as to reassure people he would not dismantle Medicare, which of course was a product of the Great Society. (Avik Roy points out that “the closest thing to Medicare reform that Reagan tried was to introduce a new system of price controls into the program, called the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale, in 1988…. Indeed, Reagan’s most significant contribution to our health-care system was to help create a new entitlement—EMTALA–that guaranteed that anyone could get free access to emergency room care regardless of their ability to pay, including illegal immigrants.”)

What to make of these decisions by both Thatcher and Reagan?

I suppose one could argue–quite unfairly in my view–that they were unprincipled, weak, and RINO-like. The other interpretation is that they were conservative in the way I described last week: prudent, realistic, and wise enough not to engage in a political Pickett’s Charge.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan picked their battles wisely, didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and didn’t fight on issues that may well have led to their electoral loss–and therefore, in the process, foreclosed their chance at being historically great figures. They also took into account the settled views of the public, at least at the moment in time in which they governed. That doesn’t mean that over time things couldn’t change–as indeed they have on Medicare, with Republicans offering conservative reforms that go far beyond anything envisioned by Reagan. 

But I for one wouldn’t criticize Thatcher for not engaging in a frontal assault on NHS or Reagan for not engaging in a frontal assault on the New Deal. They marshaled their political capital in order to make profound changes in other areas, where they had a decent chance for success. So Reagan, for example, ushered in the supply side revolution while Thatcher privatized many British industries that had been state-controlled.

I wish, by the way, that Prime Minister Thatcher had been able to undo NHS and replace it with a free market system. But what one might have wanted her to do based on a conservative wish list, and what she was in fact able to do, are two different things. The conservatism I described last week is, I think, the conservatism Thatcher and Reagan more or less subscribed to in practice.

There is something of a divide on the right, perhaps not so much in terms of the end most of us seek (lower taxes, limited government, more competition, accountability and free market reforms) than in terms of how conservatives ought to deal with political reality as they try to advance conservative causes. Margaret Thatcher made her own inner peace with the NHS. And she was still one of the most consequential and successful conservative leaders of the 20th century.

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