“We need new Republicans!” That phrase or variations on it (“Drain the swamp!”) are ubiquitous once again as the GOP-led Congress continues to fail to repeal and replace Obamacare. It returns to the lips of conservatives every time Republicans break a campaign promise or are less productive legislatively than hoped. It has fueled electoral efforts now at the frequency of every two years and despite replacement Republicans and anti-establishment candidates, non-politicians, Tea Partiers, and others, it always comes back.
Maybe it’s time to check this premise. No doubt some will argue that there was nothing wrong with these candidates before they came to Washington: they went to Washington to change it, but Washington changed them. Who said that again? Not that it matters, because that is not the problem.
Nor is the problem that they’re all a bunch of squishy, RINO, moderate, big government, statist, secret-liberals. Conservative health care policy expert Avik Roy noted that Ronald Reagan
embraced universal [health care] coverage. In “A Time for Choosing” — Reagan’s celebrated conservative manifesto delivered at Goldwater’s 1964 Republican National Convention — Reagan declared, “No one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds.”
Though Reagan opposed mandated coverage, he did support assisting the needy in paying for care. Some short-sighted conservatives think that all that is necessary to enact a conservative agenda is complete ideological purity and will, but the sort of proposals the Gipper put forward are not even on the table for some on the right today. Indeed, if another Republican took the same stance today, they would call him a squish. Yet Reagan was the most successful conservative of our collective lifetimes.
Health care is not the only policy area in which Republicans, despite complete control of the legislative and executive branch, have nothing to show for their efforts. Ramesh Ponnuru points out that they have made no progress on tax reform, their campaign promises notwithstanding. Neither have they accomplished anything regarding infrastructure, supposedly a priority of President Trump’s. Ponnuru concludes, “The main reason they’re not doing much is that they haven’t figured out what they want to do.”
I think there is truth to that. The question is, why? The answer is that conservatism lacks leadership.
Jay has already addressed the fact that President Trump’s first six months in office have been marked by a complete lack of leadership. He wrote,
Being the president is not the same as throwing your name on bad steaks and bottles of water. It requires discipline, hard work and, as Trump himself said, a willingness to get everybody in a room and hammer out a deal.
That’s legislative leadership and it’s absolutely crucial. That said — and not to let the president off the hook — I have a different kind of leadership in mind: movement leadership.
Can anyone state what the priorities of the conservative movement are? I don’t just mean what the most important issues are, but within those issues, what does the movement consider to be the most important outcomes of reform? If immigration is a top priority, for example, what values do conservatives seek most to promote? What outcomes are at the top of the list? How do we think it best to get there?
Certainly, in a certain sense, it doesn’t make sense to speak of single conservative movement. Conservatism is first and foremost a disposition to preserve the institutions and values of a society. Specific policy prescriptions will generally conform to a pattern at any given time, but individual conservatives can differ on how best to conserve. This is why conservatism can be such a strange amalgamation of factions at times. Modern American conservatism began as a fusion of anti-communism, free-market libertarianism and traditional conservatism. Add to that neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, the Religious Right, Reagan Democrats, reform conservatives, Tea Partiers, federalists and more, and there is little reason to wonder why bringing them together to enact major legislation is so difficult.
In fact, perhaps the better question is how all of these camps have come together at all. The answer to that is probably opposition to liberal Democrats more than anything. It appears to be the classical tale that conservatives know what we are against, but not what we are for. It would be more accurate to say that we are united in what we’re against, but divided in what we are for.
Without a doubt, it is Congress’s job to figure out the best way to run with the mandate it has been given. Failure in that regard should not be excused. Nor should conservative constituents expect to elect yesmen. As Burke said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” But how much can we expect from representatives in Washington if the only thing coherent about the conservative agenda is that we don’t like the Obama (or even the Bush) legacy?
21st century conservatism needs to decide what it is for. Most probably, that will require leaders with compelling visions to take the reins. It will require difficult decisions. It may involve leaving some factions largely out, in order to unite around goals and priorities into something coherent. It may also involve innovative policies unembraced by conservatives on a large scale.
It cannot be simply a legislative movement for two reasons. The first is that it would have to rely solely on the will of those who are elected. Rather, they must be held accountable by a movement united in purpose — not merely in opposition, but also in promotion. The second reason is that, like it or not, such unification is a long-term proposition — if not very long-term, at least longer than the next election cycle.
Only when there is a coherent and cohesive vision can conservatives send people to Washington and expect them to come together productively for conservative ends. Until then, we can only expect so much out of new legislators who must try to make sense of such disparate ends.