Conservative Survival in a Progressive Age

By PETER BERKOWITZ, Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2012

Big government and the social revolution are here to stay. The conservative role is to shape both for the better.

Political moderation is a maligned virtue. Yet it has been central to American constitutionalism and modern conservatism. Such moderation is essential today to the renewal of a conservatism devoted to the principles of liberty inscribed in the Constitution—and around which both social conservatives and libertarians can rally.

“It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good,” observed James Madison in Federalist No. 37. The challenge, Madison went on to explain, is more sobering still because the spirit of moderation “is more apt to be diminished than promoted by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.”

In a similar spirit, and in the years that Americans were declaring independence and launching a remarkable experiment in self-government, Edmund Burke sought to conserve in Great Britain the conditions under which liberty flourished. To this end, Burke exposed the error of depending on abstract theory for guidance in practical affairs. He taught the supremacy in political life of prudence, or the judgment born of experience, bound up with circumstances and bred in action. He maintained that good policy and laws must be fitted to the people’s morals, sentiments and opinions. He demonstrated that in politics the imperfections of human nature must be taken into account even as virtue and the institutions of civil society that sustain it must be cultivated. And he showed that political moderation frequently counsels rejecting the path of least resistance and is sometimes exercised in defending principle against majority opinion.

Madison’s words and example and Burke’s words and example are as pertinent in our time as they were in their own. Conservatives should heed them as they come to grips with two entrenched realities that pose genuine challenges to liberty, and whose prudent management is critical to the nation’s well-being.

The first entrenched reality is that big government is here to stay. This is particularly important for libertarians to absorb. Over the last two hundred years, society and the economy in advanced industrial nations have undergone dramatic transformations. And for three-quarters of a century, the New Deal settlement has been reshaping Americans’ expectations about the nation-state’s reach and role.

Consequently, the U.S. federal government will continue to provide a social safety net, regulate the economy, and shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality. All signs are that a large majority of Americans will want it to continue to do so.

In these circumstances, conservatives must redouble their efforts to reform sloppy and incompetent government and resist government’s inherent expansionist tendencies and progressivism’s reflexive leveling proclivities. But to undertake to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities.

Conservatives can and should focus on restraining spending, reducing regulation, reforming the tax code, and generally reining in our sprawling federal government. But conservatives should retire misleading talk of small government. Instead, they should think and speak in terms of limited government.

The second entrenched reality, this one testing social conservatives, is the sexual revolution, perhaps the greatest social revolution in human history. The invention, and popularization in the mid-1960s, of the birth control pill—a cheap, convenient and effective way to prevent pregnancy—meant that for the first time in human history, women could have sex and reliably control reproduction. This greatly enhanced their ability to enter the workforce and pursue careers. It also transformed romance, reshaped the family and refashioned marriage.

Brides may still wed in virginal white, bride and groom may still promise to love and cherish for better or for worse and until death do them part, and one or more children may still lie in the future for many married couples. Nevertheless, 90% of Americans engage in premarital sex, cohabitation before marriage is common, and out-of-wedlock births are substantial.

Divorce, while emotionally searing, is no longer unusual, legally difficult or socially stigmatizing. Children, once the core reason for getting married, have become optional. Civil unions for gays and lesbians have acquired majority support and same-sex marriage is not far behind.

These profoundly transformed circumstances do not oblige social conservatives to alter their fundamental convictions. They should continue to make the case for the traditional understanding of marriage with children at the center, both for its intrinsic human rewards and for the benefits a married father and mother bring to rearing children. They should back family-friendly public policy and seek, within the democratic process, to persuade fellow citizens to adopt socially conservative views and vote for candidates devoted to them.

Yet given the enormous changes over the last 50 years in the U.S. concerning the ways individuals conduct their romantic lives, view marriage, and think about the family—and with a view to the enduring imperatives of limited government—social conservatives should refrain from attempting to use the federal government to enforce the traditional understanding of sex, marriage and the family. They can remain true to their principles even as they adjust their expectations of what can be achieved through democratic politics, and renew their appreciation of the limits that American constitutional government imposes on regulating citizens’ private lives.

Some conservatives worry that giving any ground—in regard to the welfare and regulatory state, the sexual revolution, or both—is tantamount to sanctifying a progressive status quo. That is to mistake a danger for a destiny. Seeing circumstances as they are is a precondition for preserving one’s principles and effectively translating them into viable reforms.

Even under the shadow of big government and in the wake of the sexual revolution, both libertarians and social conservatives, consistent with their most deeply held beliefs, can and should affirm the dignity of the person and the inseparability of human dignity from individual freedom and self-government. They can and should affirm the dependence of individual freedom and self-government on a thriving civil society, and the paramount importance the Constitution places on maintaining a political framework that secures liberty by limiting government.

So counsels constitutional conservatism well understood.

Mr. Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government and Political Moderation,” forthcoming from the Hoover Institution Press in February. This op-ed is adapted from the book’s conclusion.

A version of this article appeared December 13, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Conservative Survival in a Progressive Age.

The conservative learning curve

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: December 5

Over the long run, the most important impact of an election is not on the winning party but on the loser. Winners feel confirmed in staying the course they’re on. Losing parties — or, at least, the ones intent on winning again someday — are moved to figure out what they did wrong and how they must change.

After losing throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Republicans finally came to terms with the New Deal and elected Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Democrats lost three elections in the 1980s and did a lot of rethinking inspired by Bill Clinton, who won the White House in 1992. In Britain, the Labor Party learned a great deal during its exile from power in the Margaret Thatcher years. The same thing happened to the Conservatives during Tony Blair’s long run.

The American conservative movement and the Republican Party it controls were stunned by President Obama’s victory last month. The depth of their astonishment was itself a sign of how much they misunderstood the country they proposed to lead. Yet the shock has pushed many conservatives to think at least mildly heretical thoughts.

In particular, some are realizing that the tea party surge of 2010 was akin to an amphetamine rush — it produced instant gratification but left the conservative brand tarnished by extremism on both social and economic issues. Within two years, the tea party high gave way to a crash.

It’s true that the early signs of conservative evolution are superficial and largely rhetorical. The right wing’s supporters are already threatening primaries against House and Senate Republicans who offer even a hint of apostasy when it comes to raising taxes in any budget deal. Many Republicans still fear challenges from their right far more than defeat in an election by a Democrat.

Nonetheless, rhetorical shifts often presage substantive changes because they are the first and easiest steps along the revisionist path. And on Tuesday, three prominent Republicans took the plunge.

At a dinner in honor of the late Jack Kemp — a big tax-cutter who also had a big heart — Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio both worked hard to back the party away from the damage done by Mitt Romney’s comments on the supposedly dependent 47 percent and the broader hostility shown toward government by a conservatism transfigured by tea-party thinking.

Ryan spoke gracious words about Romney, the man who made him his running mate on the GOP ticket. But the implicit criticism of Romney’s theory was unmistakable. Kemp, Ryan said, “hated the idea that any part of America could be written off.” Republicans, Ryan said, must “carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea — the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise, to escape from poverty.” He also said: “Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”

Rubio dubbed his speech a discourse on “middle-class opportunity” and distanced himself from the GOP’s obsession with giving succor to the very wealthy.

“Every country in the world has rich people,” Rubio said. “But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the great American middle class.”

Rubio also walked a new and more careful line on government. “Government has a role to play,” he said, “and we must make sure that it does its part.” Then, making sure he stayed inside the conservative tent, Rubio added: “But it’s a supporting role, to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy.”

For good measure, former president George W. Bush tried to push his party back toward moderation on immigration, using a speech in Texas to urge that the issue be approached with “a benevolent spirit” mindful of “the contribution of immigrants.”

There’s ample reason to remain skeptical about how far conservatives will go in challenging themselves. Substantively, neither Ryan nor Rubio threw much conservative orthodoxy overboard.

And actions matter more than words. It’s not encouraging that a large group of Republican senators blocked ratification of the international treaty on the rights of the disabled. Then there’s the budget. If Republicans can’t accept even a modest increase in tax rates on the best-off Americans, it’s hard to take their proclamations of a new day seriously.

Still, elections are 2-by-4s, and many conservatives seem to realize the need to understand what just hit them.

Where Have You Gone, Bill Buckley?

By DAVID WELCH, New York TImes, December 3, 2012

IT is a shame that William F. Buckley Jr. passed away in 2008. The conservative movement could use him — or someone like him — right now.

In the 1960s, Buckley, largely through his position at the helm of National Review, displayed political courage and sanity by taking on the John Birch Society, an influential anti-Communist group whose members saw conspiracies everywhere they looked.

Fast forward half a century. The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”

But his biggest challenge came from the far right, primarily in the form of the John Birch Society. During the 1950s and early ’60s, Birchers demanded that the government rid itself of supposed Communists — including, according its founder, Robert Welch (no relation, thank heaven), Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Buckley’s formula for conservative success rested on “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” He saw the danger the Birchers posed to the party, and in 1962 he wrote a devastating essay in National Review that condemned them for essentially calling on the party to commit political suicide. He dismissed Welch’s outrageous views as “drivel” and “removed from common sense.”

The essay relegated the Birch Society to pariah status. Buckley may have saved the nascent conservative movement from the dustbin of history.

The absence of a Buckley-esque gatekeeper today has allowed extreme, untested candidates to take center stage and then commit predictable gaffes and issue moon-bat pronouncements. Democrats have used those statements to tarnish the Republican Party as anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-gay, anti-immigrant extremists. Buckley’s conservative pragmatism has been lost, along with the presidency and seats in Congress.

Republicans must now identify those who can bring adult supervision back to the party. Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.

Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.

Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush are ideally suited to drive extremists from the party. While some say Mr. Christie’s praise of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy hurt him politically, in fact it cemented his role as party truth-teller. In conjunction with his spirited defense of Sohail Mohammed, a State Superior Court judge who was absurdly attacked for allegedly wanting to impose Shariah law, Mr. Christie should be celebrated by sane people everywhere.

Mr. Bush, who once bravely stated that Ronald Reagan would have a hard time fitting in with today’s Republican Party, likewise has the position and gravitas to weigh in and weed out the Todd Akins and Sharron Angles of the world.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie best represent realistic, levelheaded conservatism. Both have crossed the aisle numerous times to the betterment of their states. Yet they enjoy sterling reputations in the party. This occurs when common sense trumps partisanship.

This is not to say that the only way forward is by tying the party to bipartisanship. But it does mean a willingness to fight those who claim the name of the party but not its ethos.

In a recent interview, the bête noir of both the left and the Tea Party right, Mr. Rove, suggested that his organization, American Crossroads, might become active in Republican primaries during the next election cycle. If Crossroads and the old-guard Republican committees sided with sensible candidates early on in the primaries and, if need be, ran ads against extreme members of the party, they could do much to bring some sense back to the Republican landscape.

Our modern-day Buckley’s denouncement of once fringe Tea Party candidates should be forthright. Whether it’s Bush, Christie or a party institution, there must be one clear message: no unserious candidate need apply.

Party leaders should seize this moment as Buckley did decades ago. It wasn’t easy. He lost subscribers and donors. But inveighing Buckley went, weathering the storm to keep his party poised for future victories.

David Welch is a former research director for the Republican National Committee.

Reviving progressive conservatism

by Michael Stafford,, November 19, 2012

The great American conservative thinker Russell Kirk once observed that some disasters are so catastrophic they require a re-examination of first principles. On Election Day, the Republican Party suffered such an existential shock.

The corporate wing of the GOP was decisively rejected by the voters because it offered nothing but obsolete ideas driven by a bankrupt libertarian ideology that would actually exacerbate the problems America is facing. It cravenly serves the interests of the rich through an agenda composed of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation for large corporations, crony capitalism, and climate change denial coupled with attacks on the existing social contract.

These outmoded, unappealing, elite-friendly policies are marketed to mainstream Americans mixed with a toxic stew of nativism, misogyny, racism, and fear.

The time is ripe for a new alternative — progressive conservatism. Progressive conservatism would offer a fresh perspective — a synergy of populist economics, social justice, environmental stewardship, communitarianism, and traditional values that addresses the concerns of the common people.

The re-establishment of a progressive conservative voice in American politics within the GOP would create a true opposition capable of keeping the Democrats honest, the rest of the Republicans sane, and the plutocracy firmly in check.

Although many are loath to admit it, a class war has been raging in America for decades. The rich have been the aggressors and, so far, they are winning. America’s working and middle classes have been the victims of an unprovoked assault — a massive wealth and power grab fueled by boundless greed. As a result, our economy has been looted and hollowed out, our environment imperiled, our civil liberties curtailed, and our political process captured, by a rent-seeking elite whose only concern is to increase its own take from, and special privileges in, an increasingly rigged and corrupt system.

Today, income inequality is growing even as economic opportunities and social mobility are constricting. Meanwhile, large swaths of the country have been transformed into a post-industrial wasteland. Factories that once stood as symbols of our strength and vitality, and which offered decent jobs and a path to a better future for thousands of Americans, now sit empty and abandoned. Our public infrastructure — including our roads and our schools- that was once the envy of the world is crumbling.

After three decades of trickle-down economics, the only things falling are tears.

Thankfully, the outlines of a modern progressive conservative reform agenda addressing these problems are already apparent. It includes tax reform that benefits working families and ends the special treatment of income from dividends and capital gains, preferences for domestic manufacturing, securing the social contract, classic Theodore Roosevelt-style trust-busting, enhanced regulatory oversight of the financial sector, a return to the old Glass-Steagall Act restrictions separating commercial banking and securities trading, measures to control the spiraling costs of post-secondary education, strategic investments in public infrastructure, action on climate change, campaign finance reform, and the tireless defense of both civil and religious liberty.

Taken as a whole, progressive conservatism offers a positive vision of a limited, but vigorous, federal government promoting the interests of America’s working families and communities.

Finally, on social issues, progressive conservatism would move beyond culture war divisiveness in a number of ways.

As conservative author Rod Dreher has recognized, same-sex marriage is an accomplished fact; continued opposition to it merely serves to alienate allies needed to craft a broader coalition, including younger voters. Conservative concerns about its impact can be addressed by pushing for broad protections for religious entities that object to it on doctrinal grounds.

Abortion is a different story. The 2012 elections have ensured that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned in our lifetimes. Under these circumstances, the best way to address abortion is to attack its root causes while advancing reasonable restrictions on the practices that enjoy broad support, like parental notification laws. In other words, abortion must be transformed from a question of personal righteousness, into one of social justice, and then nested in a broader web of policies that consistently recognize and protect the dignity of every human being.

Writing during the 2012 Republican presidential primary, David Brooks observed that “[i]f you took a working-class candidate from the right, like [Rick] Santorum, and a working-class candidate from the left, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and you found a few islands of common ground, you could win this election by a landslide.”

Progressive conservatism is Brooks’ common ground. It can win elections for Republicans and, more importantly, move our country forward.

Michael Stafford distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. He is a former Republican Party officer and the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at