Friday, December 10, 2004

Conservatism on the firing line

That's the title from this op-ed piece from Robert Robb in today's Arizona Republic. It's a critical piece about the shape of the modern conservative movement, especially as it relates to the distinction between philosophy and practical tactics. There are a few points worth noting.
One of the main pillars of Buckley conservatism was a limited role for the federal government in domestic affairs.

George W. Bush openly professes to be a conservative. But rather than a limited role, Bush favors an activist federal government, only harnessed to serve conservative purposes.
This is true, and most conservative commentators have expressed their concerns about Bush on such matters. But then he quotes George Will:
George Will flatly says that we smaller-government conservatives are dinosaurs. And you get a sense of resignation in the air.
It's a bit odd to use Will when he has been one of the few conservatives seemingly willing to defend Bush's brand of big government conservatism. Perhaps Will has simply resigned himself to accepting Bush-style conservatism, but other than David Brooks, no other man of the right has so clearly defined Bush's effrots to utilize the government to achieve conservative ends.

At any rate, Robb goes on to critize the rise of pragmatism in conservative ranks.
In the current issue of National Review, the magazine Bill Buckley founded, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that conservatives shouldn't press too hard on tax reform. Success is doubtful, he maintains, and pushing for too much would be bad for the cause.

When conservatism was still learning to walk politically, National Review was hardly restrained by the art of the politically possible. If it were, it would have had nothing to say, since nothing was very politically possible for conservatives in those days.
Several points must be raised in regard to Ponnuru's story and its ramifications. First, it should be noted the Ponnuru has been one the staunchest conservative critics of Bush's domestic policies. Late last year he wrote a cover story that lambasted big government conservatism as practiced by George Bush, and called for a reduction in government spending. Second, Ponnuru adequately made the case that the sort of drastic tax reform that some conservatives seek to achieve is simply not possible under the current circumstances. It is better to attempt a milder bit of reform now in the hopes of doing something more at a later date - and the little bit now is not exactly insignificant.

It's also strange that a conservative should criticize other conservatives because of pragmatism. After all, is not conservatism a more pragmatic philosophy? Further, is there nothing to be said about conservatives not seeking a radical reform?

Finally, the line "When conservatism was still learning to walk politically" seems to acknowledge the fact that conservatism has indeed come to age, and now we are given the responsibility of actual governance. While I would hardly advocate abandonning our principles, we are now charged with a greater duty of practicing the art of what is possible. Of course Robb is right when he criticizes Bush for overreach, but can Bush be expected to do the complete opposite and attempt to radically re-shape the government? If he does so, Bush threatens to cost the conservative movement dearly.

It can be objected perhaps that Robb is talking more about conservative intellectuals, but even those not in the government cannot be faulted for offering pragmatic real-world advice. While it might seem attractive to sit on the mountain-top and offer fantastical advice about how to obliterate the administrative state, it's also a good idea to open one's eyes and realize that the public at large is not quite ready for such a transformation. It seems conservatives are charged with carrying out a two-pronged assault. We should of course attempt to sway more voters in the hopes of being able to eventually enact the more wholesale reforms that we desire. But it also seems we must accept current realities and encourage smaller reforms in the present age that will enable greater successes in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

We've come a long way, baby. That we can have such arguments in the conservative movement signifies that we are no longer the extreme minority, but we are not quite a majority yet either. Idealism is good, but a heavy dose of realism is also needed at this time.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?