The Future of Conservatism

Back in late November, I was invited to contribute to a symposium in Commentary on the future of conservatism. The symposium appeared in the January issue of the magazine, and item by item it has been posted on the web. My particular contribution was posted this morning.

I am hoping that, before long, the symposium as a whole will be made available in this fashion.  The list of contributors includes Elliott Abrams, Charlotte Allen, Larry P. Arnn, Michael Barone, John R. Bolton, David Brog, Arthur C. Brooks, David Brooks, Linda Chavez, Matthew Continetti, Artur Davis, Rod Dreher, Nicholas Eberstadt, David Frum, Michael Gerson, James K. Glassman, Jonah Goldberg, Victor Davis Hanson, Hugh Hewitt, Jeff Jacoby, Roger Kimball, Philip Klein, William Kristol, Jay P. Lefkowitz, Yuval Levin, Tod Lindberg, Heather MacDonald, Harvey Mansfield, Clifford D. May, Wilfred McClay, Michael Medved, Michael B. Mukasey, James Piereson, Daniel Pipes, Ramesh Ponnuru, Dennis Prager, R.R. Reno, Jason Riley, Karl Rove, Jennifer Rubin, Reihan Salam, Fred Siegel, Roger Simon, Bret Stephens, Mark Steyn, James Taranto, John B. Taylor, Tevi Troy, Peter Wehner, George Weigel, and Ruth R. Wisse. Needless to say, they have much of interest to say, and they do not all agree.

As you can see from reading the first paragraph of my piece, I am highly critical of Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012. In my opinion, he ran with the aim of eking out a narrow personal victory, and he orphaned the Republican candidates for the House and the Senate. Instead of nationalizing their campaigns, he left them to fend for themselves — which allowed local issues and particular personalities to be put front and center (which aided the Democrats considerably).

In my judgment, the long-term consequences of the 2012 election will be terrible for the country but good for conservatism:

Barack Obama’s victory was a technical triumph–proof positive that when one’s rival runs as a technocrat and is inclined to sit on what looks like a lead and run out the clock–micro-targeting can be made to work. Apart from demonizing his opponent and positioning himself as a champion of the sexual revolution and of punitive taxation, the president had nothing to say. He proposed no agenda. He won no mandate. All that he achieved was to delay the reckoning and to render it far more damaging to his party. America’s withdrawal from the world has set the stage for ugly developments abroad. The recession that is on the horizon will only be deepened by the tax increases that will soon be imposed. And the implementation of ObamaCare will unleash a fury that will make the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 look tame. The immediate prospects for the country are grim, but the prospects for conservatism have never been better. Barack Obama is, step by step, unmasking liberalism and revealing its true character, and his admirers in Democratic strongholds such as California, Illinois, and New York are doing everything that they can to show us the future as they envisage it and to demonstrate that it does not work.

What conservatism still lacks is a standard-bearer. None of the prospective candidates who might have been able to shoulder the burden chose to run in 2012. Mitt Romney won the nomination solely because none of the available alternatives was plausible in the slightest. He was the last man standing because he was the only candidate who had not thoroughly blotted his copybook. The opportunity now looms. It is time for a younger, more principled generation to step forward and to indict the administrative entitlement state for what it is: the “soft despotism” described by Alexis de Tocqueville 172 years ago.

It is the last paragraph that you might wish to focus on. Mitt Romney did not want to run in 2012, so his son now tells us. He ran out of a sense of duty, which speaks well of him as a man, but his heart was not really in it. He gave it the old college try, to his great credit. But he did not turn the election into a crusade — which is what was required. The other candidates in the race for the Republican nomination were appalling. Had the party nominated any one of them, it would have been a suicidal act.

There is an old saying in politics: “You cannot beat someone with no one.” To win in 2016, to reverse the madness into which we as a nation are descending, we will need to find a someone — a candidate of intelligence and real cunning with fire in the belly and a willingness to fight the ruthlessness of the Democrats with a ruthlessness of his own.

  1. DocJay

    Romney played a ‘prevent’ defense when he should have been running a no huddle offense. It’s so darn sad we lost to such a vulnerable candidate, especially one whose mere visage, let alone voice induces dyspepsia in so many. The question I have is whether the selection of the next republican candidate is too important to be left to the GOP?

  2. wmartin

    Like most of these diagnoses of what ails conservatism, it does not reckon with racial/tribal bloc-voting. It just seems to be something conservatives are constitutionally incapable of fully understanding.

  3. The Mugwump

    I believe Angelo Codevilla got it right when he described the Republican party as merely one wing of a ruling oligarchy.  The Republicans in my estimation do not represent conservative values.  They do not provide a viable or competent opposition to the Democrats, and John Boehner especially needs to go.  Nor do I believe that the Republicans are any less corrupt than their Democratic counterparts.  Given the circumstances I will be supporting a Tea Party insurgency to take back the Republican party.

  4. Jeff B

    While I agree with your analysis as to why Romney didn’t win, I can’t agree that it was due to him that extremely poor candidates such as Akin and Mourdock lost.  Scott Brown, George Allen and Josh Mandel may have won their seats had Romney been a stronger candidate.  But there’s simply no excuse that Indiana and Missouri couldn’t return Republicans for the Senate that can be placed at Romney’s doorstep for not having taken the fight forward.  They lost the old-fashioned way.  They earned it.  

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Jeff B: While I agree with your analysis as to why Romney didn’t win, I can’t agree that it was due to him that extremely poor candidates such as Akin and Mourdock lost.  Scott Brown, George Allen and Josh Mandel may have won their seats had Romney been a stronger candidate.  But there’s simply no excuse that Indiana and Missouri couldn’t return Republicans for the Senate that can be placed at Romney’s doorstep for not having taken the fight forward.  They lost the old-fashioned way.  They earned it.   · 9 minutes ago

    What you say about Akin and Mourdock is, indeed, true. Our troubles were not all due to Romney’s failures. But, in the absence of a standard-bearer who really picks up the standard, we will at best stumble along.

  6. Colin B Lane

    Professor, your point is well taken, but we must first confront a troubling paradox: the best and the brightest in the Democrat party view politics as a noble profession, and are willing to make a career of it. When one makes a career of something, one expends a a substantial amount of of energy, passion, and ruthlessness trying to become successful — the best even.

    On the conservative side of the ledger, the best and the brightest go into business for themselves or rise through the ranks of big business or financial institutions (or, as is sometimes the case, teach at Hillsdale).  Politics for them is a civic duty, perhaps even an avocation.

    It’s hard for people who view politics as a civic duty to envision themselves engaging in the kind of trench warfare that the careerists force them to engage in. Most simply say no thank you. And though there have been more than a few snipes at the Mitch Danielses of the world, I can’t say I fault him for declining to be savaged for doing a civic duty.

  7. Douglas
    wmartin: Like most of these diagnoses of what ails conservatism, it does not reckon with racial/tribal bloc-voting. It just seems to be something conservatives are constitutionally incapable of fully understanding. · 58 minutes ago

    Thus my despair. Ultimately, I think Mark Steyn (and though his name is now mud in these circles, John Derbyshire) were ultimately right about demographics and the future.

  8. Z in MT

    Prof. Rahe, I am not so sure I have your optimism.  This time was different than ’64 in that unlike Goldwater, Romney didn’t advance any core conservative principles. 

  9. Mario the Gator
    wmartin: Like most of these diagnoses of what ails conservatism, it does not reckon with racial/tribal bloc-voting. It just seems to be something conservatives are constitutionally incapable of fully understanding. · 2 hours ago

    I have to agree. It seems as though the dismal performance of the Democrats in power is not enough to overcome the tradition of voting for Democrats inside certain communities / minority circles.  Conservatives have to do a better job of reaching into some of those communities of interest and forcing them to see how the Democrats are paying them lip service while actually doing them great harm.  Despite the bias in favor Democrats among some of these communities however, if Romney had done a better job of exciting the Conservative base he would have won the election any way.

  10. Patrick in Albuquerque

    MHO is that Romney wanted his campaign to be one that didn’t leave the country even more polarized. OTOH, Rove should have been the hit man; the performance of his PAC was truly disappointing. There was so much negative stuff about BO and his admin that never got used.

    And Akin and Mourdock! Yecch! I still haven’t heard the Soc Cons say they’re gonna weed out such fellas.

  11. Mendel
    Paul A. Rahe:

    we will need to find asomeone– a candidate of intelligence and real cunning with fire in the belly and a willingness to fight the ruthlessness of the Democrats with a ruthlessness of his own.

    There is a difficult paradox inherent in this statement.  The candidate you describe here is not to be found or cultivated, but rather is someone who either exists or does not; if he does, he will by definition push himself to the fore.  Reagan was not cultivated as a standard-bearer by his allies as much as he stubbornly refused to back down.

    It is difficult to “search for and identify” such a person.  If he is out there, he will present himself; if not, we will have to live with second best.

  12. BKelley14

    I thought this person was Chris Christie, until Sandy. Now, I won’t put my trust in him to be the standard bearer. Sad. 

  13. curtmilr

    That person MUST be a conservative, which Christie never was.

    That person hasn’t stood up yet. It may very well come out of the private sector.

  14. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Mendel

    Paul A. Rahe:

    we will need to find asomeone– a candidate of intelligence and real cunning with fire in the belly and a willingness to fight the ruthlessness of the Democrats with a ruthlessness of his own.

    There is a difficult paradox inherent in this statement.  The candidate you describe here is not to be found or cultivated, but rather is someone who either exists or does not; if he does, he will by definition push himself to the fore.  Reagan was not cultivated as a standard-bearer by his allies as much as he stubbornly refused to back down.

    It is difficult to “search for and identify” such a person.  If he is out there, he will present himself; if not, we will have to live with second best. · 4 hours ago

    Actually, a group of wealthy Republicans in California found Reagan and cultivated him. Sometimes people need to be encouraged to present themselves.

  15. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Colin B Lane: Professor, your point is well taken, but we must first confront a troubling paradox: the best and the brightest in the Democrat party view politics as a noble profession, and are willing to make a career of it. When one makes a career of something, one expends a a substantial amount of of energy, passion, and ruthlessness trying to become successful — the best even.

    On the conservative side of the ledger, the best and the brightest go into business for themselves or rise through the ranks of big business or financial institutions (or, as is sometimes the case, teach at Hillsdale).  Politics for them is a civic duty, perhaps even an avocation.

    It’s hard for people who view politics as a civic duty to envision themselves engaging in the kind of trench warfare that the careerists force them to engage in. Most simply say no thank you. And though there have been more than a few snipes at the Mitch Danielses of the world, I can’t say I fault him for declining to be savaged for doing a civic duty. · 8 hours ago

    Edited 5 hours ago

    You are, alas, on to something here.

  16. Scott R
    Mendel

    Paul A. Rahe:

    ….a candidate of intelligence and real cunning with fire in the belly and a willingness to fight the ruthlessness of the Democrats with a ruthlessness of his own.

    …. The candidate you describe here is not to be found or cultivated, but rather is someone who either exists or does not; if he does, he will by definition push himself to the fore.  Reagan was not cultivated as a standard-bearer by his allies as much as he stubbornly refused to back down.

    It is difficult to “search for and identify” such a person.  If he is out there, he will present himself; if not, we will have to live with second best.

    I’ll probably change my mind a dozen times between now and 2016, but Bobby Jindal is that guy, so far as I can tell.

    His accomplishments and elected offices in such a short life demonstrate the “fire in the belly”, and his record of getting conservatism enacted reflects a cleverness — and likely a behind-the-scenes ruthlessness — that is just what the doctor ordered. Throw in a little tribal appeal, and we’re in business. 

  17. cdor
    Douglas

    cdor

    “White”peoplearestill78%ofourpopulation.PerhapRepublicanshouldrampup theRace/Tribalvotefor me because I am white (and so are all of my children) meme. · 7 hours ag o

    That will change in a single generation. Two at the most, but more likely within the next quarter century. While white liberals don’t reproduce much, white conservatives haven’t been reproducing much either. We’ve now fallen under replacement rate too. It seems that we’ve got the same disease as other western nations: we love our luxuries more than having children.

    Other ethnic groups want to have their cake and eat it too here, and there’s even a recognition the more kids they have, the faster they’ll catch up with and overtake whites. It’s win-win for them. Meanwhile, with the mass-amnesty coming for Hispanic illegals, American Liberals are going to instantly add 15-20 million new Democrats to the rolls. · 10 hours ago

    Sounds like a good time to “hook up” with some allies. I say we start importing lots of Indians and Vietnamese and Filipinos. Of course the ol elephant hanging out in the corner over there is our welfare “state”. Without that, immigration wouldn’t matter.

  18. Jeff
    Joseph Eagar Not that I’m happy with moderate elites either.  They don’t seem to understand that politics isn’t a zero-sum game; the GOP needs toexpand its base, not sacrifice it in a useless attempt to grab the Democrat’s share of the center-right and centrist vote.

    To expand the GOP base, who can we attract? Libertarian-conservatives. Like it or not, libertarian voters are effectively the swing vote for the Republican Party.

    Mr. Rahe has  energetically alienated those voters. Simply search the archives here at Ricochet.

    The Republican establishment disbelieves its own ideology of free markets and individual liberty. The blue bloods consistently ram candidates through who don’t believe in liberty. See Bill Whittle on this phenomenon.

    Neither Rahe nor the country club Republican have answers for us.

    They have a poor track record. They consistently misread the electorate. They fail to grasp who their swing voters are. They’ve never put candidates forward who will shrink government back to it’s constitutional limits. It’s time we stop listening to these people.

    We’ll refashion the party in our image not theirs.

  19. wmartin
    cdor

    Douglas

    Sounds like a good time to “hook up” with some allies. I say we start importing lots of Indians and Vietnamese and Filipinos. Of course the ol elephant hanging out in the corner over there is our welfare “state”. Without that, immigration wouldn’t matter. · 52 minutes ago

    The Indians, Vietnamese and Filipinos we already have now vote overwhelmingly Democrat.