WASHINGTON – Though Republican prospects are not quite dead, the autopsy has already begun. Which is probably not a good idea, even in metaphor.
But the best of the anticipatory autopsies so far comes from Matthew Continetti writing in National Review. In “Crisis of the Conservative Intellectual,” Continetti traces a several-decade struggle between intellectual conservatives (think William F. Buckley and George F. Will) and the new right (think Sarah Palin and Pat Buchanan) over the meaning of the movement.
In Continetti’s telling, National Review conservatives – “elitist, pessimistic, grimly witty, and academic” – had depth but lacked power. The New Right – largely Southern, often blue collar, opposed to “compromise, gradualism and acquiescence in the corrupt system” – had populist and nationalist appeal, but could be led astray by disturbing figures such as George Wallace. The groups were united in their disdain for the Eastern, liberal GOP establishment and eventually were hitched to the same political goal by Ronald Reagan.
The alliance, however, was never easy. And it has broken down completely in the 2016 presidential election. “Donald Trump,” Continetti argues, “is so noxious, so unhinged, so extremist in his rejection of democratic norms and political convention and basic manners that he has untethered the new right politics he embodies from the descendants of William F. Buckley Jr.”
It is hard to argue with that. But the article does something typical of many conservative writers, dismissing the only two-term Republican president since Reagan in two sentences of a long article. President George W. Bush, Continetti says, is “the exemplary religious-right leader” who earned “vituperative” criticism from the new right. And that’s it.
Can Bush be explained merely as a religious-right figure? Did Americans vote for him in 2000 and 2004 on the recommendation of James Dobson or Pat Robertson? The idea is absurd. Continetti’s binary construct needs a little more room.
Bush represented a fundamentally different option (still embraced, in more modern form, by many Republican governors). His appeal included the aggressive promotion of economic growth, expressed in support for broad tax cuts. A commitment to compassionate and creative social policy, demonstrated by No Child Left Behind and his support for faith-based social services. A belief in ethnic and religious inclusion, shown by his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform and by his defense of American Muslims after the 9-11 attacks. An internationalist foreign policy, which included not only the war against terrorism but the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. And a tolerant version of traditionalism, based on moral aspiration rather than judgment. (It is an approach I helped frame for candidate and then President Bush.)
It is understandable that figures on the left would argue that this approach was discredited during the worst days of the Iraq War and the Great Recession. They would prefer not to face the type of appeal that beat them twice.
And movement conservatives were always inclined to regard Bush’s compassionate conservatism as a failed experiment, even before it was actually tried. When Bush was down politically, the new right rushed to disown him.
But here is the reality: There is no reconstitution of conservative influence or the appeal of the Republican Party without incorporating some updated version of compassionate conservatism. And conservatives need to get over their aversion to the only approach that has brought them presidential victory since 1988.
I really don’t give a damn what adjective is applied to distinguish this type of reform-oriented conservatism. But it must include a response to stagnant growth; the reform of failing institutions to help prepare more workers for a skills-based economy; a sincere appeal to rising ethnic minorities; a properly chastened but vigorous war against terrorism and the encouragement of global development and health as alternatives to hatred; and an inclusive concern for families and the character essential to self-government.
Even more than all this, conservatives require a set of democratic values informed by faith – a commitment to civility and human dignity. The new right has gotten what it always wanted – an arsonist as its presidential nominee. No limits. No mercy. Burn it down. Lock her up. Lock her up.
The outcome, in all likelihood, will be to give her the keys to the White House. And to cause lasting damage to the very idea of a responsible, governing conservatism.
Will future Republican primary voters – marinated in the anger and conspiracy theories of conservative media – prove capable of choosing a reform-conservative candidate? On this question hangs the future of a party that has earned a nation’s contempt.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.