Sunday, May 28, 2006

Conservatives and Republicans

Captain Ed wonders whether conservatives can get true representation in the Republican party. I'll put my answer this way: as a conservative, I have a hard time thinking of anyplace else I can get it. Does that mean I can get 'true representation' in the Republican party? No, not entirely. But I think it's the best I'm going to get.

I hate cliches, but it seems to me that 'what it means to be a conservative' is as up for debate today as it has been in decades. It's clear that the Buckley vision of conservatism died with the Cold War. For what defined conservatism during that period? A strong military to stand up to communism, an end to the expansion of the welfare state, restraint in federal spending, support for federalism, and adherence to strict construction of the Constitution. One handy guide to determining whether a policy was 'conservative,' was to identify the corresponding and opposite liberal policy: accommodation with communism, expanded welfare state, increased spending, a national approach to problems, and belief in an evolving constitution.

Well, what are the core tenets of conservatism today? I believe that small government remains one - although it's now hard to discern that goal given the government expansion in the Bush years. On foreign policy, there are those that still believe a core goal is to confront communism - notably be a muscular China policy, but obviously the War on Terror takes precedence today. And what should the approach be? A Wilsonian vision of expanded democracy, or some form of 'containment?' Conservatives probably still oppose expansion of the welfare state, although many conservatives in Congress supported the prescription drug benefit (largely becuase they wanted to pre-empt a more generous liberal plan, but still). Conservatives have pushed for national approaches on some traditionally state issues - notably gun rights and abortion, and are likely to continue to pursue national approaches on questions where they think they can 'win.'

Well, if conservatism is 'muddled' in looking at the modern versions of the traditional tenets, what are the conservative views on some policy questions that arrived after the Cold War? On campaign funding, George Will nicely espoused the traditional conservative view that anyone should essentially be allowed to donate anything, and that campaign spending is not that high in the scheme of things. Well, now Republicans have helped pass BCRA, which further regulates spending. They pushed for legisaltion to reduce the role of 527 organizations. On the role of the internet, is there a conservative or liberal position?

And if it's hard to see what views are distinctly conservative, can we gain insight by contrasting them with core liberal tenets? How do liberal propose to fight the war on terror? Is it accomodation? And where do they stand on China? Probably right with the conservatives who regard China as a priority. Where are they on spending? Well, very close to the Republicans, but probably rather far from conservatives. What do they believe on campaign spending and the role of the internet? Well, many think that and DailyKos are the best things since sliced bread.

I guess my sense is that the association of conservatives with Republicans, and the replacement of Communism with the War on Terror, has made it harder to define what constitutes conservatism. If Bush and Clinton were not such polarizing figures, I wonder if we would see disaffected constituencies crossing lines? Feel free to add comments, I'd be curious to hear whether people agree that the old definition of conservatism no longer fits.

All that said, and back to the Captain's question, for me the key defining questions are spending levels and foreign policy. And while I am unhappy with where the Republican party is today on spending, I do not think it's possible that the Democratic party can do anything to win my support in the foreseeable future. And for me, conservatives must not stand alone - outside of a larger party - because they cannot win a majority. And for the movement to have significance, it must have a way to implement its policies - and for me the only way to do that is through larger party - the Republicans.

Feel free to check out what I have written on two figures who are breaking down traditional partisan lines for both Republicans and Democrats - Joe Lieberman and John McCain.

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