A Recessionary Conservative Agenda

There is nothing new to calls for rethinking conservatism and the GOP’s agenda. Bloated government spending, reckless behavior abroad and simple cronyism has left many conservatives wondering what has happened to their movement. The right could find solace, however, in the belief that it was a problem with the party, not the platform. Power might have corrupted the GOP, but conservative ideas remained popular with Americans. Polls and the success of moderate blue dog Democrats in state and Congressional elections buffered this belief.

The global economic crisis places this assumption under immense stress. A crisis of governance has become one of ideology. The standard free market line will no longer convince voters, who want to hear from politicians convincing explanations of why the economic meltdown occurred and what they will change to resuscitate the economy and prevent another crisis.

Stepping into this breech, Barack Obama will likely preside over the largest non-military expansion of the federal government and regulation since FDR. He will do so with overwhelming public support, including that of many conservatives. While Obama’s economic team supports strong government involvement in the economy, they also understand the basics of free markets and will probably avoid sweeping nationalizations or onerous restrictions that could quickly discredit them. Obama will receive credit for the recovery he will preside over, vindicating his left-wing policy changes.

Let us face the facts: conservatives are likely to play a reactionary role for the foreseeable future. The planks of the GOP’s platform will depend greatly on both how the Democrats define theirs and which of their weaknesses can be easily exploited. Uncertainty will be the name of the game. Nevertheless, three tentative recommendations can keep conservatives going and get us on the path to a new comprehensive agenda:

1. Get over Reagan (and Bush)

In Reagan, conservatives found their muse and rhetorical bulwark. Along with Margaret Thatcher, he convinced the world that free markets created far greater prosperity than the statist leftism of the 60s and 70s. Much of his wisdom has been incorporated by both the American left and right. Parroting Reagan when the political spectrum has shifted and basic economic facts on the ground have changed can make conservatives seem out of touch and unwilling to reevaluate their ideas.

By the same token, when the left tries to back conservatives into a corner by Bush-bashing, conservatives need to respond by accusing liberals of being stuck in the past.

2. Embrace conservative statism

An ideology of strangling the government beast won’t win when voters are likely to thank Uncle Sam for saving Wall Street, stabilizing their mortgages and backing their credit and employment. While we must accept that the federal government is going to be strongly involved in the economic life of this country, we should be offering an alternative conservative vision for this involvement:

Oversight and regulation, not running the economy. While greater regulation may be inevitable, conservatives need to make sure regulation doesn’t destroy markets that are working well. Free markets are still the most efficient allocative mechanism, and government should never be setting prices or running companies. Conservatives must also support a quick legislative process to keep regulation reacting to markets, not vice-versa.

Local control. Wherever possible, political decisions should be made on the state and local level. Local control allows different areas to react to economic downturns in keeping with their particular conditions. Speaking in terms of local control will also be a shrewd political move, as it will help the next generation of Republican lawmakers identify Democrats’ overreaching legislation.

3. Strong communities

When economic hardship hits, the first line of defense should lie with communities, not the government. How well real people weather the downturn will depend on their social and community safety net. Conservatives should continue George W. Bush’s support for faith-based initiatives, partnerships between government and non-profits, choice in education, and other initiatives that help local communities and civil society do their work. The government should particularly support policies that keep families strong as well as counseling and education. Finally, conservatives should support non-profits and companies that help consumers get back on their feet and make smart decisions about credit and loans.

The left unfairly depicts conservatives as mean and miserly, either pushing a punitive social agenda or cutting support for the needy. Conservatives want a compassionate, helpful, and fair society, but unlike the left, they realize that the state can only have a limited role in bringing about a cohesive society. Conservatives must convince voters not of the strength of their economic plan nor of the virtue of their moral values. Rather, they must show how their vision of the interaction between the state and society is most beneficial. This, paradoxically, was the revolution “Compassionate Conservatism” had hoped to usher in nine years ago.

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