Do you hear the sound of an ice floe cracking? I think I did the past 10 days. In that time these things happened:
Gov. Bobby Jindal went before the Republican National Committee to call the GOP “the stupid party.” Newly re-elected RNC chairman Reince Priebus admitted the party got smoked on vote technology, will have a hard time catching up with the Democrats and must start now. Joe Scarborough told a conservative gathering that dissent within the party has been suppressed. John Podhoretz said some of its long-held assumptions are creating “dead ends.” Marco Rubio and the gang of eight got out ahead of the president on immigration reform. Rep. Dave Camp zeroed in on the worst of Wall Street, the use of derivatives that helped crash the economy in 2008. He proposes to “crack down on the ability of investment firms and wealthy individuals to limit their taxes through complex financial instruments,” Roll Call reports. That’s a pirate move, and of the best kind because it doesn’t come from a pirate but from the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a conservative veteran respected on both sides of the aisle.
These sharp cracks in the air just may be the sound of a frozen party moving on into swift and warmer waters. And if it’s just a beginning, good, it’s a beginning.
At the National Review Institute summit last weekend, three big things got said.
Ted Cruz, the new senator from Texas, urged conservative activists to recognize cultural realities among Hispanics in America, to wit: “There are 2.3 million Hispanic small-business owners in the country. . . . We are an incredibly entrepreneurial community.” Hispanics in America want what everyone wants, to rise. They will be open to arguments on which party’s policies are more likely to clear the path. Republicans spent 2012 answering President Obama with the slogan “You built that!” But that was a slogan aimed at those who’d already arrived, who were established. The GOP message, he said, should have been, “You can build that.” The party should not allow itself to look like the party of big business, it has to be the party of the young person in the garage inventing something that will challenge big business.
Part of Mr. Cruz’s point was that campaign consultants think appealing to Hispanics comes down to immigration policy—but it doesn’t.
In fact, solving immigration is important politically to the GOP because it would remove an impediment to reconciliation. But immigration reform itself probably won’t result in any electoral windfall for the Republicans. Mexican-Americans strike me as like the Irish who came to America in the great wave from 1880 to 1920. They saw the Republicans as snobs and establishment types, saw the Democrats as scrappy and for the little guy, and cleaved to the latter party for a good long while. That may be what’s coming here, but no one knows—everything’s more speeded up now, political affiliations are less placid and implacable than they once were. But Mr. Cruz’s insight on how to make an effective appeal was a needed corrective. Mr. Cruz was, alas, less impressive this week on the subject of Chuck Hagel, whom he charged with a lack of sympathy for the military. Really? Mr. Hagel was sympathetic enough to volunteer for Vietnam, where he won two Purple Hearts. Does Mr. Cruz have a comparable record? Then maybe some due respect is in order.
In a panel on the future of conservatism, Mr. Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, also said something that needed saying. Republican politicians now often feel reluctant to move forward on regulatory bills that would have a beneficial effect and are in line with conservative thinking, because the idea of government regulation has become poisonous among the base: “The problem with three decades of movement thinking is that it ends up creating dead ends.” It does.
Mr. Scarborough, a former GOP congressman who now hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” broadened the criticism: “I think the debate within the party has been stifled,” he said. “It has been stifled because we have created this conservative groupthink over 30 years that’s become more and more narrow.” “Everybody’s afraid to talk.” Liberals, he said, make the mistake of believing you manage the government from the top down, and conservatives are right in believing in managing the economy from the bottom up. But “we’re managing our ideas from the top down.”
Poignantly—really, it was poignant—he spoke of the party he entered when he ran for Congress in 1994. It was alive with ideas: John Kasich on the budget, Jack Kemp on taxes, John Engler on welfare reform, Tommy Thompson on crime control. This was the bubble and fizz of a movement at its height. Now, he said, the national conversation is more constricted, with radio stars, websites and magazines functioning as unofficial arbiters and limiters of domestic and foreign policy debate.
All this is true, and needs to be said not only to conservatives but by conservatives.
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I close with a memory of conservatism as I experienced it, in the Reagan White House. It was a brutal place full of infighting, with the left (older, more establishment Republicans), the right (younger movement conservatives and intellectuals) and the center (everyone else) in a continual, daily war over policy. This side leaked front-page hit jobs against the other side, these people were trying to get that guy fired. It was terrible.
And yet at the end of the day, all that fighting and arguing yielded good policy. In fact, it yielded the last fully successful American presidency.
That was the party I entered, and that’s what I thought conservatism was: a big fight that resulted in excellence.
The White Houses that followed Reagan’s overreacted to its chaos. Discipline and unity were suddenly more important than creativity and critical thinking. Personal loyalty became the highest value. In the George W. Bush White House they not only scotched internal dissent, they couldn’t tolerate conservative criticism from outside.
That White House hurt itself this way, and hurt the conservative movement that defended it. If the Bush White House had attempted not to suppress but to listen to those who argued it was spending too wildly, it might have moderated itself and saved the Republican brand. If they’d listened to warnings about Iraq, they might have thought twice about moving forward, or fought more wisely and with a longer view. If they’d listened to critics of their immigration approach instead of calling them bigots, a GOP split might not have begun. If they had not been so proud, they could have rejiggered, relaunched and perhaps saved immigration as an issue for the GOP.
Maybe groupthink can work when you’re in power, at least for a time. But you can’t take suppression as an operating style when you’re on the outside fighting to come back.
We need a return to the burly conservatism of 30 years ago.
If you put unity over intellectual integrity you’ll lose the second right away, and the first in time.
By the way, that panel on the future of conservatism was smart and provocative, but it was composed of six men, no women. Ice, break more quickly.