Where the new right has failed

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— 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 faith­based 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 is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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