Small-tent con­ser­va­tives

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

My good­ness, pro­fes­sional con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists and com­men­ta­tors cer­tainly are busy th­ese days try­ing to put up a pup — rather than a three­r­ing — tent for the Repub­li­can Party. A few weeks ago, it was so­cial con­ser­va­tives read­ing Rudy Gi­u­liani out of the party. Now, in an al­most Si­cil­ian re­venge pat­tern, sev­eral free-mar­ket, low-tax con­ser­va­tives are com­ing af­ter Mike Huck­abee with base­ball bats — or per­haps with bad­minton rac­quets (given the elite East­ern ori­gins of the at­tack­ers).

One prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor two weeks ago, whose writ­ing and judg­ment I usu­ally ad­mire, warned us that Mr. Huck­abee was yet an­other in the long line of “South­ern Poor-boy Pop­ulist Dem­a­gogues.”

“Think Huey Long or Ge­orge Wal­lace, James K. Var­daman, or ‘Pitch­fork’ Ben Till­man, to name the most salient ex­am­ples of this genus. . . Even so canny a politi­cian as Franklin Roo­sevelt feared Huey Long, for Long’s mo­ti­va­tional skills among a huge seg­ment of the Roo­sevelt Coali­tion.”

For­give me, but, while I never met Huey Long, I have met, sat down, bro­ken bread and talked with Mike Huck­abee. He is no more like Huey Long than our pet kit­ten Tiger is like his jun­gle beast name­sake. Huey Long’s use of his state po­lice to bully Louisiana politi­cians and busi- nesses (as well as his vi­cious dem­a­gogic rhetoric) earned him the du­bi­ous place he has in our his­tory. As far as I can tell, Mr. Huck­abee’s worst sins are re­fus­ing to sign Grover Norquist’s no­tax pledge and ex­press­ing in word and pol­icy some lim­ited sym­pa­thy for the work­ing poor of Arkansas.

While I sup­port Grover’s pledge and hold a hard line on il­le­gals, it is ab­surd to con­sign Mr. Huck­abee to some ide­o­log­i­cally dan­ger­ous, non-demo­cratic, po­lit­i­cal zom­bie grave­yard. Free-mar­ket, low-tax con­ser­va­tives may point with alarm at his poli­cies if they wish. But what is it in the con­ser­va­tive drink­ing wa­ter re­cently which gives rise to such bil­ious lan­guage and such ex­clud­ing ways of think­ing?

It would be­hoove those of us who have been for some decades now con­ser­va­tive Wash­ing­ton voices to ex­er­cise a lit­tle mod­esty and hu­mil­ity when it comes to defin­ing what will con­sti­tute the new win­ning, prin­ci­pled con­ser­vatism for the next gen­er­a­tion. Na­tional con­ser­vatism has won more elec­tions than it has lost in the last quar­ter cen­tury. But in the ab­sence of a com- pletely dys­func­tional Demo­cratic Party, we are not likely to con­tinue to do so in the fu­ture with ex­actly the same talk­ing points and pro­grams we have held in the past.

Once be­fore con­ser­vatism had to change be­fore we gained na­tional sup­port. When I en­tered con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics in 1963, con­ser­vatism op­posed, for ex­am­ple, fed­eral aid to ed­u­ca­tion, the pro­posed Medi­care pro­gram and the Vot­ing Rights Act. To­day, there are few if any elected con­ser­va­tives who would vote to out­right re­peal Medi­care, the Vot­ing Rights Act or cut off all fed­er­ally subsi- dized col­lege loans.

Sim­i­larly, to­day the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Party un­con­di­tion­ally op­poses any lim­i­ta­tions on free trade — de­spite the rise of China and In­dia, the low­er­ing of our wage-growth rates, the hol­low­ing out of our in­dus­trial base and the re­duc­tion of U.S. eco­nomic dom­i­nance in the world. And it op­poses any tax in­crease for any rea­son.

I am not pre­pared to aban­don our vig­or­ous free-trade poli­cies or sup­port a tax in­crease. I have yet to see a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment against low taxes and free mar­kets. But nei­ther am I pre­pared to con­sign to be­yond the pale my fel­low con­ser­va­tives who no longer see unadul­ter­ated free trade in the na­tional in­ter­est.

Nor will I cat­e­gor­i­cally write off those who sense that even con­ser­va­tive vot­ers may, un­der some cir­cum­stances, be pre­pared to pay with taxes for wanted gov­ern­ment pro­grams (such as trans­porta­tion at the state and lo­cal level). As a Burkean con­ser­va­tive, I be­lieve in the or­ganic de­vel­op­ment of our in­sti­tu­tions and meth­ods. It has al­ways been the left that, with the un­jus­ti­fied in­tel­lec­tual pride of the athe­ist, at­tempts to im­pose man-made party ide­olo­gies on his fel­low man rather than let our civ­i­liza­tion slowly un­fold through the fuller play out of our char­ac­ter, in­sti­tu­tions and val­ues.

But Burke also wrote that “A state with­out the means of change is with­out the means of its con­ser­va­tion.” So too, con­ser­vatism needs the means for change.

And yet to­day, it is many of my fel­low con­ser­va­tives, both so­cial and eco­nomic, who in­sist on an ide­o­log­i­cal and pro­gram­matic pu­rity — even as a baf­fling and fast-chang­ing world has only just be­gun to hum­ble the con­ceit of the over-con­fi­dent and cer­tain.

Tony Blank­ley is ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for global pub­lic af­fairs at Edel­man In­ter­na­tional. He is also a visit­ing se­nior fel­low at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

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