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The State of Conservatism for 2008

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Most of the fretting over the “pending death” of conservatism is hype. Most of the noise declaring the Republican Party on the threshold of implosion is showmanship. And, the fear on the political right — that America is somehow going down the tubes, all because John McCain, “the maverick,” has pulled ahead — is a shallow reading of the times.

I chime in on the conservative squabbles for a simple reason: I think they are a blessing in disguise, regardless of one’s partisan preference. I am convinced the juggernaut primary we are now witnessing, including the jitters on the right, is very good for America, and particularly good for a rethinking of the foundation of conservative values.

What are we witnessing?

Following Super Tuesday, the Democratic Party is on a mind-blowing high — rightly so. It has two forceful candidates who promise to fight for the party’s overarching goal: social and political liberalism. And what’s more, both candidates agree upon a big picture strategy: revamp foreign policy by leaving Iraq; raise up the poor by increasing taxes on the rich; institute universal health care; improve America’s image abroad by building bridges with rogue states; let immigration take care of itself, for now; nominate activist judges; and continue the redefinition of traditional morality, especially the support of legal abortion.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, is in crisis. Right? Not exactly.

Following Super Tuesday, it has one forceful candidate, John McCain, who promises to fight for the party’s overarching goal: social and political conservatism. And what’s more, despite heavy criticism from radio and television talk show hosts of his conservative credentials, Republicans as a whole (including these same media personalities) agree with Sen. McCain upon a big picture strategy: fight Islamist terrorism, which includes securing peace and a semblance of democratic order in Iraq; stimulate the economy by pushing permanent tax cuts and by reigning in spending; fix health care woes through free-market initiatives; be more concerned with America’s long-term safety and prosperity than with its short-term image; fix the immigration debacle by securing American borders and by opening more efficient channels for citizenship and temporary work permits; nominate strict-constitutionalist judges; and bolster traditional morality as the bedrock of a healthy society.

In both parties, we are witnessing political transparency as never before. The vetting process for the job of president of the United States of America, which includes internal criticism of a party’s candidates, is serving the good purpose of identity clarification. This allows the guy on the street to recognize the real philosophical divide in America today is not between Clinton and Obama or between McCain and his critics, but rather between the big picture strategies of the two parties. Bravo, America! This kind of forthrightness is oxygen for democracy. Because even more dangerous than radically evil ideas are simply bad ones capable of passing themselves off as being good.

Of course, clarity of ideas comes with a high price ticket. The Republicans are paying it in the form of internal division over whether John McCain’s instincts are truly conservative. They are holding him up to a very bright light. Old political dogs are beating their chests and thumping their mics over the thought of a McCain presidency, and how different it would be from the golden years of Ronald Reagan. The brashest among them even promise a vote for the “devil,” if it comes down to it.

The best way to understand the abrasive nature of the message against McCain is to understand the messengers. The most successful pundits in the business spend most of their day, every day, fine-tuning their core political convictions, and then reinforcing them with bullet-proof examples of political righteousness and hypocrisy. Then, in election season, they assess each candidate against their uniquely chiselled measuring stick. Politicians like John McCain who have been in the political fray for more than twenty-five years get special attention. Their record is sliced and diced. In McCain’s case, the conservative commentators didn’t have to do any research. They knew him, and were convinced from the beginning, he was the worst of the good guys. His attitude and his choice of friends, even more than his record, were repulsive to them.

The animus against McCain is ostensibly one of principle. “He sleeps with the devil”, they say, “and we know Reagan would never do that.” “He makes deals with the likes of Kennedy and Feingold”, they continue, “and we know Reagan would never do that.” “What greater proof do we need than the gang of 14? Or how about awarding illegal aliens with a path to citizenship? Forget it. We don’t want McCain. We don’t want to watch him represent us. It would be tantamount to sleeping with the devil ourselves, and as we have said, Reagan would never do that.”

But I’ve got a theory. The conservative experts wouldn’t talk like this and thus wouldn’t create such jitters in the conservative base if they understood the following two principles:

First, conservative values were not invented by Ronald Reagan. If respecting the right to personal property and prosperity is better than the Marxist ideology of the redistribution of wealth, for example, it’s not so because Ronald Reagan said so. Instead, the principle emanates from who we are as people, the way God made us. Or if civic law and order is to be respected, it’s not so because the Gipper said so. Instead, it has to do with the origin of a sovereign government’s authority.

In contrast to this natural law approach, conservatives who base their principles on a single hero, or even on a coalition of heroes, are unable to define and defend their values when times and circumstances change. They can only ask, “WWRD?” The problem is it’s not so easy to guess what Reagan would have done, for example, as a senator in John McCain’s place. A legislator is not a president and if he’s going to get anything done, he can’t act like one. If a conservative Sen. depends solely on the wisdom of Ronald Reagan to fix our current immigration crisis, his conservative base will be sorely and rightly disappointed.

Second, the conservative critics of John McCain don’t always distinguish between the virtue of sticking to one’s principles and the vice of hard-headedness. In real-life politics (in contrast to the world of punditry), the first is acceptable and the second is not. A principled legislator may vote for, and even propose, an imperfect law or procedure with the stated intention of gradually working toward a perfect law. In this case he is not supporting evil; he is tolerating it out of necessity with a strategy to overcome it later. Conservative pundits often confuse this prudent approach with mediocrity or moral relativism.

The argument can be made that some of McCain’s conflicts with conservative critics have more to do with his creative and justified tactics than with unorthodox principles.

No matter the outcome of the Republican nomination, it is clearer to me now than ever before conservatives have a lot of work to do in the area of political philosophy. New generations of conservatives will encounter unfathomable challenges to their traditional values. Yes, they will always be able to look back to Ronald Reagan as a positive architect for his times, but unless they are bequeathed with a reasonable explanation for why this and that traditional value should be conserved, they will falter and they will fail.

Conservatism, as an exercise of common sense ethics, just doesn’t work any longer. We must dig deep and propose reasons for believing. The first politician to offer a reasonable foundation for conservative values will be the next Ronald Reagan. He will be the architect of a coalition of conscience.

John McCain may — or may not — be a conservative purist. But either way, his present need to convince Republicans that his principles are sound and true and that his unpopular tactics were politically prudent, will be very good for conservatives, and very good for America.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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