Ideology And Policy

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While we wait for history (of some sort, either way) to be made, I just wanted to pull out this passage from Yuval's post yesterday on the looming fights over how to reform conservatism:

... these fights need to be had on substantive grounds. Rush Limbaugh and Ross Douthat may disagree about what was best about Ronald Reagan, but do they disagree about the McCain health care plan? I think they don't. The challenge for conservatives if we find ourselves in the minority in the next few years will be to offer substantive conservative-minded specifics as alternatives to the Democrats' proposals. The philosophical arguments about the nature of conservatism are important and interesting, we all should and will engage in them. How could we resist? That we have such arguments is one of the greatest strengths of the conservative movement in America. But they will not yield conclusions, and in themselves they won't do much either way for our electoral fortunes either. Substantive ideas and arguments will, and they will help conservatives unite as well. How and why social, fiscal, and national security conservatives belong under one tent is a lot harder to argue in theoretical terms than it is in practical terms. And there is a deep conservative philosophical truth there, a Burkean truth: politics must be practical and not just theoretical.

I agree - but I trust Yuval would agree with me when I note that in the end, forging a new Republican agenda will require right-wingers to make ideological compromises about what conservatives should stand for, and not just transcend their differences through really smart policy. Ramesh Ponnuru can design and redesign his family-friendly tax proposals to his heart's content, but he isn't going to persuade Kimberley Strassel on the merits unless she and the rest of the Wall Street Journal editorial board become convinced that they need to significantly temper their vision of a GOP oriented around supply-side purism. (Or to take the matter in reverse, no brilliantly-designed new set of tax proposals from the WSJ crowd is likely to persuade Ramesh that the GOP's big problem is too much "braying" against abortion.) Similarly, Jim Manzi can propose new directions for the Right on global warming until the polar bears come home, but he and Rush Limbaugh aren't going to agree on policy so long as Rush persists in his view that climate change is just a liberal hoax. And so forth.

There are some debates where policy innovation can help right-wing thinkers find common ground, certainly - especially in cases like health care, where the intra-conservative battle lines aren't already drawn in blood. And policy innovation is a good thing no matter how much common ground it generates in the "whither conservatism" debates. But no matter how smart the wonks involved, there are going to be a lot of issues where the right-of-center candidates of the future are just going to have to decide in one side's favor, and let the other side(s) gnash their teeth.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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