What Parts of the New Deal Do 'True Conservatives' Want to Scrap?

National Review's good advice for the Tea Party, and an attempt to undercut it from the right
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To save the Tea Party from itself, National Review editors Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have published a smart, overdue warning against "apocalyptic conservative politics," a term they defined for anyone who hasn't been paying attention.

"It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation," they write. "It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic—raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom—and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle."

They challenge the mistaken premise that guides this approach to politics:

That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C.—or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.

These are hard truths that movement conservatives need to hear. In bearing the bad news, National Review exhibited both courage and deep respect for its audience. The Economist explains the article's importance at greater length. Kevin Drum notices what it stopped short of saying. But who cares what those liberals think anyway? National Review's audience doesn't. 

The magazine has its share of independent-minded readers, but insofar as the NR audience is going to be persuaded about whether to react openly or angrily to the piece, they're much more likely to factor in the opinion of RedState's Erick Erickson.

He hated the article. His biting critiques are sometimes analytically sound, but not this time. This is mostly name-calling and question-begging. (See for yourself.) But one thread is worthy of comment. Erickson begins by quoting something William F. Buckley wrote in 1955 (emphasis added):

Conservatives in this country—at least those who have not made their peace with the New Deal, and there is serious question whether there are others—are non-licensed nonconformists; and this is dangerous business in a Liberal world, as every editor of this magazine can readily show by pointing to his scars. Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.

Says Erickson, "National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal, moving beyond Buckley. For that matter, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and most of the defunders have largely made their peace with the New Deal. And still National Review is too timid to join the merry band of defunders themselves too timid to approach the parameters under which William F. Buckley started his charge."

Do you know what I suspect, dear reader? That 95 percent of movement conservatives have made peace with the New Deal, but dare not admit it, sometimes even to themselves; and that self-appointed tribal enforcers are happy to exploit the doublethink on this subject by opportunistically trotting out the accusation—Why, these RINOs made peace with the New Deal!—as if none of the conservatives who they consider to be icons would dare make peace with any of it. 

Well. Here's an excerpt from a May 21, 1981, letter that President Reagan sent to Congress. The subject is a proposal to reform Social Security to extend its solvency:

This Administration is not wedded to any single solution; this Administration welcomes the opportunity to consult with Congress and with private groups on this matter. Our sole commitment—and it is a commitment we will steadfastly maintain—is to three basic principles:

— First, this nation must preserve the integrity of the Social Security trust fund and the basic benefit structure that protects older Americans.

— Second, we must hold down the tax burden on the workers who support Social Security.

— Finally, we must eliminate all abuses in the system that can rob the elderly of their rightful legacy.

It is clear that the half-actions of the past are no longer sufficient for the future. It is equally clear that we must not let partisan differences or political posturing prevent us from working together. Therefore, I have today asked Secretary Schweiker to meet with you and other leaders of the Congress as soon as possible to launch a bipartisan effort to save Social Security

Of course, Erickson didn't specifically mention Social Security. So I wonder: what parts of the New Deal does he hope to reverse that National Review wants to keep? Perhaps there actually is a significant difference of opinion and I just can't think of what it is. So how about it, Erick? What parts would you like to see the Tea Party fight to undo? And where do you think you're in disagreement with National Review? (Full disclosure: One of my favorite reforms ever happened during the New Deal era.)

Absent a persuasive answer, I'll have presume that invoking the New Deal is empty bluster—especially in this case, where Lowry and Ponnuru argue that the GOP should pursue a way forward that has nothing to do with the New Deal, pro or con.

What do they advise in place of apocalyptic politics?

... the kind of normal conservative politics that our Constitution envisions. The end of that politics is preserving and restoring, as necessary, our constitutional order, while applying it to new challenges. Its means are presenting platforms, persuading voters, winning elections, and setting policy, sometimes heroically and excitingly, more often competently and reliably. These things can be done well or badly—and in recent years no faction of the party has a great track record—but they have to be done.

The near-term tool at the disposal of this politics is the U.S. House. It can stop most foolish ideas, raise popular issues that cause trouble for Democrats, and make future Republican electoral gains and then policy victories possible. It can strike the occasional deal that on balance advances the public interest and the conservative cause. This isn’t much, but it isn’t nothing, which is what Republicans had in 2009 and 2010.

For the country to be governed conservatively, however, conservatives have to win more elections .... There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues.

Their advice is sound.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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