Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Charles R. Kesler writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that it is ridiculous for conservatives to blame Republicans “for the drubbing they took at the polls” in November. The real problem, he suggests, is that there is no broad agreement on what conservatism means today.
Kesler outlines the recent history of the conservative movement. His basic thesis is that conservatism has fallen victim to its own success. He doesn’t put it that way. He writes, “After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism lost the urgent motivation provided by anti-Communism.” Since that time, he posits, conservatism has come to mean different things to different people. It’s like a teenager trying to find itself.
George W. Bush was able to cobble together a vision of conservatism that was at least somewhat acceptable to most conservatives. But his “compassionate conservatism eviscerated the GOP's reform ambitions,” Kesler writes. “By abandoning the public case for limited government, Bush's spiritless conservatism left the administration, and especially Congress, adrift and spendthrift.”
I think that it’s pretty clear that many that more or less hew to conservative principles are quite disappointed in the Republicans’ general lack of fiscal restraint over the last half decade. But I doubt that many of them would see themselves as part of the problem, as Kesler asserts.
But all is not lost. Kesler says that “there are verities to which the wise and good may always repair, and conservatism is distinguished by its reverence for them.” But he says that it is a necessary and exhilarating challenge to relearn them “in every generation, restated in the idiom of life, and applied to new circumstances.”
Striking a note of hope, Kesler concludes that “conservatism's perplexities may contribute to making this the most illuminating political season in 30 years.” It might, but I’m not holding my breath. None of the major candidates I have seen come across as a cogent spokesman for revering the “verities” to which Kesler refers. Conservatives will surely eventually unite behind someone, but it is likely to be a coalition of convenience rather than a band of converts.