Friday, January 02, 2009

Constitutional Conservatism

Each political party has a constant ongoing debate about policy, priority, and methodology. This debate within the GOP started to get more lively during 2006 when a number of harbingers warned of trouble for the party in that year’s elections. Since the party’s deplorable performance in the 2008 election, this debate has reached boiling point.

There have been countless calls from members of the party’s various factions for ideological purity. In essence, some members of differing factions either want to excommunicate those that don’t agree with them or else divorce themselves from what they see as an uncomfortable union to seek for a better alliance.

It is difficult for me to see how breaking up the present GOP coalition will result in better achieving the main goals of any faction than in the current coalition. As Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz explains in this WSJ article, “Slice and dice citizens' opinions and voting patterns in the 50 states as you like, neither social conservatives nor libertarian conservatives can get to 50% plus one without the aid of the other.”

The obvious answer seems to be what usually works long term in politics: focus on the areas of greatest agreement and forge a coherent and feasible approach to those matters. Accept that you don’t get everything you want, but that you can sometimes get others to accept something important to you in exchange for supporting something important to them.

Oh, there are other methods of gaining political power, such as Stalin-like ruthlessness, wearing your opponents down through tenacity until they decide to cut you loose (American Revolution), etc. But all of these come at a much higher cost than simple political give and take, so that they should be undertaken only at greatest need.

As for what unites the GOP’s diverse factions, Berkowitz suggests principled “constitutional conservatism.” He cites the following principles: “individual freedom and individual responsibility, limited but energetic government, economic opportunity and strong national defense.”

Berkowitz says that “constitutional conservatism provides a framework for developing a distinctive agenda for today's challenges to which social conservatives and libertarian conservatives can both, in good conscience, subscribe.” He lists nine items that should lead the agenda. I can already see from the list that there is a lot of room for debate about what should be on the list, as well as room for a great depth of debate within each item on the list.

When the chips are down, it’s best to dig down and remember what your core principles are. You can then deal with each matter according to those principles instead of falling back on practiced tactical responses that still leave you without an appropriate anchor.

In this case, there is a coalition whose members must realize that they need each other. The coalition must then figure out what its base principles are — not what other factions can be browbeaten to accept, but where general consensus already exists. Once those principles are understood, the coalition will have a solid basis for dealing with issues as they arise.

This approach might not bring immediate success. But if the principles are tried and true, it will eventually bring long term success.

3 comments:

The Lady Logician said...

Great minds must indeed think alike. I saw that column this morning and tagged it to post on tonight when I got home from work.

You are absolutely correct - these time honored principles will bring the Republican Party back out of the wilderness

Paul Mero said...

Thanks for the link and the post.

David said...

Thanks for sharing that article. I've never been quite comfortable with the idea of being identified as a libertarian or a member of the "religious right." Constitutional conservatism seems to strike the right balance of coupling individual responsibility with individual liberty.

After reading the article I intend to post on it, but maybe I'll wait to see what LL writes so I can build off of her (if my thoughts on the article are related to whatever she chooses to write).