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Conservatism in crisis

| Monday, Dec. 4, 2006

So, what happened to conservatism or to conservatism as it's been practiced by the current crop of D.C. Republicans•

Was too much spending the problem or not enough• Would more billions in pork for more bridges to nowhere have bought enough votes to prevent a Republican defeat• Are we that much for sale, that self-seeking and irrational•

Or was too much theocracy the problem -- or not enough• There's no shortage of rumblings from the religious right about how America's "values voters" weren't so enthusiastic this time around about getting the church buses rolling to the polls because the Republicans didn't much deliver on the faith-based agenda.

Darwin's still in the libraries, not every kid is in abstinence-only classes, the sodomy laws are gone, condoms and abortion are still legal, and not every transgendered Democrat has been signed up for one of those we'll-change-your-orientation camps.

Or were tax cuts the problem or not enough tax cuts• Would more tax cuts aimed 'at the bottom and middle have kept the Reagan-Democrats from going home?

Or was it the war or not enough war• Would Rick Santorum still have a job if Bush had nuked Baghdad•

Or wouldn't the "San Fransicko" strategy have worked its magic if only Rev. Haggard and Rep. Foley had stayed in the closet for a few more weeks•

Conservative pundit Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review magazine, doesn't deny that conservatism is in trouble. "Conservatism is in crisis," he writes in a recent cover article in National Review. "Everyone is saying so, and everyone is right. But the nature of the crisis, its causes and possible solution, is badly misunderstood."

Rather than seeing conservatism as an ideology that's in trouble, Ponnuru asserts that it's the Bush administration's mismanagement that caused the Republican defeat -- Katrina, Iraq, the scandals.

He has a point. Perhaps more than a philosophical swing from conservatism, voters were looking at the nuts and bolts of Katrina, seeing bodies floating in a river for five days in a major American city and watching the same inept administration start a war through deceit and lose it through incompetence.

Voters, as well, had seen the scandals unfold, the subsequent cover-ups, the explosion of earmarks, the Abramoff payoffs, the hypocritical sanctimony of the Mark Foley types and the mocking politics of dissection that sought to win by carving up a nation into incongruent and antagonistic camps of believers and unbelievers, straights and gays, immigrants and native-borns, modernists and fundamentalists, patriots and wimps, pragmatists and true believers, givers and takers.

Arguing that conservatism's crisis is "badly misunderstood," Ponnuru offers a policy prescription that's sure not to sit too well with those who support freedom, both economic and social.

"Social conservatism is an asset to Republicans," he writes, "and economic conservatism a liability."

That sounds like a call for more faith-based tax hikes, perhaps for more wars, because, as the president has explained, God wants men to be free. Domestically, it looks like a call for more government flashlights in the bedrooms and fewer dollars in our wallets.

Looking back, Ponnuru, a summa cum laude graduate from Princeton's history department, says that "winning Republican candidates have owed their elections to social conservatives over the last generation."

Ponnuru cites (and dismisses) a recent Cato Institute article, "The Libertarian Vote," by David Kirby and David Boaz.

Defining libertarians as those who "oppose government intrusion into both the economy and personal freedoms," Kirby and Boaz report that their research shows 15 percent of U.S. voters to be libertarian rather than liberal or conservative. Gallup regularly puts the number five points higher at 20 percent.

"In a closely divided electorate," write Kirby and Boaz, "that's clearly enough to swing elections," a group that's larger than "the fabled 'soccer moms' or 'NASCAR dads.'"

Citing Bush's record on "excessive federal spending, expansion of entitlements, the federal marriage amendment, government spying and the war in Iraq," Kirby and Boaz report that the "libertarian vote for Bush dropped from 72 to 59 percent" from 2000 to 2004, "while the libertarian vote for the Democratic nominee almost doubled."

Ponnuru isn't convinced: "If over the last generation the Republicans had not absorbed the statist social conservatives at the price of losing some libertarians, it would have remained a minority party."

The answer is to dump libertarians and impose a statist social conservatism• Theocracy anyone?

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