Innovators vs. Conservatives

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate has clearly energized his campaign.

It has also touched off a furious debate among innovators and conservatives within the Republican Party.

Two days after Ryan was announced, reporters Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico:

In more than three dozen interviews with Republican strategists and campaign operatives — old hands and rising next-generation conservatives alike — the most common reactions to Ryan ranged from gnawing apprehension to hair-on-fire anger that Romney has practically ceded the election.

The Wall Street Journal responded the next day (in unusually coarse language) with an editorial, “The Bedwetter Caucus”:

Republicans who believe in something can console themselves in knowing that these “pros” are reflecting the Washington conventional wisdom. Nearly everyone in the Beltway thinks it’s impossible to reform entitlements like Medicare, and or (sic) even to restrain the size of government, so why would a candidate be foolish enough to try?… [T]he “pros” willing to shoot their candidate in the back are one more reason that voters have contempt for the political class, and why most Republicans who don’t live in Washington are delighted with the choice of Mr. Ryan.

By Friday, columnist Charles Krauthammer, of The Washington Post, a Tea Party favorite, was practically ready to write off 2012 and move on to 2016. .

[W]hile Romney is the present, Ryan is the future. Romney’s fate will be determined on Nov. 6. Ryan’s presence, assuming he acquits himself well in the campaign, will extend for decades…  Mild and moderate Mitt Romney will have shaped the conservative future for years to come.

How to make sense of this turmoil?  It helps to take a long view.  What’s going on is sometimes spoken of as a battle for the mastery of the “commanding heights.” It is better understood as a contest for control of the narrative of civic life – for leadership of what used to be called the “vanguard of history.”

Narrative politics has always been a matter of two opposing sensibilities, innovation vs. conservatism. Emerson put it this way in an essay, “The Conservative,” in 1841, more than a hundred and seventy years ago.

…. Innovation is the salient energy; Conservatism the pause on the last movement… The castle which conservatism is set to defend is the actual state of things, good and bad….Conservatism never puts the foot forward; in the hour when it does that, it is not establishment but reform.

Never mind the broad contours of US history since then – the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, all that.  Fast forward to the 1970s. It was then that ideas which had long been described as “conservative” seized control of the initiative, not just in the United States but around the world.

Of the various planks of this platform, the best compendium was to be found in Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman, a 1962 book which provided a blueprint of sorts for Barry Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964. Because Goldwater was overwhelmingly defeated, his platform seemed to have been rejected.  Yet, from a variety of sources, it kept coming until, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. (Reagan had delivered a famous speech on behalf of Goldwater in 1964.)

Was this innovation or conservatism?  Reasonable people can differ. To me, the Reagan presidency has always seemed fundamentally conservative, more given to defending “the actual state of things, good and bad” than making radical changes in it. For all the talk of a “Reagan revolution,” his administration was mainly about the stewardship of policies established long before:  market processes, monetary stability, progressive taxation, countercyclical fiscal policy and the strong safety net that is the Social Security System.

But there is no doubt about what happened next. In the 90s, an obscure Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich assumed the intellectual leadership of the Republican Party and declared for something he called the “Opportunity Society.” This was not merely a matter of defeating the imperious reorganization of health care that had been proposed by President Bill Clinton. This program was intended to roll back policies that Reagan had left in place.

Nor was it just political entrepreneurs who plunged ahead — Gingrich and Congressman Jack Kemp (R-NY), who had made an unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination. Thoughtful acolytes of Milton Friedman took leading roles as well.  Martin Feldstein, of Harvard University, proposed privatizing Social Security. Robert Hall, of Stanford University, advocated a flat tax. This was innovation, for sure. It was here that Ryan first came onto the scene, as an intern in Kemp’s Congressional office.

Meanwhile, traditional liberals in the 1990s – “progressives” in their increasingly preferred terminology – hadn’t gone away. With Clinton in the White House, they searched for their next big idea:  Inequality? Climate change? Industrial policy (meaning, at that time, mainly the Internet)? The rise of China as an adversary?  Health care?

Thus, beginning in the ’90s, two quite different slates began competing for the role of dominant innovator in a political narrative in which there is room for only one for years at a time – decades, probably.

And then, after 2001, George W. Bush sought to put the Opportunity Society program into practice, cutting taxes dramatically in his first term and making privatization of Social Security the domestic priority of his second.

The Bush program was firmly rejected, first in Democratic Congressional victories in 2006, then by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008.  And by choosing to pursue health care reorganization when he had the opportunity to do so (Democratic majorities in both houses), Obama probably set the political innovation agenda for the next ten years.  Major battles loom, of course. But it is unlikely that universal care and broad federal supervision will be reversed.

It is this prospect, presumably, that has made the Republican innovators campaign so desperately these last few years. The Tea Party emerged in the 2010 election and moved to the ideological front. Other innovative sects within the GOP (neo-conservatives, supply-siders, libertarians and others) gradually have become indistinguishable from them. The insurgents sense that it is now or never for their program. True conservatives – bedwetters and backstabbers, in Tea Party parlance – have shrunk back.

The 2012 race is now being spoken of as a “base” election – one party base against the other, with very few undecided voters. But it really is a battle for the leadership of the GOP.

I expect the Democrats to dominate this election (and probably the next), the Tea Party to slowly shrink, the caucus of Republican pragmatists to grow, until one day the GOP credibly offers to take over and improve stewardship of what the innovators have accomplished, and, with that desirable “pause on the last movement,”  the cycle to go forward as before.

5 responses to “Innovators vs. Conservatives”

  1. I expect the Democrats to dominate this election….

    The Democrats may win, but the race seems close with 100 days left to go.

    Domination implies not just winning, but winning big. And I don’t see that at this time.

  2. This framework for understanding the present political fracas, especially in the way it identifies the essentially un-conservative nature of the current GOP, seems really useful to me. It makes sense to me that the missing element in our current political process is a genuinely conservative party–and my guess is that when commentators talk about the missing “moderate” wing of each party what they are describing is the absence of this necessary element to a functional system.

    I never thought I would miss the Reagan years–of course, I was a bit more idealistic, radical, and unschooled by experience in those years–but it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a sort of aggressive conservatism in the face of a kind of irrational “innovationism” that is ultimately quite incoherent.

    I’ve always prized the cool quality of Obama’s approach to the messy hand he picked up, and I’m not sure enough has been written yet about his use of Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy for fighting forward, laying back on the ropes in a way that looks like weakness but is really about bringing the biggest knife to a knife fight.

    It has seemed to me that if he is re-elected, which I agree seems likely, then this phase of innovation may pick up a good deal of steam. I wonder whether that will force further retreat into radicalism on the part of the GOP, or enable a shift back toward the system that was disrupted in the 1990s as you describe.

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