Weary of Wonkery
Whether the next four years are spend under an Obama administration or a McCain administration, one thing that may be said with certainty is that conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success — and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism. Either administration will be enough to make principled conservatives cringe — though I think that an Obama one would visit greater damage upon the country.
There are lots of contenders out there wanting present the new conservative policies that will bring the GOP back to relevance. Ross Douthat is very much at the forefront of that, with his Grand New Party out in bookstores.
And there are plenty of interesting proposals out there from a consumption or flat tax to a per capita income tax to private retirement accounts replacing Social Security to college scholarship programs for public service programs to proposals for a radical overhaul of the US elementary education system. Many of these are interesting, some of them are admirable, and perhaps a few are good ideas. And yet as one combs through all the contenders for the next killer platform plank, a certain weariness sets in, at least for this particular conservative. Because the fact is that policies are not our daily bread. Indeed, ideally, government policies should have fairly little impact on our daily lives. We should be able to go through most days busy with the doings of our families, churches and businesses and not really have it impinge on us often what state or country we live in.
This, it seems to me, is the dilemma of the policy wonk — and the conservative one in particular. Perhaps this is otherwise for progressives (I leave it to our principled progressive readers to speak to that point) but for conservatives the activities and policies of the state ought not impinge on one’s daily life much. The state should keep us from being attacked, but not involve us in unneeded conflicts; help those in desperate need because of natural disaster, unemployment or illness, but not insert itself and its programs into the normal and natural cycle of life, work, education and leisure; enforce laws and punish crimes for the common good, but not seek to proscriptively rule every aspect of citizens lives.
In this regard, the conservative movement is in a difficult position if it seeks to bring itself back to prominence through coming up with exciting new policies that everyone will love, because at a fairly basic level, the remolding society through detailed government policies is fundamentally un-conservative. (And also, I would argue, unrealistic.)
So conservatives are faced with a difficult task as they find their way again and seek to rebuild their movement: We must present a politically attractive and viable message while at the same time convincingly communicating to people that not every problem is a nail for which the federal government is the ideal hammer. This is hard, especially when running for federal office, in that one’s message then becomes, “Vote for me. I’ll present a vision for our country in which I can’t fix all your problems.”
When running against someone whose message is essentially, “Vote for me; I can fix all your problems.” This requires that one be a much better communicator and a communicate a much more attractive cultural vision than one’s opponent. And right now, the opposing candidate is a very good communicator.