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In This Present Time, Sustainable Conservatism

2:05 PM, Mar 13, 2013 • By FRED BAUER
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Four of the most lamentably omitted words in American politics are the following: "in this present crisis." Conventional references to Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address note his declaration that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Reagan actually said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Omitting those first four words does a significant damage to the legacy of Reagan---and also poses problems for the future of conservatism and the GOP after 2012. Those four words show the methodological conservatism of Reagan's temperament: Rather than making ideological declarations for all time, Reagan is speaking to his own time.  Reagan does not denounce all functions of government (the Gipper was no anarchist) but notes specific kinds of government dysfunction and a specific crisis that needs solving by a reform of government. Sometimes, this "reform" may involve a paring-back of government intervention, but sometimes it might involve other changes or even, perhaps, an expansion of government (say, for example, by increasing defense spending).

There is a temptation among some on the right to believe that government is always the problem and that the corresponding solution is always the reduction of government. While maintaining a limited government is a very worthy goal, a monomaniacal obsession with shrinking the government at all costs can make one blind to the fact that even a shrinking government must be administered. And a bad application of government powers can undermine the broader social conditions necessary for maintaining a small government. For example, the poor financial and mortgage regulations of the the 2000s helped lead to the cataclysm of 2007 and 2008 and the corresponding explosion in government spending made possible by this cataclysm. Conservatives must also cope with the fact that, especially in this era of declining wages and great economic uncertainty, many Americans are quite happy with an active federal government.

All these points have a bearing on the possible restoration of Republicans and conservatives after the debacle of 2012. Even as Washington settles into another battle over the budget, an increasing number of conservative writers (and a few elected officials) are becoming aware of the fact that anti-government platitudes are losing their electoral punch and of the need for conservatism to be about more than the budget. Now is probably not the space to give a laundry list of the names of pundits who have considered conservative reform, but it might be worthwhile to turn to a recent online debate between Hot Air's Ed Morrissey and the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis as revealing two major trends for the future of conservatism---and to look at what a synthesis of these approaches could mean.

Lewis has suggested the value of a return to a "compassionate conservatism," one that would go beyond celebrating selfishness to think of our broader commitments to one another. This interest in rehabilitating compassionate conservatism can be seen more widely on certain parts of the right (Peter Wehner's and Michael Gerson's recent cover story in Commentary, for instance, seems informed by this impulse). Morrissey has proposed instead the value of a "practical conservatism," which would focus on reforming rather than blowing up many of the institutions that have become central to American public life since the New Deal (such as Social Security). This theme also percolates throughout various sectors of the reformist wing of the right. Perhaps I might pose a synthesizing variant of these two: "sustainable conservatism." The goal of such a conservatism would involve nurturing the public and private institutions and tendencies that help sustain a free republic. It seems as though maintaining a free republic demands, among other things, faith in government and the rule of law, a sense of civic participation, a belief in personal freedom, virtue on the part of its citizens (and especially its government officials), and some kind of wisdom or prudence. Sustainable conservatism would seek to foster these tendencies in order to renew the civic compact.  

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