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That Packer Piece

3:59 PM, May 22, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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I finally got around to reading that George Packer piece in the New Yorker that heralds the fall of conservatism and that everyone is talking about. I would offer the old "read the whole thing," but it's awfully long, kind of rambling and not particularly insightful. So instead I'll say have a trusted friend read the whole thing and highlight it. Once that's done, you can just read go ahead and read the highlights. It will save you about an hour.

Pronouncing the death of political movements is a facile thing, especially when one appears as down in the mouth as conservatism appears at this moment. But in truth, it's not conservatism that's down in the mouth, but the politicians and the party that conservatives entrusted to carry out conservative principles that are in peril.

Much of Packer's article focuses on political tactics and strategy, particularly the uniquely craven ones devised and implemented by Richard Nixon and a young Pat Buchanan. What Packer never completely acknowledges is that politics is supposed to be only the means, not the ends. One of the reasons so many nostalgic conservatives tiresomely invoke Ronald Reagan is that Reagan often seems like the last successful Republican politician to fully personify that standard. Not only did Reagan come to office with a full set of conservative principles to guide him, he only sought office because his passion for those principles compelled him to do so.

American conservatism has a set of core principles that includes a belief in free markets, free people, and in the greatness of the American people and the American nation. Those principles are timeless. They are also pure and, in the eyes of conservatives, true. The principles in turn should dictate conservative policy. Here's how it shouldn't work: The hideous farm bill that passed the senate this week violates just about every conservative tenet imaginable, but still got a thumbs up from a lot of Republicans. That's a disappointment. But it's also a reminder that the Republican party and conservatism aren't one in the same. In spite of devoting roughly 97,000 words to his story, Packer never stumbled upon that simple fact.

Yes, the Republican politicians entrusted to put conservative principles into action have proven a disappointment as a class. But the Republican party faces such difficulties this year because of its inability or unwillingness to govern according to its conservative core principles. The principles themselves remain solid. And they'll remain solid and relevant well beyond 2008.