Small-Tent Conservatives

My goodness, professional conservative activists and commentators certainly are busy these days trying to put up a pup (rather than a three-ring) tent for the GOP. A few weeks ago, it was social conservatives reading Giuliani out of the party. Now, in an almost Sicilian revenge pattern, several free-market, low-tax conservatives are coming after Mike Huckabee with baseball bats — or perhaps with badminton rackets (given the elite Eastern origins of the attackers.)

One prominent conservative commentator last week, whose writing and judgment I usually admire, warned us that Huckabee was yet another in a long line of "Southern Poor-boy Populist Demagogue(s).

"Think Huey Long or George Wallace, James K. Vardaman or ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman, to name the most salient examples of this genus. … Even so canny a politician as Franklin Roosevelt feared Huey Long, for Long’s motivational skills among a huge segment of the Roosevelt Coalition."

Forgive me, but while I never met Huey Long, I have met, sat down, broken bread and talked with Mike Huckabee. He is no more like Huey Long than our pet kitten "Tiger" is like his jungle beast namesake. Huey Long’s use of his state police to bully Louisiana politicians and businesses (as well as his vicious demagogic rhetoric) earned him the dubious place he has in our history. As far as I can tell, Huckabee’s worst sins are refusing to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge and expressing in word and policy some limited sympathy for the working poor of Arkansas.

While I support Norquist’s pledge and hold a hard-line position on illegals, it is absurd to consign Huckabee to some ideologically dangerous, nondemocratic, political zombie graveyard. Free-market, low-tax conservatives may point with alarm at Huckabee’s policies if they wish. But what is it in the conservative drinking water recently that gives rise to such bilious language and such excluding ways of thinking?

It would behoove those of us who have been conservative Washington voices for some decades now to exercise a little modesty and humility when it comes to defining what will constitute the new, winning, principled conservatism for the next generation. National conservatism has won more elections than it has lost in the past quarter-century. But in the absence of a completely dysfunctional Democratic Party, we are not likely to continue to do so in the future with exactly the same talking points and programs we have held in the past.

Once before, conservatism had to change: before we gained national support. When I entered conservative politics in 1963, conservatism opposed, for example, federal aid to education, the proposed Medicare program and the Voting Rights Act. Today, there are few, if any, elected conservatives who would vote to outright repeal Medicare, the Voting Rights Act or cut off all federally subsidized college loans.

Similarly, today the conservative GOP unconditionally opposes any limitations on free trade — despite the rise of China and India, the lowering of our wage growth rates, the hollowing out of our industrial base and the reduction of U.S. economic dominance in the world. And it opposes any tax increase for any reason.

I am not prepared to abandon our vigorous free trade policies or support a tax increase. I have yet to see a convincing argument against low taxes and free markets. But neither am I prepared to consign to beyond the pale my fellow conservatives who no longer see unadulterated free trade in the national interest. Nor will I categorically write off those who sense that even conservative voters may, under some circumstances, be prepared to pay with taxes for wanted government programs (such as transportation at the state and local levels.)

As a Burkean conservative, I believe in the organic development of our institutions and methods. It has always been the left that, with the unjustified intellectual pride of the atheist, attempts to impose man-made party ideologies on his fellow man — rather than let our civilization slowly unfold through the fuller play out of our character, institutions and values.

But Burke also wrote, "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation." So too, conservatism needs the means for change.

And yet today, it is many of my fellow conservatives — both social and economic — who insist on an ideological and programmatic purity, even as a baffling and fast-changing world has only just begun to humble the conceit of the overconfident and certain.