I have no idea whether this is Conor Friedersdorf taking our recent criticisms to heart or if this is something he’s been working on for awhile, but his debate with John Hawkins at Right Wing News – on Right Wing News’ turf, I might add – is precisely the sort of thing reform-minded conservatives should be doing more of. I still think Conor’s diagnosis of the problem is a bit off, but the tone and posture of his argument are right on the money. More importantly perhaps, simply by engaging in this debate with Hawkins, he goads Hawkins into a pretty solid response in which Hawkins makes some key admissions of the sort I’ve never seen from Hawkins in the past (admittedly, I’m not a regular reader). I strongly recommend both posts.
I’m not going to address Conor’s points, which are similar to points I’ve addressed in the past, but Hawkins’ points are both interesting and revealing.
Hawkins’ first point – that “moderates” seem to run the GOP – is his most obvious disagreement with Conor, who notes that the GOP leadership in recent years has had the full support of the conservative movement’s icons. I think Conor is closer to the truth here, especially since he acknowledges that those leaders have also had the support of GOP moderates, although Conor doesn’t do much to explain why these leaders have had the support of both moderates and movement conservatives. Hawkins, perhaps inadvertently, hits on this explanation in his third point – more on that in a second, though.
Hawkins’ second point is something of a straw man that comes about due to his faulty first point that moderates have been running the GOP trhe last 9 years. Specifically, he argues that the GOP has failed because of its willingness to expand the welfare state to obtain electoral advantage, which he implicitly blames on the “moderates.” Of course, the reality is that most so-called moderates, if you want to consider reformist conservatives “moderates,” want to see a reform of the welfare state to make it more efficient rather than an expansion thereof. But dialogues like this help to flesh this out rather than simply allowing the two camps to continue to make such flawed assumptions about each other.
Hawkins’ third point is his most important, though, because he gets the diagnosis of the problem right. It was, to say the least, a pleasant surprise to see that Hawkins’ diagnosis is almost exactly the same as my diagnosis. Specifically, Hawkins writes:
Conservatives WILL NOT win by following the “Reagan agenda” because Reagan’s agenda was designed, using conservative principles, to deal with the political situation of his day. Some of those battles have been won. Others have been irrevocably lost. Some have grown in importance. Others have lessened.
It’s too bad, for example, that Republicans weren’t really pushing health care reform during the Bush years. How about environmentalism? Instead of making it all about whether we buy into global warming alarmism, how about we emphasize a positive, reasonable clean air, clean water, clean environment agenda as opposed to the extremism offered by the Democrats? On trade, instead of just repeating the words “free trade” over and over, why aren’t conservatives demanding that our government reduce barriers to American manufacturing overseas? We can go on and on with examples like this one — and it’s important that we do so instead of relying on a static agenda.
Finally, Hawkins switches to the issue of facing the GOP’s demographic challenges. His thoughts on that issue are interesting, and amount to an implicit acknowledgement that the GOP’s continued problems with minority outreach stem in part from an overemphasis on tokenism rather than any kind of real outreach.
Anyhow, the back and forth is interesting and well worth a read. Both Conor and Hawkins deserve credit for their participation in this debate, Conor for having the gumption to directly address the base, and Hawkins for having the courage to acknowledge deep-seated problems with the conservative agenda. More reformers need to engage in these kinds of debates and more movement types need to be willing to accept the challenges presented by them. At some point, this will result in a base and, for lack of a better word, a wonk class that can work together again on an affirmative policy agenda rather than continuing to work against each other.