Patrick Ruffini (here, here, and here) and I (here and here) have been discussing the lefty blogosphere movement and what the right can learn from it. But it appears that we landed in the place that the right needs to reinvent itself. The question is how.

Now Patrick makes a detailed argument, but let me work from the end. He said:

A new conservative movement would, as the gravitational pull of these things go, make the GOP more conservative. And that would mean largely undoing the Bush legacy in domestic policy. A new agenda will not come from the pages of the New York Times or the Atlantic.

I wonder… Is this a case of the winners rewriting history? Take the tax-cut example. Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative hero, voted against the Kennedy tax cuts, and Richard Nixon also opposed it. As Jack Kemp noted:

Before Ronald Reagan came along, Republicans couldn’t propose ideas to move America forward because the party was obsessed with deficits. Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater opposed the Kennedy tax cuts – exactly the situation the Democratic Party finds itself in today.

Now, one can ask whether, in the context of either the mid-60s or mid-70s, tax-cutters were more "conservative" than deficit hawks. Was JFK more conservative than the GOP? Or did Reagan re-define conservativism?

One might ask what the Reagan team was thinking when they went with tax-cuts. One of them once told me that they realized in the late 70s that you can’t fight a handout with green eyeshades. So they found economic and political rationales for a "conservative" handout. In fact, there were other economic and philosophical arguments that made sense. But those were new arguments and different from the ones that Kennedy was pushing. With Reagan, "lower taxes" trumped "lower deficits". Indeed, I am often struck that the argument that tax cuts lead to higher revenue is not an argument about small government, is it?

Now, I’m not disagreeing with Reagan. I am just pointing out that prior to Reagan, a tax-cutting agenda without spending cuts might not have been considered "conservative." They found a "conservative" rationale for a politically attractive policy that had been "liberal" and redefined conservatism in the process. They found a new conservative principle that was in conflict with the old one. Clearly Bush tried to re-define conservatism. As Reihan Salam noted about the much maligned No Child Left Behind:

Again, while I have qualms about NCLB, standards do tend to mean supervision. Perhaps this is a mistake. But the call for standards and accountability is recognizably conservative, and the call for a competent and capable effort to put standards and accountability in practice follows pretty naturally.

Here, perhaps, Bush tried to redefine "conservativism" as applied to education from "small government" (ie, abolish the federal Department of Education) to "accountability."

There are a number of principles that we could change. "Competition" could replace "lassez faire." (for example markets based on complicated kinds of regulatory property like emissions trading, water or mineral rights separate from property rights, or IPR) "Accountability" could replace "small government." (like NCLB) Clearly, in many cases, "federalism" means more "bureaucracy," (more AFSCME socialism) when you are talking about 50 different state regulatory regimes of cable, credit cards,  insurance, etc.

The upshot is that there are lots and lots of places for the party to go. Many of them do not lie on the left-right axis.

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2 Comments

neil · June 3, 2007 at 10:48 AM

Bush tried to redefine “conservativism” as applied to education from “small government” (ie, abolish the federal Department of Education) to “accountability.”

Sorry if this is unwelcome, but you gotta be kidding. Bush’s administration has gutted federal recordkeeping, filled government agencies with incompetent cronies, promoted ideology above competence in everything from the military to the Department of Justice, blamed underlings for the decisions of superiors every time the latter come into question.

The small government shoe fits better, though that’s not saying much. There are some parts of the government he wants to cut, but none where he values accountability.

And this is not a liberal critique — I agree that this issue doesn’t lie on the left-right axis. To connect this with the actual topic of discussion, one big difference that I see between the netroots and the official sphere of Democratic politicking is that the netroots care a lot more about issues like this, while the Democrats would prefer not to make too big of a deal out of it, lest they invite too much scrutiny whenever they get a chance to play the same game.

Patrick Ruffini :: Salam, Douthat, and the Movement · June 11, 2007 at 4:31 PM

[…] UPDATE: Soren Dayton chimes in again with an excellent post on redefinition. It’s an interesting history lesson. It was no accident that JFK was the one championing tax cuts. Indeed, most conservatives opposed them. (Barry Goldwater voted no.) We were obsessed with deficits first, as a way of stopping new government entitlements. […]

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