Any conservative leader who hopes to offer a compelling political alternative to the breathtaking liberalism of Barack Obama faces a diagnostic muddle: what is it that actually ails conservatism?
The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, one of Obama's most trenchant critics, sees a political movement that is "completely incoherent, fractured, and inconsistent." Jim DeMint, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, said: "I don't want us to have power until we have principles." Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council, warns that although religious conservatives reject Obama's social agenda, many no longer believe the Republican Party reflects their basic values. "And to the degree that the party is not moving with them," he says, "they are not going to move with it."
It suggests something about the Republican Party — something deeply disquieting — that its lead opposition figure is Dick Cheney, perhaps the most reviled former Vice-President in modern times. There are, to be sure, more attractive faces who might thwart Obama's worst domestic and foreign policy schemes — including Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina — but their influence is limited. Nor is conservatism getting much help from its think-tanks, which have proffered pathetically few new ideas to broaden its political appeal. The result, as one conservative columnist describes it, is a GOP that seems "determined to rule the kingdom of irrelevance".
The problem is a massive leadership void, a space being filled by radio and television personalities. Conservative media draw important battle lines, but they also duplicate the vices of the political Left: contempt for opponents, rigid political orthodoxy, and a habit of preaching to the converted. It is a doleful irony that conservatives who trumpet the legacy of Ronald Reagan mostly ignore the great strength of his political appeal — his determination to join moral certitude with a politics of inclusion, his ability to advance conservative principles with plain talk and moral suasion.
These skills are essential in the adulatory age of Obama. No conservative challenge to liberalism can succeed which discards its core ideals, especially a belief in the dignity of human life in all its stages. Yet such conservatism should be in the spirit of the late Jack Kemp, who blended traditional values, fiscal discipline, and a genuine concern for minorities and the urban poor. Likewise, Obama's foreign policy must be confronted by a conservatism anchored in moral realism: confidence in the enduring appeal of American democracy, tempered by a sober view of its limits in an undemocratic and often violent world. "America is still the abiding alternative to tyranny," Reagan said. "That is our purpose in the world — nothing more and nothing less." Until conservatives produce national leaders with a renewed sense of purpose — morally coherent and powerfully defended-they can expect a long sojourn in the wilderness.