View all Articles
Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Right in Line

Conservative priorities.

An NRO Symposium

Congress is back in town this week as the Bush administration begins packing and the Obama administration comes into being. As Republicans and conservatives — not always the same thing — regroup, what are the most important principles for conservatives to bear in mind?

Mona Charen

Conservatives are guided by a number of cautions that liberals tend to disdain. Russell Kirk reminded us that “Liberals and radicals . . . are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away.” So the law of unintended consequences should be always at the forefront of our minds.

Another insight conservatives must remind liberals of — though this one is difficult — is to avoid demonizing whole segments of society and valorizing others. Liberals like to deprecate businessmen and extol “single mothers” for example. This is distressingly reminiscent of the communist pattern of praising “workers and peasants” while condemning “kulaks” and the “bourgeois.” Liberals tend to like the poor, homosexuals, women, and minorities while holding other groups in contempt. If Barack Obama is sincere in wanting “one America” then he has a duty to rein in his party’s tendency to treat people as subgroups, as hyphens, rather than as individuals.

In this era of bailouts, we must recall the common sense wisdom of Milton Friedman: There is no free lunch.

Finally, on the international front, we must never forget the most penetrating intuition of Ronald Reagan — weakness is provocative.

Michael G. Franc

All policy battles on Capitol Hill require an adult to temper the animal spirits and childishness that so often induce lawmakers to enact irrational and damaging laws. Conservatives will be expected to play that role in the months and years ahead.

Our mantra: If it’s too good to be true, then it’s too good to be true.

Whether the claim is that we can slash greenhouse-gas emissions painlessly by 80 percent while creating millions of “green” jobs; that our most productive citizens, including millions of small business owners, will continue to take risks, put in grueling 60-hour work weeks, and create jobs even as we single them out for large “patriotic” tax hikes; or that physicians and other health-care providers will keep their doors open to patients even as we give government bureaucrats enormous additional say over how they practice medicine, our role will be the same.

We must patiently explain why taxing or regulating noble things (like work, saving, and entrepreneurial risk-taking) means you’ll get less of what makes America great and why subsidizing other things (like idleness and single parenthood) means you’ll get more of the destructive behaviors that ultimately will drag us down. We must demand that lawmakers take the long view on the biggest domestic issue of our time — the entirely foreseeable fiscal meltdown that will come when the Boomers retire and begin to receive their Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits — and tackle it now rather than allow the fiscal waters to rise.

We must demonstrate that, so long as our alternatives are grounded in a proper appreciation and understanding of human nature and demand the best from our citizens, Americans will rise to the challenges ahead.

John Hood

As the Bush administration wraps up and Obamamania kicks into high gear, the first thing smart conservatives will do is to stay out of the picture for a bit. The American public is fearful about the future, hopeful that a new president will make things better, and proud that the country will have its first non-white president. They are in no mood for hardball politics. Silly potshots and clumsy jokes at Obama’s expense will just make conservatives and Republicans look like sore losers, or worse.

Early next year, however, as the new administration begins to fill out its ranks and fashion policies, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for critique and counterproposal. At the moment, Republicans need to pick new leaders and promote new faces to represent their tattered national party, while conservatives need to refurbish and renew their policy and communications infrastructure — from think tanks and grassroots groups to magazines, broadcast outlets, and online offerings. Now is the time for internal debate over political ideas and practical application. Now is the time to recruit new talent into the conservative movement. Now is the time to invest in new technologies, reach new audiences, and cultivate new donors. Yes, the financial meltdown is having a depressive effect on charitable giving and business investment, but in the coming months we are likely to see major new federal initiatives in such areas as national health care, labor legislation, environmental regulation, and energy policy. That’s the bad news. The good news is that an increasing number of American entrepreneurs, investors, and families will come to see that these initiatives are aimed at them, not for them.

They’ll need champions. We better get ready to earn our keep.

Heather Mac Donald

Two conservative principles might be useful at the moment: grace and an awareness of the limits of good intentions. The election is over; Barack Obama is going to be president. Demonizing him by attacks on his character may have been an appropriate campaign strategy, but it accomplishes nothing now other than fomenting rancor and dividing the country further. Until President-Elect Obama takes office and starts making decisions, how about a tone of utmost respect. Waging the battle of ideas is perfectly appropriate, but let’s not imitate the Left’s juvenile hysteria towards George Bush or resuscitate the Right’s hatred of Bill Clinton — unless such hysteria becomes warranted.

The second principle concerns personal responsibility and the limits of government action. The government, especially in Washington, should not be attempting to do what it hasn’t a clue how to accomplish. The temptation may be great to match the Democrats program for program. But the great conservative insight from the 1970s, backed up by ample social-science research, was that elected officials and bureaucrats lack the know-how to cure a host of social problems, and can create severe unintended consequences in trying. Government should concentrate on things that it has the capacity to accomplish, such as enforcing the law and maintaining the transportation and communications infrastructure (and why not revive the 1990s idea of making public unions compete with private contractors for such maintenance functions). The Constitution, read with common sense and a dose of historical awareness, sets out a pretty good check-list of appropriate government functions. Conservatives might try something radical: tell the American people the truth. Individuals can have more positive influence over their lives by the choices they make and the personal responsibility they exercise than Washington ever will.

John J. Pitney Jr.

In his 1981 inaugural, Ronald Reagan famously said: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He was right. Errors in monetary policy had led to stagflation, and federal regulations had the perverse effect of creating gasoline shortages. But many people forget what he said moments later: “[I]t's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.”

The key words are “make it work.” We conservatives believe in government that is limited and effective. Washington should not try to do everything, but when it does take on a task, it should do it well. That is why Hurricane Katrina was a political disaster for the Republican party. Rightly or wrongly, most people thought that the Bush administration had responded ineptly, and the perception of incompetence dogs the party to this day. Republican governors can help repair the damage by supplying models of skillful conservative governance. So when we’re seeking answers to our political problems, we should look not just to Washington but to Juneau, Indianapolis, and Baton Rouge.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online