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Takeaway From 2010 Elections: Serious Conservatism Is Back

3 years ago
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From its beginnings, a tension existed in the heart of American conservatism between winning hearts and minds -- and winning elections. A slogan from the 1964 presidential campaign hinted at this dichotomy. "In your heart you know he's right" implied that although we believed in Barry Goldwater, we knew you might not – at least not enough of you, not yet.

By 1980, a majority of Americans certainly did rally to the side of the conservative star of the Goldwater campaign, but Ronald Reagan's eight years in the White House did not lay to rest the intramural Republican tug of war between conservatives and moderate "pragmatists." A new battle could be heard in conservative circles: Let Reagan be Reagan.

But the elixir of winning is powerful. And somewhere along the way, a large segment of conservatism became unmoored from its core principles. But thankfully, last Tuesday's election returns are a signal that serious conservatism is back. In the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and governor's mansions, many of the most serious conservatives won election (while some of the less serious conservative candidates did not).

And the election of such candidates as Sen.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov.-elect Nikki Haley of South Carolina laid to rest the notion that conservatives must be forced to choose between the grassroots candidates we really want and those who can be elected.

The lesson is clear, at least to me, that the most effective advocates of conservatism have been neither squishy appeasers nor parochial demagogues, but rather serious conservative candidates, like Reagan and Jack Kemp, and conservative intellectuals, like William F. Buckley and George F. Will.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Peggy Noonan seemed to be channeling this very notion, while also taking umbrage that Sarah Palin had referred to Reagan as "an actor."

Noonan noted:

Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59). He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president.

Reagan, of course, worked hard, as Reagan scholars know. "Between 1975 and 1979, Reagan delivered 1,025 three-minute radio commentaries, of which he wrote at least 673 himself," says Annelise Anderson, an economist and senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Lee Edwards, an unofficial historian of the American conservative movement, has recounted a 1965 visit he made to the Reagan home in the mid-1960s when Reagan was contemplating running for governor of California. At one point, Edwards had a chance to secretly peruse Reagan's bookshelves. "I went over and began looking at the titles," he said. "They were history, biography, economics, politics. All serious stuff."

"I began pulling the books out of the shelves and looking at them. They were dog-eared. They were annotated. They were smudged by his fingers, and so forth. This was a man who had read hundreds of books. It was clear that he had read them, had digested them, and had studied them. ... I knew right away, this was a thinking conservative. This was a man who loved ideas. He was comfortable with ideas and was able to take ideas and translate them into a common idiom."

Noonan, knowing all of this, ended her column by offering a bit of advice to some of the less serious conservatives out there:

Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade. Americans don't want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy. They'll vote no on that. It's not just the message, it's the messenger.
The good news is, there are some very competent and serious conservative messengers who are now gaining experience. With any luck, there will be more candidates we can call a "thinking man's conservative."

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