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Takeaway From 2010 Elections: Serious Conservatism Is Back

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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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To lose faith, you first must "have it". There is a divide between secular and religious motives. When you use secular motives employing religious accoutrements for political gain, your false values show forth for all to see. President Obama is described in the article as a committed Christian who is eloquent on matters of faith. Obama is seen that way by secular Democrats who want to “use the religion angle” for their own purposes. That is the problem. Religious conservatives and evangelicals are still looking for sincere evidence concerning Obama’s faith as shown by his words and deeds. Obama eschews Christian prayer breakfasts. He is asked about his favorite biblical verse and he chooses to quote a Muslim prayer from his childhood. He apologizes for our Christian heritage while trying to curry favor from Muslim countries. He attends mosques and defends Islam more than he attends Christian church or defends Christianity. He is really not eloquent in Christian language and theology. He speaks like a black minister with soaring rhetoric accompanied by amens and fainting on the part of encouraging audiences. But, that does not mean he believes in his heart what he is saying with his lips. His testimony of faith at Saddleback Church during the campaign was literally a recital of the pamphletized gospel of Jesus Christ you might find in any Christian bookstore. Something you might “bone up on” in case the subject were to come up during an interview. When Obama talked about what faith involved, he spoke in the third person, and while accurate in most ways, his words lacked any "internalization” or “personalization". I cannot judge a man’s heart only what he says, and what Obama says is startlingly evasive. On the other hand, at Saddleback Church, McCain, the sailor who hardly ever spouts religiosity, was contrite and repentent when talking about his failures of the flesh and acknowledged Christ's redemption and sacrifice for him on the cross. He was able to make you believe that he knew he was a "sinner forgiven and saved by grace". Obama was a rhetorician. In other words, it is one thing to know about Christ and another thing all together to know Christ as Savior and Lord. When a politician "has faith" it shows (see Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Orin Hatch, John Ashcroft, etc.). When a politician or political party strains at religiosity by feigning faith, it shows and the voters sense it.

November 09 2010 at 5:24 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

The label, "conservatism" doesn't fit. The idea that an all powerful government and deep national debt are not good is non partisan.

November 08 2010 at 9:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kurt and Brenda

In politics I have been observing this conservative liberal divide as long as I can remember. The deafeated side regardless of liberal democrat always has an excuse when they lose. Now the Democrats will be licking their wounds and plotting on ways to take back their house majority. Maybe the liberal coffee party will now start agitating like the conservative tea party. Incidentally I drink coofee with cream whip cream and splenda. I like my ice tea sweetned. So much for these political front groups.

November 08 2010 at 6:22 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

We are drawing far too many conclusion from this past election. Yes, the Republicans picked up seats, but look at the margins of victory and the voter turnout. In nearly every election an increase in turnout would have meant a different person got elected. The only conclusion you can draw from that is people do not vote until they are motivated to. Also, most independents do not seem to vote for the person who gave them what they wanted they vote for the person they think will give them what they want; a version of "so what have you done for me lately?" Republicans will get huge amounts of blame when this recovery continues to sputter and lots of independents will vote against them and they will lose 51-49 and everyone will think some new movement has been spawned. Nonsense. Talk to people. No new movement has been spawned. A small percentage of people got excited for some reason. Same thing happened in '08 with opposite result.

November 08 2010 at 1:55 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

If conservatives have their way, they would allow capitalism to run amuck without regulation. We all know that the profit motive of capitalism is the best system, but even Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican trust buster, realized that Greed will prevail if not kept in check. If Conservatives have their way, our middle class will dry up and disappear. It is the reason that makes our country special. In third world countries you always have the Rich and the Poor. The rich dominate and make the poor work without fair wages, preventing them from sharing in the company's success. They believe that making billions as CEOs is somehow FAIR while paying their workers pennies. Conservatives enable this by being against minimum wages and corporate regulations.

November 08 2010 at 12:50 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bigred's comment

The rich need the middle class to stay rich man....if the middle class gets destroyed and there is only a upper and lower, it won't benefit the rich. If the majority of the people are satisfied with their lives, they won't want to empower the government thus keeping the rich at the top. It is the democrats that want to destroy the middle class, because if they can make the majority of Americans unsatisfied, then they can't get them to vote for bigger government and more control. That just seems like common sense...maybe stop getting angry all the time and start thinking a little more clear.

November 08 2010 at 11:30 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Too bad the Conservatives are BACK. Conservatism is Backward looking. Today, depending on the 'conservative" it means government intrusion into life decisions, such as abortion, obstruction of civil rights and "liberty and justice for all" if you are gay or women or minorities. AND Ironically, they say they want LESS government intrusion in our lives. They brag about fiscal conservatism as if it is THEIR domain. All that really means is balancing your checkbook and ALL of us need to do that. The one GREAT difference between Conservatives and the rest of us is that we want to move FORWARD- find BETTER ways of living. We are NOT SELFISH. We are smart enough to know that mega-corporations will always tend toward GREED unless they are regulated.That politics will continue to be dirty UNLESS we get rid of lobbyists and have REAL Campaign Finance Reform. They are against it. They want to get rid of all the social programs that have saved millions from disaster and allowed them to regroup and renew, such as Disaster Aid, Unemployment Aid, Social Security and now Health Care. They say we can't afford it, yet there is never a war they say NO to. We always have money for bombs, but never enough for education, health care, infrastructure... What exactly IS their vision of America? A war mongering SELFISH, Greedy country who tells neighbors to suck it up and/or die if they come across hard times? Is that how our country stays strong? NOT really.

November 08 2010 at 12:44 PM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bigred's comment

bigred You also left out the part about spending three to five trillion the last three years that does not seemed to help the people you are talking about needing the help. I think the greedy goverment CEOs need to figure out wy it can so freely spend tax money and not realy have helped anyone.

November 08 2010 at 2:10 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

What would be wrong with cutting unnessary pork ,earmarks, and lowering the budgets of all elected goverment officials. 600K for bottled water, 1.5 million for catered meals, millions for rent. Pushing efforts toward cleaning up programs like SS/SSI ,medicare/medicaid, welfare/foodstamps cleaning up fraud/corruption would save allot of money that can be used for the truly needy. Just figuring out ways to waste money and figure out ways to tax people I dont realy think should be what even a liberial should stand for.

November 08 2010 at 12:06 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wesxauto's comment

No you are correct. We should never impose taxes just for the heck of it and we should always work at making our programs more efficient. I am a progressive and I like to keep as much of my pay check as I can. BUT I am aware that you can't spend billions, like we did for 8 years under Bush, and NOT pay for it. Starting an unnecessary war is not my idea of using our money well. You don't win the hearts and minds of anyone by bombing them to smitherines. And the argument we hear about "Oh those Tax and Spend"Democrats..... is bogus. We need politicians that know HOW to tax and WHAT to spend on. Taxes are important. We have to collect them. Taxes are a way of pooling our money and sharing it in providing for the "General Good." I have no problem giving up part of my pay to insure quality education, health care, disaster aid etc. for all citizens. That is what a country is, we work together, we sink or swim together. We need to have a good standard of living and a happy, healthy place to live. It is called patriotism.

November 08 2010 at 1:32 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Reagan may have claimed to be a conservative, but he and Poppy Bush ran the national debt up from 900+ Billion to $3 Trillion. I do not consider that conservative by any means. In fact, it was the two of them who caused this nation to become a debtor nation. We have never recovered fully since they spent like drunken sailors. Clinton had fixed the problem with a balanced budget and created a surplus so we could have begun to pay down the debt, but unfortunately, another Bush was selected. He doubled the national debt and never paid a dime for anything. W. Bush left this country on the verge of a total meltdown between his policies and the deregulation of his elite base. I don't buy into the term "conservative" when they never live up to the true meaning.

November 08 2010 at 11:49 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tevroc143's comment

tevroc You left out a big part of the Clinton balanced budget that was realy forced to happen by a conservative congress and hopfully will happen again. If presiden Obama would come out and truley get together with congress to ballance a budget or at least show cuts of unnessary spending at this time his numbers would jump thru the roof.

November 08 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

J.F.K. was for a strong national defense. J.F.K. was for lowering taxes. J.F.K. was against affirmative action. J.F.K. was a life NRA member. Sound like a liberal Democrat?...

November 08 2010 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rob & Kathy's comment

JFK wasn't a "liberal Democrat." He was a "Democrat." If we had more like him today, we might have held on to the House.

November 08 2010 at 3:26 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

What is this, a commercial for Republicans??? Reagan was disparaged by liberals as an idiot, which he was not. But compared to this crowd, he's an absolute Einstein. If Reagan tried to run today, conservatives who "love" him would kick him out in a NY minute. The agenda the Tea Partiers want to run is about as anti-intellectual as it gets: deriding science they don't happen to like, carping about not increasing the debt ceiling (which would plunge the global economy into panic that would make the jumping out of skyscrapers in 1929 look like a day at the beach), dismantling agencies which have kept our water and air cleaner over the last three decades, and destroying our higher education system as they snark about "intellectual elites." Serious? This brand of conservatism is as serious as Batman's Joker.

November 08 2010 at 11:16 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to joeyalphabet62's comment

Todays science is tomorrows punchline.

November 09 2010 at 5:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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