My good friend and The Week colleague Matt Lewis and I have engaged in an ad-hoc symposium of sorts over the last two weeks, launched by the New York Times' Ross Douthat and his initial lament over the disappearance of what he described as the "Catholic view" of American economic thought. Douthat noted that the ground on economic policy had changed considerably since the last papal transition, that it signaled a diminishing influence of the Catholic Church as both political parties moved to the extremes, and that the Republican Party had begun to abandon Thomas Aquinas for Ayn Rand.
Since then, Matt and I have exchanged thoughts on the reasons for the move away from the Catholic center by both parties, the most recent of which was Matt's excellent column yesterday at The Week. In his latest installment, Matt correctly identifies an impulse among conservatives to define themselves as a negation of Barack Obama, leading to a shift toward an extreme, as negations tend to become. However, the impulse for that may have less to do with a genuine philosophical shift than a lack of recourse to actual power to create solutions, and the failure of the Bush-era Republicans to stick to their reform-minded ways of the 1990s.
First, let's remember that it's easy to remain philosophically pure when one has no power to pass legislation. Democrats facilitated this process by locking the GOP out of crafting its major legislation in the first two years of the Obama presidency. That was especially true of the stimulus package, which would normally have pushed Republicans to bridge the gap between philosophy and solutions. Had Nancy Pelosi allowed Republican leadership to take part in the crafting of the stimulus package, not only would that have spread the risk to both parties, it would have allowed the GOP to bring the economic policy debate back to the traditional center that Douthat originally noted. Instead, having been locked out of the process, Republicans easily united around a philosophical message and hung the stimulus' waste and failure completely around the necks of Democrats.
That also applies to the ObamaCare debate. Democrats started out attempting to get Republicans on board with their efforts. Some Republicans wanted to engage in a rethinking of the health-insurance model, but wanted to pursue market-based reforms under a federal regulatory aegis. Instead of developing ObamaCare along those lines, Democrats lost patience almost immediately and began forcing the Pelosi model down the throats of voters who clearly didn't want it. The combination of both the ObamaCare effort and the continuing bailouts created the Tea Party, which as an anti-establishment grassroots movement took a libertarian philosophical position and agenda. The GOP responded by embracing the Tea Party and rode that to a stunning midterm victory in 2010, taking back control of the House.
But let's also remember why Democrats had taken control of Congress in 2006, long before these events and while the Catholic view of economic policy still remained the touchstone of American policy. Matt uses the term "compassionate conservatism," which at one time meant an embrace of Aquinas' philosophy with conservative policies — in other words, a better and more responsible approach to the safety net. Welfare reform was one of the successes of this approach, which instead of eliminating an important safeguard for the truly needy, made it work properly so that resources went to those who needed them most and ensured that funding came from present revenues rather than massively borrowing against future economic prosperity. When George W. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative," he promised further reform of federal programs to ensure their solvency and at least some focus on reducing or eliminating corruption in other programs.
Instead, the one-party rule of 2002 to 2006 did nearly nothing for either effort. Under the rubric of "compassionate conservatism," entitlement programs grew, and one was added (Medicare Part D), with little attention to the unsound fiscal models on which they rested. Republicans seemed more interested in courting lobbyists and inflating spending than reform and fiscal responsibility. The term "compassionate conservative" became synonymous with Big Government, and voters grew to regard Republicans as no different than Democrats on spending issues. It's this context that drove the Tea Party to demand a more libertarian/Randian policy viewpoint, and which has more or less made the term "compassionate conservatism" an epithet on the right.
Now that Republicans have power and responsibility to set an agenda, at least in the House, they find themselves stuck between their philosophical rock and their policy hard place. Instead of reaching back to the past and "compassionate conservatism," though, Republicans need to start considering an advent of practical conservatism.
In practical terms, the entitlement programs we have cannot be dismantled, as Randian purists would prefer. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are too popular for repeal, and more importantly, deliver a level of living standards on which millions of Americans rely — standards that would plummet in these programs' absence. Instead of denying that, practical conservatism would embrace that — because on the trajectory of current policy, these programs will utterly collapse at some point. There is, after all, nothing compassionate about a default, or about sticking succeeding generations with the bill for benefits we enjoy in the present.
Conservatives have good ideas for reforming these programs, and practical conservatives can point to the massive pain that failure will cause future generations. The same is true of programs such as food stamps and other programs that lift the truly needy, but that need to be better targeted so that those who can lift themselves will have to do so.
If nothing else, the past few months should have made it clear that in practical terms, talking about "the 47 percent" and "makers versus takers" won't win elections for Republicans. It's in our nature to care about the poor and struggling among us, and that impulse speaks well of Americans. Practical conservatism would also embrace this impulse and form policy around the goals of a robust but practical safety net that doesn't require massive borrowing, ensuring that limited resources only go to those truly in need while building a fair and free economy that creates true prosperity across all income classes. Practical conservatives would take a lesson from the mid-1990s welfare reform and Jack Kemp's outreach to urban centers with conservative economic proposals aimed specifically at improving lives of the working-class voters that Republicans have consistently lost over the last several decades.
The "Catholic center" still exists, ready to be claimed. Republicans need to learn from the past, and the present, to grasp that opportunity.