To modernize, the GOP must embrace compassionate conservatism

Soul-searching Republicans ought to take a second look at George W. Bush's political philosophy

Matt K. Lewis

I argued recently that the GOP should modernize, not moderate. It caught on. Up-and-coming GOP leaders like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers soon used similar language when talking about the future direction of the party.

My point was simple: Conservatives shouldn't sell out core values. But they must adapt to a changing world.

Of course, the obvious next question is: What exactly does "modernize" mean?

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"It's an attractive notion that, superficially, says that Republicans can remain 'pure' by adding a fresh coat of paint and a kick-ass stereo," quipped Mediaite's Tommy Christopher, "but Lewis isn't just talking about adding a racing stripe here and there."

Indeed, I'm not suggesting Republicans merely use the line as cover to avoid introspection. And fortunately, having mostly accepted the notion that the GOP must do a little soul searching, conservatives are finally getting around to debating exactly what the new Republican Party ought to look like.

There's hardly a consensus on where the party should go. Observing changing attitudes on immigration, gay marriage, and drug legalization, George Will recently argued that Republicans should nominate a candidate who "tilts toward the libertarian side of the Republican Party's fusion of social and laissez-faire conservatism."

But is that really a winning vision? It seems to me that Mitt Romney was already attempting to channel the libertarian streak within the GOP when he talked about the 47 percent, and scoffed over Obama's "You didn't build that" line.

Compassionate conservatism has wide appeal. The urban hipster can appreciate it. So can the guy in rural Ohio.

Another faction within the conservative commentariat argues that it's not the libertarian wing of the party that should grow more powerful, but social conservatives. As The Daily Beast's David Frum observed, "it has been the social conservatives who have been most alert to the economic travails of the middle class."

That does make some sense. While neither Rick Santorum nor Mike Huckabee would likely have defeated President Obama, does anyone doubt that during a down economy these cultural conservatives would have played better than Romney in, say, Ohio? (As David Brooks put it prior to the Iowa caucuses, "Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant.")

Clearly, the Wills and Frums of the world are at odds. There are pros and cons to both arguments. So who's right?

Both. And neither.

This is a paradox. The GOP must simultaneously become more cosmopolitan and more populist. This sounds tough, but it is precisely what must be done.

From social conservatives like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock talking about rape and abortion to Romney's comments about the 47 percent, the Republican Party in 2012 was already blending the worst aspects of social conservatism and libertarianism. But instead of blending the most angry and exclusionary aspects of otherwise respectable philosophies, why not highlight the best aspects of both?

Modern conservatism has always been a blend of exotic ingredients. A pinch of spicy libertarianism, a dash of social conservatism … you get the point. The theory that these ingredients could produce a yummy dish was called fusionism. Today, we take for granted that low taxes and abortion opposition go together like peas and carrots, but that wasn't always such a foregone conclusion. Had it not been for the Cold War binding these disparate ingredients together, it might not have gelled.

If the Republican Party and the conservative movement could build a governing majority in the past, they can do it again. But they must work at it with the same level of seriousness they once did. And while nobody serious is suggesting we ditch key ingredients, it may be time to update the menu.

Here's one idea: If Republicans want to win, they should consider taking a second look at the concept of compassionate conservatism. Just don't mess it up with deficit spending and nation building.

Of course, they wouldn't have to call it compassionate conservatism. That brand is obviously tarnished. But it is an uplifting mission statement to serve as a feel-good umbrella for their other policy ideas. Considering the current image of the GOP, Google's "Don't be evil" theme might be even more apropos. But that would probably be too obvious.

And while some of the ingredients in social conservatism and libertarianism don't always go down so easily, compassionate conservatism, which can encompass elements of both philosophies, has wide appeal. The urban hipster can appreciate it. So can the guy in rural Ohio. Even some ardent opponents of compassionate conservatism are beginning to acknowledge it's how conservatives can actually win elections.

"I still don't like compassionate conservatism or its conception of the role of government," writes Jonah Goldberg at National Review. "But given the election results, I have to acknowledge that Bush was more prescient than I appreciated at the time."

A reimagined and rebranded compassionate conservatism is possible. Also entirely possible: Accommodating both the libertarian-boosting Wills and social-conservative-backing Frums of the world.

Today's evangelicals are quite different from the Jerry Falwell generation. The culture wars aren't what they used to be. More and more, today's evangelicals are concerned about defending the unborn and helping cure AIDS in Africa. So the key is to take some of Will's libertarian ends and Frum's socially conservative values and sincerely look at them through the frame of a truly compassionate conservative.

Will writes: "Immigrating — risking uncertainty for personal and family betterment — is an entrepreneurial act." This strikes me as true.

Compassionate doesn't mean gullible, so there's no shame in believing a nation must secure its borders. But my guess is most compassionate conservatives would want to allow honest, hard-working immigrants — especially those who came here as children — to stay and contribute to our society.

From that point of view, there is no daylight between Will's "libertarian" argument and a social conservative rationale.

Libertarianism and fiscal conservatism have generally embraced letting markets control immigration, with social conservatives generally adopting more protectionist policies. But Marco Rubio argues that his version of the Dream Act is not about economics, but instead about addressing a humanitarian crisis. Viewed through that prism, it is entirely possible for libertarian-leaning conservatives and social conservatives to come together and craft a reasonable, coherent, and compassionate position.

Will also mentions how public attitudes about gay marriage and civil unions have shifted, concluding that Republicans "need not endorse such policies, but neither need they despise those, such as young people, who favor them."

If this isn't a compassionate conservative worldview, I don't know what is. Wanting to preserve traditional marriage is a legitimate conservative position. But part of compassion is loving and respecting others who disagree.

Of course, the big clash may come if Marco Rubio and Rand Paul — both "tea party" conservatives elected in 2010 — ever face off in a presidential primary. We haven't even talked about foreign policy (the third leg of the GOP "three-legged stool"), and there truly is a yawning chasm between Rubio's Kennedy-esque "bear any burden" vision of America as a "beacon of hope," versus Paul's more modest, non-interventionist foreign policy.

But the 2012 election wasn't about foreign policy, and the issues being debated today skew strongly toward domestic issues. Republicans simply must settle on a vision that is both consistent with first principles, and attractive in the modern age.

And the good news is, that is entirely possible.

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