Patrick Ruffini argues that compassionate conservatism was a form of Republican triangulation, undermining the party's core brand and opening up space for a new conservative movement to reject the Bush administration's domestic legacy and move the party back toward the right, by which he means back to a pure "smaller government" ideology.
[The Reagan administration] found a "conservative" rationale for a politically attractive policy that had been "liberal" and redefined conservatism in the process. They found a new conservative principle that was in conflict with the old one.Similarly, Dayton suggests, Bush has tried to redefine conservatism -- for instance, by making "accountability" rather than "small government" the key conservative principle as applied to education policy.
There are a number of principles that we could change. "Competition" could replace "lassez faire." (for example markets based on complicated kinds of regulatory property like emissions trading, water or mineral rights separate from property rights, or IPR) "Accountability" could replace "small government." (like NCLB) Clearly, in many cases, "federalism" means more "bureaucracy," (more AFSCME socialism) when you are talking about 50 different state regulatory regimes of cable, credit cards, insurance, etc.Dayton's post is written not just in response to Ruffini's but also to a post by Reihan Salam, who weighs in on Ruffini's criticism of "big-government conservatism." First of all, Salam argues, Bush's "counterprogramming" has in some instances been extremely popular -- for instance, the prescription drug entitlement. Moreover, as Dayton observes, even controversial legislation like No Child Left Behind, while it might not have shrunk government, did incorporate recognizably conservative aims like an increase in accountability (yes, I know -- the Bush administration talking about "accountability." Please hold your laughter until the end.).
The upshot is that there are lots and lots of places for the party to go. Many of them do not lie on the left-right axis.
What exactly does "more conservative" mean? In Ruffini's case, I have to assume it means more laissez-faire. And yet what does laissez-faire mean in the context of the vexing regulatory debates surrounding intellectual property and energy and even public order that will be the key questions for the next few decades? It means a lot of different, non-obvious things. To say the GOP must become "more conservative" is a bit of a non sequitur, as the meaning of conservatism (leaving those NYT types aside) is contested, and increasingly so. Note the fast rising relevance of self-described paleocons like Daniel Larison. Surely he can make a claim to the conservative mantle, right alongside Andrew Bacevich and Bill Kristol and dozens of other true believers.Salam insists that the meaning of conservatism is at issue, that its assumptions are not safe. For Salam -- who is collaborating with Ross Douthat on a book-length version of their "Party of Sam's Club" article (about which more later) -- a majoritarian conservatism would address many of the same issues that the compassiocons have tried to tackle. It would, at its essence, be "a social conservatism based on the defense of families," a formulation meant to incorporate a more activist role for government in economic policy than what conservatives have traditionally embraced.
I dare say that a socially conservative politics that aims to bolster families, whether through tax cuts or even quasi-socialistic departures from laissez-faire like the G.I. Bill, might have more relevance to the future of American conservatism than an essentially libertarian politics most closely associated with the American upper-upper-middle.