Conservatives need to keep up with the times

Ramesh Ponnuru makes a compelling case that conservatives fixated on President Ronald Reagan need to recognize that we are not in the 1980s. That this must actually be stated is a sign of how paralyzed conservatives have become; too often they cling to the past, or a version of the past, refusing to address the concerns of our own time.

King Hussein of Jordan, President Ronald Reagan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

President Ronald Reagan, the late King Hussein of Jordan and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (James A. Parcell / The Washington Post)

Ponnuru explains:

Conservatives should retain their skepticism about government intervention, the preference for letting markets direct economic resources and the zeal for ending government-created barriers to economic growth that they inherited from Reagan. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan famously said that ”government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The less famous yet crucial beginning of that sentence was “in our present crisis.” The question is whether conservatism revives by attending to today’s conditions, or becomes something withered and dead.

He makes a compelling case that current times demand something, for example, other than continued fascination with lower marginal tax rates.

I do think he sells short Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in arguing that he offered “so few new ideas” in his response to the State of the Union. (Rubio is a proponent of a robust reform agenda, of the type I suspect Ponnuru would readily applaud.) But that is a quibble with an otherwise compelling argument.

I would add two points.

First, the Reagan flame-holders tend to be very selective about their worship. A couple years ago Pete Wehner reminded us:

Reagan, after all, signed a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, something [George W.] Bush never supported. And in a 1984 campaign debate, Reagan went so far as to say, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” . . .
How about taxes? Reagan was the architect of the historic 1981 tax cut, one of the most significant pieces of economic legislation in American history. Bush cut taxes multiple times as well, though the cuts were not nearly as large. At the same time, Reagan, unlike Bush, increased taxes many times during his presidency — including what was then the largest tax increase in American history (the TEFRA tax).

Reagan really isn’t the best foil for those who argue against immigration reform or never, ever increasing taxes. He was, of course, the fellow who said, “If you’re with me 80 percent of the time, you’re my friend,” not “Get out of my party, ya darn squish!”

Second, the same admonition Ponnuru issues about domestic policy is also relevant to foreign policy. Conservatives need to look around the world as it is and engage in some critical thinking. If Ponnuru argues that we need Reaganism beyond Reagan, then we need Bushism beyond Bush in the foreign-policy realm.

Bush confronted 9-11 and the need to construct a strategic framework for combating jihadist terror. He promoted and envisioned a democratic Middle East. He dramatically changed U.S. policy on Israel and a Palestinian state. Now we face the reality of the Arab Spring (a decidedly mixed bag), a bloody civil war in Syria and the fall of tin-pot dictators — all against a backdrop of Islamist violence and the spread of al-Qaeda in North Africa. We are also in different economic and budgetary times than was Bush.

As Elliott Abrams aptly describes the Egyptian dilemma after looking at its government’s recent conduct: “How can we fit all these pieces together? Sadly, by seeing the new regime as an Islamist version of the old Mubarak regime. Concerned with Egypt’s national-security interests, unwilling to offend the security forces or to cleanse them, uninterested in human rights, focused on retaining power above all else. No wonder Abu Seada concluded that without significant change ‘a grim future lays ahead for democratic transformation and human rights in Egypt.’ ” In other words, let’s look at the Middle East — and Russia, China and everyplace else — as they are in 2013.

I’ve argued for a 21st-century policy for democracy promotion. I would suggest that, whether hawks like it or not, they will not win ample funding for the Pentagon and must focus on budgetary reform along the lines Michael O’Hanlon and Michele Flournoy suggested.

We should also, finally, be aware that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is not around the corner. I was pleasantly surprised to see this report, in which Jay Carney and others in elite foreign policy circles talk in more pragmatic terms about the Palestinians, look again at our farcical Syria policy and drop the hooey about a “pivot” away from the Middle East:

“Whatever we do in [Asia] should not come, and I hope will not come, at the expense of relationships in Europe or the Mideast or elsewhere,” Kerry said during his confirmation hearing. “It can’t.” . . .

“When we finalize the components of my trip and you’re aware of what I’m doing,” Kerry told reporters, “I think one of my purposes will be to try to see what can be done with respect to [Assad's] calculation [that he can stay in power] and how we might be able to affect it.” . . .

However, the White House has sought to temper any expectations of a breakthrough in peace talks.

“We have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals,” spokesman Jay Carney said last week.

“I’m sure that any time the president and prime minister have a discussion — and certainly any time the president has a discussion with leaders of the Palestinian Authority — that those issues are raised. But that is not the purpose of this visit.”

In sum, the Middle East is not the Middle East that Bush left or many hoped for, and it requires sober calculation and determination to wield influence on behalf of the United States, our allies and secular democracy advocates. A policy for improving the West Bank from the ground up, a robust effort to oust Bashar al-Assad sooner rather than later and ongoing support for the building of civil society throughout the region are in order.

The challenge conservatives face in each generation is figuring out what to conserve and what to discount, and how to retain the best of our experience and how to innovate as needed. Both in domestic and foreign policy, that means careful and candid assesment of the past and honesty about where the electorate, the country and the world stands today. Otherwise the conservative movement will be in need of a taxidermist.

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