Conservatives have their problems these days, but these issues are actually mild compared to the really big problem at the core of liberal statism. Conservatives need to empathize, readjust some applications of conservatism and talk like regular people; liberalism however is flawed at its very core.
David Brooks puts it as succinctly as anyone when he writes that “the entire Democratic governing vision, from President Obama on down, is based on the notion that we can have a growing welfare state and pay for it by taxing the top 2 percent.” This is impossible, as he notes, since there are not enough rich people to pay for all of that and you wind up with negative “long-term changes in social norms, behavior and growth.” The alternative is to raise taxes on everyone, which makes liberalism more honest but politically unfeasible.
Unlike the conservatives’ challenges, the liberal contradiction isn’t solvable; Obama therefore chooses to ignore it and continues to rack up huge debts. Former president Bill Clinton and the Third Way crowd had a different solution: Cease being so liberal and enamored of the government-centric view of America.
Conservatives are honest enough to have conferences and reports trying to address what ails them; liberals simply deny it. No wonder they ran a presidential election almost entirely devoted to destroying the other side. Now the president resorts to campaigning to avoid the dilemma that he insists on growing government without paying for it.
There is of course another big problem with liberalism that Brooks doesn’t address, namely there is a ton of evidence that government doesn’t work very well, even when it is paid for. It is very good at sending out checks, and hence the success of Social Security. But running K-12 education? An entire health-care industry by mandating specific coverage? Liberals think we are rotten at nation building elsewhere; conservatives think government is rotten at nation-running here.
The problem at the heart of liberalism is compounded by the Democratic Party’s reliance on constituencies that time and again block smart government action (e.g. school reform, domestic energy development). Whether you look at Illinois, California or Greece there are a plethora of examples of what happens when liberal statists rule the roost — economic stagnation, unemployment, fiscal crisis, wealth flight and erosion of the work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit.
The president is never so astute as when he hypocritically mouths conservative truisms (e.g. Government can’t do everything; the private sector must create wealth). The problem is that he doesn’t believe it, and his political movement is based on denying these obvious truths.
The conservatives’ challenge is to point out the inherent unworkability of liberal statism and then to provide an alternative vision. That alternative entails using government as an instigator for investment, a glide path for upward mobility, a bedrock of social order and a safety net. It works best when it prompts individuals to act independently (e.g. welfare reform) or creates a fair playing field (e.g. anti-trust laws). Unlike liberalism, conservatism is counter-intuitive (e.g. build a strong military to keep the peace, more government is worse for the poor) so conservatives must be more adept at explaining their case and doing it ways that resonate with a-political voters.
Under Obama, trust in government has reached all-time lows. That innate skepticism of Big Government is the toe hold for conservatives to make common sense appeals about what government can and cannot do and the negative consequences of government grown too large. Conservatives, however, should avoid denigrating public service and/or government itself. It is the size, scope and over-reliance on government that should be their focus and the segue for their ideas to promote prosperity, upward mobility and civic order.