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Open-Arms Conservatism

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

About a year out from the presidential election, the Republican Party is in the midst of an ideological identity crisis. Its leading candidates -- good men all -- have adopted what one analyst calls "a baseline conservatism," fearful that policy innovation or outreach to nontraditional groups will be viewed with suspicion by the party's anti-government base. In debates and forums, Republican candidates talk endlessly of budget restraint but spare few words for racial reconciliation, the problems of addiction or at-risk youths, or the economic prospects of the poor.

The Republican political season began with a call for the return of Reaganism. But the party, it seems, has managed to turn the clock back only to the mid-1990s, when leaders such as Dick Armey and Phil Gramm set its tone. Armey, you'll remember, declared Medicare "a program I would have no part of in a free world." When Republicans forced a shutdown of the federal government in 1995, Gramm appeared on television saying, "Have you missed the government? Doesn't it strike you as funny that . . . large sections of the government are shut down?"

It did not, in fact, strike most Americans as funny that parks were closed, Medicare claims were not processed and federal workers were not paid. A belief in limited government -- which all conservatives share -- became an unbalanced hostility toward government itself. And this anti-government extremism allowed President Bill Clinton -- even when politically wounded -- to outmaneuver Republican leaders at every turn.

Anti-government conservatives, once again, seem intent on leaving out some of the best elements of the conservative tradition. They have posed a false choice. On one side, they assert, is liberal statism, the accumulation of coercive governmental power. On the other side, they argue, is the philosophy of freedom, reduced to a single principle of unrestricted individual economic choice.

There are, in fact, two belief systems contending for the soul of the Republican Party, but one is not liberalism. The two intellectually vital movements within the Republican Party today are libertarianism and Roman Catholic social thought -- a teaching that has influenced many non-Catholics, including me.

The difference between these visions is considerable. Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules -- free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government -- asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread -- it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.

This obligation to protect has never, in Jewish and Christian teaching, been purely private. Hebrew law made a special provision for the destitute -- requiring that a portion of harvested crops be left in the field to be gathered by the poor. The Hebrew prophets raucously confronted the political and economic exploitation of the weak.

A significant portion of the Republican Party and the American public is influenced more by the social teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions than by the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Religious conservatives, broadly defined, prefer free-market methods. But they believe that the goal directing all our methods must be the common good.

There are good political reasons for this approach. Presidential candidates -- unlike members of Congress from gerrymandered districts in which nearly everyone looks and thinks like themselves -- must appeal broadly. No presidential aspirant can win without a message of solidarity, a vision of justice and hope that includes the whole country. A Republican Party that does not offer a robust agenda on health care, education reform, climate change and economic empowerment will fade into irrelevance.

But the moral stakes are even higher. What does a narrow, anti-government conservatism have to offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and intact families are rare? Very little. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American small change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all.

As the Republican candidates attempt to prove themselves the exemplars of conservatism, they should consider what that philosophy can mean: the application of conservative and free-market ideas to the task of helping everyone.

Michael Gerson is the author of "Heroic Conservatism." His e-mail address ismichaelgerson@cfr.org.

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