Peter Berkowitz has a must-read piece in the Wall Street Journal for Republican voters, candidates and operatives. He argues:
The notion of conservative purity is a myth. The great mission of American conservatism—securing the conditions under which liberty flourishes—has always depended on the weaving together of imperfectly compatible principles and applying them to an evolving and elusive political landscape. . . .
Our greatest conservative president, Ronald Reagan, prudently wove together a devotion to limiting government and protecting the moral bases of a free society. But the policies he pursued were not mechanically derived from his principles. They stemmed from complex considerations concerning the necessary, the desirable and the possible. . . .
On issue after issue, fidelity to the variety of conservative principles imposes not only the obligation to blend and balance but also to give due weight to settled expectations and longstanding practices. For instance, an appreciation of these crisscrossing obligations should impel conservatives to work both to improve the public schools we have and to increase competition and parental choice among an array of options.
While developing cost-cutting and market-based reforms for health care, conservatives should frankly acknowledge, as does Rep. Paul Ryan in his bold plan, the importance of maintaining a minimum social safety net. And in the Middle East and elsewhere, conservatism encourages a vigilant search for opportunities to promote liberty while counseling that our knowledge is limited, our resources scarce and our attention span poor.
This restraint, some political humility if you will, leads to the necessity, Berkowitz argues, for compromise when prudent. “Clarity about principles is critical. It enables one to spot the betrayal of core convictions. But contrary to the partisans of purity, in politics winning and compromise are not antithetical.”
Berkowitz’s argument harkens back to the intellectual father of the conservative movement, Edmund Burke. As Berkowitz has explained in a previous writing:
Burke was no reactionary who dogmatically clung to the old and rejected the new. He himself observed that because circumstances alter, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Of course the change in question must be prudent, wisely adapting enduring principles to the ordinary vicissitudes of politics and, in extraordinary times, to substantial shifts in sentiment and practice. Prudent change as Burke understands it, though, is more than a political necessity. It is also inseparable from respect for tradition and custom, because they typically present not a clear-cut path but “a choice of inheritance.” Since the right choice must be freely and reasonably made, liberty and tradition are mutually dependent.
This mutual dependence provides an opening for justly moderating their claims, which, to be sure, frequently pull in opposing directions. Justly moderating their competing claims reflects neither unprincipled compromise — though compromises must be made — nor thoughtless acquiescence to necessities — though necessities must be respected — but rather a recognition of the plurality of goods and the complexity of the conditions that permit free citizens to flourish. Nor should just moderation be confused with the absence of strong passion. Moderation well understood involves the restraint of desire in quest for the satisfaction offered by a greater good or more comprehensive happiness. In other words, the restraint at the heart of moderation also involves the exercise of passion, the passion to strike the best balance among worthy but incomplete ends for the sake of a higher end.
Such talk is becoming an anathema in the presidential race. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in the South Carolina forum welcomed a constitutional standoff with the Supreme Court. The RedState blog, which is hawking Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s candidacy, denounces every deal and budget agreement by Republican leaders as a sell-out and betrayal of conservative values. Perry himself has denounced Social Security. He in turn has been denounced for excessive moderation on immigration. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is the most radical of them all, counseling an end to the safety net and all foreign wars.
From a practical standpoint these positions will lead a segment of voters, who are otherwise amenable to a limited-government perspective, to regard the candidates who espouse them as radical and irresponsible. But more to the point, they don’t reveal a conservative temperament, one that values steady progress, an understanding of existing arrangements and respect for other branches of government. They seem to invite conflict, if not chaos, as a desirable state of affairs.
Now don’t get me wrong. We are in need of serious and significant reforms. But the vast majority of voters want, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the other would-be reformers, including the president’s debt commission have attempted to promote, plans to control spending, rationalize our tax system and reduce our debt in order to preserve the functions of the federal government that the voters want and have come to rely on.
American voters aren’t going to sign up for a constitutional crisis or the dismantling of our national security apparatus or the abolishment of federal entitlement programs. What they do want is more responsible government that does not live beyond its means or crush the private sector. Should the Republican base decide it wants a candidate who considers all of that too tame and insufficiently “conservative,” it risks letting a golden opportunity to capture the White House slip through its fingers. To be blunt, had Ronald Reagan talked like Bachmann or written a book like Perry he never would have been elected.
Rather than practice one-liners, the candidates would do well to read up on Burke (and Russell Kirk, for good measure). Republicans should understand that conservative temperament is as essential to the reforms they crave as is conservative ideology.