Conservatives need to be clear-eyed about the enormity of the Failure of 2016. The Republican Party — the imperfect political vehicle for conservative policy, ideas and values — nominated a man for president of the United States who is manifestly unfit to hold that office. This is clear for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Donald Trump simply does not possess the temperament, moral character, judgment, knowledge or desire for knowledge necessary to be president. Period. Full stop.
Adding insult to injury, Trump is at odds with conservatism in so many ways. This point has been made many times by many people, including me. Suffice it to say here that the party of “family values” nominated a man who has boasted of sexual assault and infidelity. The party of free trade and fiscal responsibility nominated a man who attacks trade, whose policies would explode the deficit and who has voiced opposition to cutting spending on middle-class entitlement programs.
The operative question facing the conservative movement is where it goes from here. The first step on that journey is to acknowledge the size of this failure. It is, if you’ll forgive me the word, huge. A failure this massive cannot be dismissed easily or lightly. The path to repair and good health is not easy. Any party and political movement that nominated this man must have serious problems that extend all the way down to its roots.
It will be necessary to name those problems. Some of them are individuals, including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh. Some of them are structural; for example, organizations that make money by whipping the GOP base into a fury, and the process by which the GOP nominee is selected. And another problem is the GOP primary base’s decision to nominate this man in the first place. Those voters have agency, and they should not be exempt from the healthy criticism that will be necessary for the conservative movement to move forward. Voters have a duty to use their power responsibly, to make sober judgments about what is in the best interest of the nation and to advance virtue. The GOP primary electorate failed in this important task.
Figuring out how to address these problems is hard work, and the solutions aren’t obvious. That hard work should begin now.
Another problem has been the conservative policy agenda, which needs to be rethought.
It goes without saying that conservatives should expel the silliness: Enough with the gold standard, enough with illiterate arguments that the “real unemployment rate” is 40 percent and that inflation is out of control, enough with arguments that individual income tax cuts will always pay for themselves. A corollary is that GOP politicians need to be more discerning about who they turn to for advice. Real economists should be advising leaders on economic policy.
Turning to more difficult issues, conservatives should not abandon their commitment to free trade and reasonable levels of immigration, tempting though that may be. Conservatives should not abandon their commitment to supporting economic growth, entitlement reform, lower tax rates and less regulation, either. But we need to supplement this agenda with policy solutions to address the challenges and realities of 21st-century America.
How can we create more good-paying jobs? How can we increase employment, especially among prime-age men? How can we increase wages and the skills of the workforce? How can we transition workers from occupations and industries in decline without losing them to disability insurance and non-employment? Conservatives simply must have good answers to these questions beyond the words “economic growth.”
Conservatives also need to be able to address in a compelling and concrete way other challenges that they typically ignore, such as the rising costs of higher education. Conservatives need to present alternatives to the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act. And more.
Their policies need to be animated by conservative principles and dispositions. They can’t just be “liberal light,” and they can’t simply serve as a brake on the progressive agenda.
Conservative policies need to reflect values with which all Americans can identify and that conservatism properly understood holds dear: a preferential option for the vulnerable, putting their needs first; and a spirit of community, calling people to shared sacrifice and recognizing that mutual dependence and obligation are healthy.
Conservatives should reject the materialism of the left, and the notion that if child care/time away from work after having a child/higher education/pre-K/ice cream cones are expensive, then the best solution is for government to redistribute other people’s money to help you pay your bills. But conservatives should accept that government is not always the enemy, and that it has a positive role to play in a healthy society.
Conservatives should offer an agenda of empowerment, unafraid of using limited but energetic government to encourage work and earned success, to increase the independence and freedom of Americans in all walks of life, and to support the best aspirations of our citizens. The conservative agenda should not attempt to micromanage the economy or the lives of Americans, it should not require new bureaucracies or large net increases in outlays. It should not look to government to solve all of society’s problems. But it should recognize that public policy is vitally important, and that the tools of government can and should be prudently and cautiously used to offer people a hand up, and to make their lives better. The hard work of creating this agenda should proceed without delay.
Trump is pus oozing from the infected wound. The wound needs to be cleaned and healed — quickly. The time for reform is now.