Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Recalibration of Conservatism

Published in Commentary Magazine on December 6, 2012



I heard from a couple of prominent conservatives yesterday who mentioned to me the pessimism, and even depression, they sense among conservatives throughout the land. That’s understandable, given the results of the 2012 election. Because unlike 2008, this is an election Barack Obama should have lost and that the right fully expected him to lose.

Still, there have been worse wilderness years than what we’re experiencing now. (Retaining control of the House will prove to be an important check on Mr. Obama’s second-term ambitions.) In addition, the loss Republicans experienced can be leveraged to conservatives’ advantage, if we take away the right lessons from the 2012 defeat.

Two individuals who are doing just that are Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio. They spoke earlier this week at the annual dinner of the Jack Kemp Foundation. Both speeches (which can be found here and here) are well worth reading.

The speeches focused on the plight of the poor, the challenges facing the middle class, upward mobility and opportunity, and (especially in the case of Senator Rubio) education. Messrs. Ryan and Rubio offered intelligent defenses of limited government while also acknowledging the important role of government. And they used terms like “compassion,” “the common good,” “civil society,” and “social infrastructure.” Their tone was inclusive, humane, aspirational, and captured the true, and full, spirit of conservatism.

What Ryan and Rubio are doing is widening the aperture of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, which in recent years either ignored (in the case of civil society and education) or took aim at (in the case of compassion) issues and concepts that are morally important and politically potent. It isn’t so much that what was being said was wrong, though in some cases (like on immigration) it was; it’s that the vision being offered was constricted.

The task facing conservatives today is somewhat akin to what Ronald Reagan faced in 1977 with the GOP, Bill Clinton faced in 1992 with the Democratic Party, and Tony Blair faced in 1994 with the Labour Party. In this instance, the Republican Party and conservatism have to remain powerful defenders of liberty and limited government. But they also have to establish themselves in the public imagination as advocates for reform and modernization, of the middle class and social mobility, and of a generous, inclusive vision. There is much more work to be done, and the speeches by Ryan and Rubio were encouraging first steps.

The necessary recalibration of conservatism is under way, and that is something that ought to lift the spirits of conservatives.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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