This concluding part of my review of The Politics of Inclusion (part one here) lays out my two favorite features of “conservatism” that I gleamed from Tom Kean’s legacy, and why the modern GOP largely fails to live up to those standards. It is here that “Breaking the 11th” becomes an important task.
Kean, in The Politics of Inclusion, has kind words for everyone, political allies or not. Indeed, his charitableness reaches almost cartoonish levels in that everyone, from Vice President Bush to New York Governor Mario Cuomo to the lowliest state legislator is “generous,” “intelligent,” “kind,” or “a devoted public servant,” or some combination of positive attributes. Now this may be the result of The Politics of Inclusion being a pseudo campaign biography, like I said before, but I still think it is worth mentioning. The only people worthy of scorn in the book are those in the Hudson County Democratic machine, whose corruption makes The Sopranos look like Full House, and Kean’s political rival Jim Florio. But even in the case of Florio (Kean’s 1981 opponent and successor in the statehouse), the negative portrayal is indirect—Florio comes across as arrogant and the embodiment of ambition by his actions rather than by what Kean says about him. During their 1981 battle, Florio started off with a 20-something point lead in the polls, and subsequently spent most of the campaign ignoring Kean and taking shots at Ronald Reagan (Florio, who was in Congress at the time, said once that his election would be a “punch in the nose” of the White House). He ducked most debates with Kean, and even when he did show up, he encouraged supporters to act boorishly while Kean was speaking. In fact, his behavior broke so many established “rules” of conduct that the kingmakers in the New York media started subtlely rooting for the Republican upstart. By the time election day 1981 rolled around, Kean made up Florio’s 20 percent advantage and won the race by 1,797 votes out of over 2 million cast.
Does this unfailing charitableness characterize modern conservatism? I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t. We’ve successfully defined liberals with a host of negative attributes—evil, weak, traitorous, treasonous, cowardly, unpatriotic, or worse—French. Talk radio and blogs are big contributors to this, but even Republican politicians get into the act. You’ve got Ann Coulter writing books on how liberals are traitors and Michael Savage ripping apart anyone not named Michael Savage. You’ve got campaign strategists who can only work with red meat wedge issues and by demonizing opponents. It seems as if the strength of one’s conservatism is defined by the amount of bile one can produce. This is ground we should happily turn over to the Democrats. Let the modern-day Florios (lead by Howard Dean and liberal bloggers ) convict themselves by their anger and their hatred for President Bush and conservatism. Perpetual outrage and anger are toxic and self-defeating. Let conservatism be defined by charitableness and gentility instead.
Closely related to decency is optimism. Kean was a conservative optimist along the lines of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. New Jersey’s and the nation’s best days were ahead. Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” found a state-level parallel in “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together.” I am not a naturally optimistic person, so I am attracted to people who are. As Rush Limbaugh argued at the close of his first book, a Republican party that preaches optimism about the future and faith in America and its people will always have a shot at electoral victory.
Many modern conservatives have forgotten this lesson. We seem to have picked up the liberal habit of crisis mongering and are running with it. Some Republicans talk about immigration as if penniless Mexicans crossing the border because of the promise of a crappy agricultural job are The Greatest Threat This Nation Has Ever Faced. We on the religious right are especially prone to this, as every issue from abortion to gay marriage to federal judgeships is the issue that would send America into a fiery apocalypse should the right people fail. Where’s the optimism? Where’s the hope for tomorrow? Is the threat of terrorism really that big that we can’t be hopeful for the future (and if so, how do you explain Reagan, Kemp, Kean, et al, being optimistic during the Cold War?)? Or is it that having captured Congress, the White House, most statehouses, and potentially the Supreme Court all in the past 15 years, do we fear that conservatism has nowhere to go but down?
Once again, we should happily leave the negativity, the crisis politics, and the pessimism to those on the left. They are losing, after all. Let them make their ludicrous cases for Bush being the worst president this nation has ever had. Rush was right: optimism wins. My predecessor as leader of the College Republicans had a reason for why it was so hard to politically organize on campus. He believed that Republicans were generally happy with the way things were, and didn’t expect the government to solve their problems anyway, so they didn’t see the need to organize and agitate. We’ve unfortunately adopted a style of negativity and crisis better suited to our opponents.
Conservatism needs to recapture the ideas of growth, openness, charitability, and optimism if it wants to continue to thrive in the 21st century. Crisis politics and wedge issue manipulation have short shelf lives. Show me Republican candidates with a pro-growth agenda, who support tax cuts and spending limits. Show me Republican candidates who are committed to broadening the base by spreading the message to not traditionally Republican groups, and who will not scapegoat minorities, immigrants, or those whose acts some consider sinful for this nation’s problems. Show me Republicans who are happy warriors and not filled with venom. Show me Republicans who will patriotically defend America and its traditional institutions and values, but will not demonize those who disagree. Show me Republicans who are bullish on America’s future, who think the nation’s best days are ahead rather than behind it. Then can I say with pride: “Republicanism and You: Still Perfect Together.”