More Local Politics

Yesterday I received my appointment by City Manager Mike Hein to the City of Tucson’s Citizen’s Commission on Public Service and Compensation. That is a rather long title for the seven member group that meets over a two-month period to recommend the salary levels for the Mayor and City Council members here in Tucson. Since the City Manager is so interested in cutting from various parts of the budget, I think it will be difficult to justify a raise this year.

The Mayor’s current salary is $42,000 and council members receive $24,000. Along with that comes use of a city vehicle (or compensation for using your own), health/medical/dental/life insurance benefits equal to those of full-time city employees, the same retirement benefits as city employees, an office, a staff, and an individual budget. Not too shabby for a part-time job (think about 100 or so days a year).

All Politics is Local

Former speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once quipped that “All politics is local.” Apparently, southern Arizona’s own Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is content politicking from afar. She reportedly has no plans to run in the 2010 gubernatorial election for the post being vacated by Janet Napolitano (who’s also going to Washington). My question: why not?

Have people lost a sense of the value of local politics?

The GOP has traditionally looked to governors for their presidential candidates and for good reason. Years as a governor gives one many experiences that are useful as president. But removing these governors prematurely has adverse effects on the larger conservative movement. I think a better route may be to focus on breeding governors as governors and not as future presidential contenders. A former school mate of mine made similar points elsewhere – worth reading.

Conservatism is based in part on the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that if something can be done at the simplest level, it should take place there. So, we prefer local government action over the state, and the state over the federal government. (At its most fundamental level, we prefer the community (church, etc.), family, and ultimately the individual over anyone else.) Subsidiarity makes elected officials more accountable to their constituents. It is much easier to ignore phone calls and e-mails from constituents when they are over 2,000 miles away. But when you are on the City Council and you run into many people around town, you might listen more to the wishes of the voters.

In 2010, 36 states will have gubernatorial races. If conservatism is alive and well, as I am assured that it is, we should focus on filling governors’ mansions across the nation. Conservative governors have far more potential to reform the GOP and its policies in a positive way than a single presidential candidate. States are able to act as laboratories and governors are able to think outside the box to test out new and innovative solutions to problems facing many states and the nation overall. A broad consensus among governors allows for a more organic ideological shift throughout the nation. Given the inefficiency and increasing bureaucracy of Washington, state and local leaders have a chance to move ahead and show people that conservative policies work. Such a movement will go a long way to changing the face of the GOP on the national level.

And when the next GOP candidate needs to arise for 2012, we should turn to another beloved conservative principle, the free market. Let Jindal, Sanford, Palin, Pawlenty, and others get out there, give us their positions, and compete in the primaries. Let the best candidate emerge from those who compete. And this natural competition, if the media lets it, will yield a candidate who is able to explain conservative principles on a national level (hopefully, with a record to back it up).

I keep thinking that Obama was only a state senator a few years ago. The GOP has, as one person put it, given its candidacy to the Lifetime Achievement Award winner every four years. We need to look elsewhere. If we focus on the local races, I think a natural candidate will emerge.

(PS – Giffords was extremely successful with her reelection campaign, pummeling the opponent, Arizona State Senate President Tim Bee. She had no trouble raising funds and won easily by 12 points. I think the more likely route for Giffords may be to challenge John McCain for his Senate seat in 2010. Obama won Gifford’s Pima County by six points and McCain won the more populous Maricopa County by 12. Though Giffords is quite popular down here in southern AZ, I doubt she has the notoriety or political capital to gain the Senate seat. At the same time, I wonder how long McCain can hold on until voters want someone new.)

Obama’s Liberal Problem

The left’s rabid reaction to some of Sen. Obama’s cabinet selections was inevitable.


But I have to say, it is quite the relief to see the other side infighting instead of us.

This is not to say that the GOP is in the clear. In fact, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan recently addressed the GOP split between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘reformists’ in crafting a political way forward. That said, I think it is still safe to conclude that Dems coalition has always been much more at odds.

Re-Intellectualizing Conservatism

Since the 1950s, the conservative movement has prided itself for its emphasis on ideas. Conservatives see themselves—unlike liberals, who work as a coalition of special interests, with leaders promising various handouts—but as a movement founded on intellectualism and ideas, as informed by a series of first principles. Indeed, the modern conservative movement, spurred by thinkers such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr., reignited this emphasis, and eventually built the foundation of a coherent political movement. By adding thinkers such as Milton Friedman to the mix, the conservative movement turned into a tidal wave, culminating in the Reagan presidency and the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Yet, somewhere in the last several years, the Republican Party lost the battle of ideas—or more accurately, abandoned the battle of ideas. During President Bush’s first term, he conducted, along with Republican Congressional support, a relatively active domestic policy, which included income tax cuts, progressive elimination of the death tax, dividend tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug plan, and so on.

But was there any signature domestic issue in his second term? Granted, much of the 2nd term took place under the haze of the nation’s two wars, and the Bush Administration has superbly protected us against further attacks. And we have two unbelievable additions to the Supreme Court in Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. However, successes—and even offerings—have been few. I point to the failure of many Congressional Republicans to back President Bush’s plan for Social Security reform as the beginning of the party’s entry into the current valley bereft of meaningful ideas. Since then, Republicans (at least the leadership) have floated along rudderless, failing to suggest much in the way of, well, anything.

As previously proffered in this forum, the conservative movement has some outstanding potential leaders out there—but they need to drop the “potential” label and start to lead conservatives again.

Where will we start? As Yuval Levin said in the December 1st issue of National Review, “Winning the next election requires…us to ask what we believe about government, about man, and about our country; to ask what problems concern the public today that might be addressed by changing something about government; and to ask how our beliefs might be applied to those problems in practice. This is the threefold task that now (as always) confronts conservatives.”

In essence, we must visibly identify our first principles and then cogently and persuasively articulate policy proposals that reflect those principles. It’s not enough just to determine what we believe; we have to take the bold step of translating those beliefs into a meaningful policy agenda.

But this isn’t a new strategy. Fifty years ago, WFB said,

When one declares oneself to be a conservative, one is not, unfortunately, thereupon visited by tongues of fire that leave one omniscient. The acceptance of a series of premises is just the beginning. After that, we need constantly to inform ourselves, to analyze and to think through our premises and their ramifications. We need to ponder, in the light of the evidence, the strengths and the weaknesses, the consistencies and the inconsistencies, the glory and the frailty of our position, week in and week out. Otherwise we will not hold our own in a world where informed dedication, not just dedication, is necessary for survival and growth.

-William F. Buckley Jr., Feb 8, 1956, National Review

Conservatism isn’t a particular set of policies, but a set of first principles (or premises, per WFB) that inform specific policies. Policies that can change and conform overtime according to circumstances, but are nonetheless founded upon those first principles.

Herein lies the challenge: how do we apply decades-old principles to contemporary issues? In a way, conservatism needs to return to its intellectual roots, while at the same time innovatively anticipating tomorrow’s battles.

Already, in the few weeks since the election, conservative thinkers have been doing just that: re-articulating first principles in anticipation of fashioning specific policies in the future. And, here at Ex Deserto, we hope to do our small part in driving the message—that conservatism is a lasting intellectual movement, a lasting political movement, and a lasting solution in reaffirming America’s special place in history.

New Zealand’s New AG

Congratulations to my friend Christopher Finlayson on being elected the new Attorney General of New Zealand. Chris and I met in Rome in 2001 where we were both studying Latin with the pope’s Latinist, Reggie Foster.

Chris is a true Renaissance man in many ways, able to converse intelligently about Shakespeare, Pop Culture, Catholicism, the Liberal Arts, History, Politics, and so much more. We look forward to a successful National Party administration under the keen legal guidance of the new AG.

Compatible Partners: eHarmony to Court Homosexuals

eHarmony’s settlement with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (NJDCR) showed that the company’s corporate bottom-line pandering to the homosexual market trumps society’s traditional view of marriage. Perhaps eHarmony desired to open up a one-stop, all-inclusive dating service from the beginning, but it just lacked the impetus to wade into controversial waters. Whatever the reason, as of March 31, 2009, it will launch Compatible Partners, a service designed to cater to the gay and lesbian community.

The settlement arose out of a dispute in 2005 when New Jersey resident Eric McKinley filed a complaint against alleging discrimination based on his sexual orientation. McKinley, a homosexual, felt oppressed when the private corporation, eHarmony, obstinately did not offer an option allowing him to find his own “match”. After three years of litigation, the dating website caved. It settled with the NJDCR for $50,000 and paid McKinley $5,000. It also agreed to launch Compatible Partners.

Lest eHarmony purport to be the victim, the site was not under unbearable pressure to offer a same-sex dating service. Rather, it was a strategic decision to garner more revenue to the already immensely profitable website. It could have ceased to operate in New Jersey, solicited support by other organizations, or even adopted the radical notion of fighting the meritless claim.

If conservatives are to regain national prominence, it will require the support of corporations standing for basic institutions: marriage perhaps as society’s cornerstone. Conservative change occurs not only in the courtroom or legal area, but also in the corporate culture. eHarmony is evidence of this change, a model of how to relinquish traditional values. Buckling under the threat of opposition is not a step in the right direction. Pun intended.

Judge Posner and the Future of Conservatism

None other than Judge Posner weighs in here on what we’re all discussing, the future of conservatism. Posner is a master of the artful distinction and while some may find his categorization of conservatives rather stark, I think the basic groupings are helpful in discussing future policy. Even though Posner “would be happy to see conservatism exit from the political scene–provided it takes liberalism with it,” I think his points are important to consider as we move forward. For those who want a focused discussion of economic conservatism’s future, see Becker’s post here.

Throwing Social Conservatism Under the Bus

John Derbyshire of the National Review observed that “The under-the-bus metaphor is getting a bit threadbare.” Yet, its applicability to a number of political situations make it  too delicious to forgo.  The latest candidate for speed-bump is the socially conservative base of the Republican Party.

Last week, erstwhile conservative Kathleen Parker stoked an inferno of outrage among evangelicals with her latest Washington Post column titled “Giving Up on God.”  In the piece, Ms. Parker opines:

Religious conservatives become defensive at any suggestion that they’ve had something to do with the GOP’s erosion. And, though the recent Democratic sweep can be attributed in large part to a referendum on Bush and the failing economy, three long-term trends identified by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz have been devastating to the Republican Party: increasing racial diversity, declining marriage rates and changes in religious beliefs.

Suffice it to say, the Republican Party is largely comprised of white, married Christians. Anyone watching the two conventions last summer can’t have missed the stark differences: One party was brimming with energy, youth and diversity; the other felt like an annual Depends sales meeting.

Having ever the penchant for linear thought, Ms. Parker’s fix for the GOP is to oust social conservatives lest America oust the Republican Party.  Though her concerns seems a bit tardy given the November returns, apparently, Republicans stand a better chance of winning elections through diminishing their ranks by one-third.

While I disagree with her perspective, I suppose I understand Ms. Parker’s point of view: blacklisting social conservatives is quite fashionable of late, and every failure begets a patsy.  Under different political fortunes, I might be inclined to dismiss Ms. Parker’s harangue as the unfortunate missive of a wayward pundit.  But Ms. Parker’s perspective is not an unfamiliar one in some quarters of the Party of Lincoln- albeit with varying degrees of contempt.

Indeed, on these very ramparts, some my estimable colleagues have already honed their leadership focus on fiscally conservative, reform-minded governors (here, here, and impressively here).  Meanwhile, the stock of social conservatives seems to idle somewhere around the level of shares from Bear Stearns.  Gov. Huckabee is ‘done.’  Gov. Palin is a veritable ‘cheerleader.’  That both have ‘limited appeal’ goes without saying.

A few thoughts.

If we can glean one lesson from the 2008 elections it is that political talent can be found in even the most sundry places. While it is true that recent Presidents have hailed from America’s statehouses, Sen. Obama’s victory shows that this need not be the case. Though it is certainly in vogue to applaud the states for being ‘laboratories of democracy,’ and to dub their governors ‘political scientists’ as a result,  I see no reason why Republicans should winnow the talent pool so early in the game. Assuming Republicans need not seek leadership from governors by default, it makes sense for the party to consider the wide array of political talent available- including Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin.

While the argument has not been made on Ex Deserto, Ms. Parker’s plot to exorcise social conservatives from the GOP has certainly been met with enthusiasm in some quarters. But a sub-text of Election 2008 is that culture and traditional values still matter to most Americans. The simple example is that voters in Arizona, California, and Florida all amended their State Constitutions last month to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman (viz., traditional marriage). According to Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, this makes “traditional marriage 30-for-30 when people are given the chance to decide the issue.”  Of course, California, and Florida both went for Sen. Obama, meaning that at least some social conservatives opted to vote Democrat rather than Republican.

So what?

Well, the results of Election 2008 indicate that traditional values are timeless; that they remain important to most Americans; and that they transcend the Republican Party itself.  As Gov. Huckabee famously said, “I do not spell G.O.D., G.O.P.”  The bottom line is that Republicans need social conservatives to win, and social conservatives need the Republican Party as a platform for defending the sanctity of human life, religious freedom, and traditional values. Such notions have no sympathy from the far-left elements on the other side.  Karl Rove said it best, “Winning requires addition, not subtraction.”  Following Ms. Parker’s advice would reduce the Party’s appeal rather than broaden it.  Ignoring Gov. Huckabee and Gov. Palin’s socially conservative voices in the agenda setting process would have the same effect.

Lest I seem to be giving social conservatives a pass, a large part of problem is not a socially conservative agenda itself, but the fact that most social conservatives appear judgmental rather than principled.  Like many issues, the matter is one of message as opposed to substance.  Being pro-life means caring about the lives of ordinary Americans–not because government has the solutions to their every problem, but because we are morally obliged to provide leadership and solutions to these key issues.

Pro-life supporters cannot rail against abortion, and then cease to care about a child’s education.

We cannot rally against state-sponsored health care while ignoring the soaring cost of prescription drugs, and the fact that millions of Americans remain uninsured.

We cannot sing the praises of the free market while ignoring the fact that poverty abounds.

We cannot ratchet up defense spending, and then ignore our woefully underfunded aid agencies.

We cannot laud the benefits of free trade and then turn a blind-eye toward America’s blue-collar workers who are losing manufacturing jobs by the thousands.

We cannot say that traditional marriage is a part of God’s natural order, and then live our lives in a manner that undermines the environmental sustainability of everything God created.

The observations above apply as much to the Republican Party generally as they do to social conservatism particularly.  Unless our positions deviate from the tired status quo, and begin to reflect our pro-life, conservative priorities, we will continue to lose elections.

Returning to politics, almost all of the policy incongruities above were mentioned by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin during the 2008 Election.   These ideas were especially popular among young voters (ages 18-29) who broke for the Dems by a margin of 2-to-1.  It is simply bad politics to isolate the lone, Republican voices who actually connected with the next generation of American voters.

It is also bad politics to so narrow the appeal of the GOP through purist ‘franchisee’ policies, and nebulous ‘core principles.’ As I explained in my introductory post the GOP tent needs to get bigger not smaller. One area where the GOP should seriously reconsider its ideological rigidity is immigration. Republicans simply cannot afford to isolate America’s burgeoning population of Hispanic voters by advancing an unrealistic policy on immigration. During the GOP primary, many candidates were of the mind that America should lock-down its southern border a la Ft. Knox, and round-up all of the illegals and send them home. Yet, it was never explained exactly how we would round up some 20 Million illegal immigrants in America, and ship them all back to Mexico.  Such overly-rigid positions ostracize the otherwise socially conservative, Hispanic families that would have a natural home in the Republican Party.  The same can be said for Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians. This is where Ms. Parker gets it right.  America is an increasingly diverse Nation, but the GOP has not honed its message to make our conservative ideas relevant to the new pluralistic reality.

In sum, until Republicans get serious about confronting our policy hypocrisy, and expanding our base, and making our big tent more hospitable to the folks who have never been inside, we will continue to lose elections. Though Ms. Parker surely disagrees, social conservatism is one of the tools by which we make the big tent bigger.  Exorcising social conservatives from the GOP is to mistake the prescription for the malady.