So, smart-mouth, what would you do different?
Yesterday, Allahpundit over at Hotair.com linked to my blogpost on the Mount Vernon statement with the rhetorical question: ”Isn’t David Frum right, just this one time? (Note to Allahpundit – if you add up all the times I’ve been right “just this one time” the total amounts to quite a few times!)
The commenters on his post were not so favorable however. And many of them asked some version of the question atop this post.
You don’t start writing until you know why you are writing. The Mount Vernon Statement was written to demonstrate the unity of various conservative factions. But the great question overhanging the conservative movement is not its unity, but its relevance. Yes, you can pile the major conservative groups into a conference room and find forms of words to which they will all nod. No news there: conservatives do that every Wednesday morning in Grover Norquist’s conference room. But will those words address any of the important problems of the country? Will they galvanize anybody other than self-identified conservatives? For that matter, will they offer even conservatives any kind of legible road map forward?
The Mount Vernon statement only confirms these doubts about conservatism’s relevance. If you must have a manifesto, write one that answers the questions people are asking:
1) Why are we in this mess?
2) What’s wrong with President Obama’s approach?
3) What would you do differently?
4) Can we trust you to do better than you did last time?
A good manifesto would be realistic. It would not blame the president for conditions he inherited, but only for his own actions. It would attack the Democrats’ decisions, not their motives – it certainly would not suggest that they were inspired by some anti-constitutional hostility for public liberties. If it wants to speak to specific concerns – for example, the risks in the Obama healthplan for the freedom of conscience of medical providers – it would do so directly, rather than lodging those concerns in mystifying language about “true religious freedom.”
Where there are unresolved differences within the center-right coalition, a good manifesto would put those issues aside rather than try to present a false image of unity through empty verbal formulas (as happened in the foreign policy section of the Mount Vernon Statement). A manifesto does not need to deal with every issue: it’s a tool for mobilization, not an apologia pro sua vita.
But there is one issue with which a manifesto must inescapably deal: the recent past. In 2010, unlike 1960, American conservatism is not a new movement. Nor is it a movement of outsiders. Conservatives may tell themselves — as Mitt Romney told them at the Republican convention in 2008 — that Washington has been “liberal” oh these many years. The American public however will remember that self-described conservatives have held the presidency for 20 of the past 30 years – a Senate majority for 18 of the past 30 years – and the majority in the House for 12 of the past 30 years. The chief justices of the Supreme Court stretching back to 1969 have been conservatives by any definition. Every one of the nation’s four biggest states has had a Republican governor for at least 8 of the 14 years since 1994. There has to be some form of reckoning with this history: the “who us?” attitude often expressed in conservative circles will convince nobody, not even conservatives ourselves.
I mention this not to pick at scabs, but because conservatives who wish to carry the country with them need some answer to the fourth question above: not an apology, but a new reason to believe.