Frame Game

The New Grand Old Party

The defeat of 2012 is forcing Republicans to rethink what they stand for. What will the new conservatism look like?

Conservative newspaper columnist George Will.
Conservative newspaper columnist George Will in 2009 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

Progressives like to think they’re the engine of history. They fight for change, and eventually conservatives succumb. But it doesn’t always work out that way. History is littered with liberal ideas—pacifism, high taxation, single parenting by choice—that conservatives challenged and defeated. Progressives may drive history, but conservatives filter it.

That’s what makes the reflections of conservative writers on the 2012 presidential election so interesting. It’s the filtering process at work. Republicans have suffered a defeat, and they’re seeing, in polling trends, signs of trouble ahead. Many of them believe it will become increasingly difficult to win elections with their party’s current positions on immigration, marriage, and other issues. They’re trying to figure out what the GOP must do to restore its viability, and whether they can stomach the changes. Once this process is complete—once the party has decided which changes will be accepted and how they will be reframed and assimilated into a conservative worldview—this stage of history will be consolidated. The old radicalism will be the new consensus.

What will that consensus look like? Here are some early glimpses, through the eyes of the right’s leading essayists.

Michael Gerson.
Michael Gerson.

Courtesy Calvin College.

1. America is assimilation. Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, argues in his Washington Post column that the GOP must change its attitude toward Latinos. Instead of Mitt Romney’s self-deportation scheme, Gerson proposes “a vision of American identity preserved by the assimilating power of American ideals. And that would lead Republicans to endorse the Dream Act and to support a rigorous path to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the country.” According to Gerson, this approach would abandon notions of nationalism based on “the exclusion of outsiders” and “the building of walls.”

2. Illegal immigrants epitomize American values. If the Republican argument against illegal immigrants is that they “don’t share our values,” Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal, “then religiosity, hard work, personal stoicism and the sense of family obligation expressed through billions of dollars in remittances aren’t American values.” So get over your ethnic hang-ups and your English-only fixation. “What’s so awful about Spanish?” Stephens asks. “It’s a fine European language with an outstanding literary tradition—Cervantes, Borges, Paz, Vargas Llosa—and it would do you no harm to learn it. Bilingualism is an intellectual virtue.”

3. Illegal immigration is entrepreneurship. “Most voters already favor less punitive immigration policies than the ones angrily advocated by clenched-fist Republicans,” writes George Will. And what these angry Republicans refuse to see is that “immigrating—risking uncertainty for personal and family betterment—is an entrepreneurial act.” That’s a law-and-order conservative welcoming immigration, not only without reference to its legality, but with approving emphasis on its degree of risk. A Republican shift along these lines would reorient the party from enforcing rules to embracing the virtues of rulebreakers.

4. Gay marriage is a bourgeois triumph. “Public support for same-sex marriage has risen a lot, among young people especially, and the Republican Party will have to soften its opposition to it,” writes Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru. Will counsels that conservatives “need not endorse such policies, but neither need they despise those, such as young people, who favor them.” Gerson, looking at the same poll numbers, says “it is more advisable than ever to make public arguments about morality in aspirational rather than judgmental ways.” Stephens adds:

If gay people wish to lead conventionally bourgeois lives by getting married, that may be lunacy on their part but it’s a credit to our values. Channeling passions that cannot be repressed toward socially productive ends is the genius of the American way. The alternative is the tapped foot and the wide stance.

That’s a neat fusion of conservative impulses: realism about human nature, skepticism toward naïve laws, attention to cultural consequences. You can see, in these reflections, how the GOP gradually reconciles itself to same-sex marriage.

5. Focus on opportunity, not government. Several writers preach an economic rather than ethnic approach to Latinos. Ross Douthat says the GOP can reach “downscale white voters” as well as “upwardly mobile Latino voters” by moving beyond its “fixation on upper-bracket tax cuts” and acknowledging that, in the words of AEI’s Henry Olsen, “Government can give average people a hand up to achieve the American Dream.” David Brooks goes further, noting that Hispanics and Asian-Americans, as measured by surveys,

Journalist David Brooks speaks.
Journalist David Brooks speaks at the launch of No Labels in 2010 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

value industriousness more than whites. Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it. Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. … What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity? Don’t get hung up on whether the federal government is 20 percent or 22 percent of G.D.P. Let Democrats be the party of security, defending the 20th-century welfare state. Be the party that celebrates work and inflames enterprise. Use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives.

That’s a repudiation of decades of Republican rhetoric about government versus freedom. It would shift the GOP’s core emphasis from the size of government to the management of human nature. And this is a common thread among the post-election essays. “Conservatives will need to define a role for government that addresses human needs in effective, market-oriented ways,” writes Gerson. “Americans fear public debt, and they resent intrusive bureaucracies, but they do not hate government.” In National Review, Yuval Levin defends “benefits and protections for the poor and the vulnerable, provided they are designed to encourage independence.” Rather than oppose government intervention per se, this philosophy integrates conservative principles into government so that conservatives can, in good conscience, use state power in the economy.

6. Make things affordable. In his Politico column, NR editor Rich Lowry calls Romney’s investment tax cuts “almost a parody of a Wall Street Republican’s idea of how to help middle-income families.” Instead, Lowry pines for “a more explicit replacement plan for Obamacare” and “a proposal to begin addressing spiraling college tuitions.” Ponnuru agrees that voters “want politicians to offer a practical agenda to … make health care and higher education more affordable.” Neither writer wants bureaucratic solutions. But they acknowledge that politicians, in some way, must step in to close the gaps between current market prices and what people can afford.

7. Use the tax code to help couples raise kids. Lowry says a “generous child tax credit” would make good on Romney’s “rhetoric about increasing take-home pay.” Levin declares more explicitly that “there are some parts of our society that deserve special consideration and special treatment. I would favor a tax code designed to be more supportive of middle-class parents.” These ideas, echoing Rick Santorum’s message in the 2012 presidential primaries, would shift the GOP from flat-tax neutrality toward a more aggressive and progressive, albeit socially conservative, philosophy of taxation. It isn’t exactly redistributionism, but it could fairly be called distributionism.

Many of the other writers whose post-election columns I’ve examined—Chris Caldwell, Mona Charen, David Frum, John Fund, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Peggy Noonan, Kathleen Parker, Kim Strassel—offer similar suggestions. Others disagree. Together with Republican politicians and voters, they’ll gradually sort out which changes to adopt. The result could be a party defined less by deregulation and border fences and more by middle-class tax breaks, pro-immigration capitalism, and programs aimed at upward mobility. The revolution will be complete when—as in the case of civil rights, feminism, and retirement programs—the right no longer recognizes that it once opposed ideas it now takes for granted. The curse of being a conservative is that most of the time, you’re losing. The consolation is that in retrospect, you’ve never lost.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: