To last, and matter, conservatism needs an agenda that partakes less of Gerson’s evangelical moralism and more of the realism that defined the original neoconservatives. It needs a foreign policy whose idealism is leavened with a greater sense of limits than this administration has displayed; and a domestic policy that seeks to draw contrasts with liberalism, not to imitate it, by emphasizing responsibility rather than charity and respect rather than compassion.
In “Respect Conservatism,” we took a page from Mickey Kaus to offer a roadmap for Rudy Giuliani. Suffice to say, Giuliani never embraced our approach, but the Kaus argument against Gersonism is still dead on.
When Bush introduced “compassionate conservatism” in a big set-piece speech a year ago, the concept was shot through with charitable condescension toward the poor. Bush described his compassion as “a noble calling. The calling of a nation where the strong are just and the weak are valued.” Whether or not Compassion Politics is inherently inegalitarian (as I’d argue it is), Bush’s version clearly was. The relation between the “just” and “noble … strong,” on the one hand, and the “weak” who are to be “valued” (by whom?), on the other, sure didn’t sound like a relationship between proud, free, equal citizens. Gore effectively got this point across by denouncing Bush’s “crumbs of compassion.”
And yet Gore’s embrace of neopopulism allowed Bush to portray himself as the candidate of economic optimism, despite the fact that Clinton cornered the market on opportunism in his struggle against the dour and dark anti-Clinton right.
Ross goes on to make the central “Sam’s Club” point.
Above all, [the Republican party] needs to think as much about meeting the concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, the constituents that first Nixon and then Reagan won for the GOP, as it does about the dissidents and addicts that a “heroic conservatism” would set out to save.
Yuval Levin is particularly persuasive on this notion that the trouble with Gersonism is that it fails to address the aspiration and the anxieties of this all-important group.
In fact, today’s disquiet seems less the panic of a drowning man than the angst of an overachiever. The worry of middle- and lower-middle-class families arises from a genuine tension between the two things they most eagerly strive to do: build families and build wealth. That tension, and the disquiet it causes, is especially acute for parents. Indeed, Americans in the middle class and what used to be called the working class would be better conceived of today as the parenting class. Their concerns and aspirations are no longer focused on their standing in the workplace, as they were when our political vocabulary was coming of age, but on balancing the pursuits of family and prosperity.
The members of the parenting class do not live on the edge of poverty. But they are anxious about their ability to meet their high aims, like affording a decent college for their children, getting the most from their health care dollar, and (in our increasingly older society) meeting the needs of their aging parents.
One politician is addressing this mix of issues unusually well: David Cameron. More on that to come.