Wanted: A New Politics of Character

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I spent the weekend re-reading David Frum's Dead Right. Published in 1995, Frum's slim book is a gripping and devastating account of the failure of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to limit government. Frum's thesis, which I do not believe he has ever recanted, is that the conservative movement became enamored with the trappings of power during the Reagan presidency, and stopped making the argument that America's problems stem from our sprawling and dilapidated welfare state. Instead conservatives, like Reagan, told Americans they could indeed have it all: tax cuts and entitlements, big government at half the price. Frum's solution was for conservatives to step back from the Republican Party, care somewhat less about elections, and spend more time convincing Americans that a radical reduction in the size and scope of government is necessary and just.

What really interested me, though, was Frum's typology of post-Reagan conservatives. He divides them into three groups. There are optimists, led by Jack Kemp. There are moralists, led by William J. Bennett. And there are nationalists, led by Pat Buchanan.

Optimists say public policy is a matter of incentives. Human beings all want to do the right thing, but taxes and regulation get in the way. Cut taxes, reduce regulation, resurrect the gold standard, and people will flourish.

For the moralists, incentives are not enough. Character counts. Crime, welfare, education matter more to a moralist than tax rates or Social Security. Government can and should foster a public morality. And if conservatives do not promote bourgeois values such as fidelity, thrift, discipline, modesty, and hard work, then liberals will use their social and political power to promote values of their own.

Nationalists are concerned with the erosion of American sovereignty. Defense treaties commit us to wars we cannot win and should not fight. Trade agreements displace workers. Immigration alters the ethnic composition of the nation. The solution is to place "America first, and second, and third," as Buchanan put it in the title of a famous National Interest essay.

It is worth considering where these groups stand today. Kemp protégé Paul Ryan is clearly the leader of the optimists. Donald Trump is clearly the leader of the nationalists. But I can't tell you who the leader of the moralists is. I can't name a prominent conservative known for advocating public morality, a political leader who has taken a stand on crime, on welfare, on family policy, on education. A major education bill was recently signed into law with little fanfare and even less debate. The Powerball jackpot has grown to more than $236 million, and no one bats an eye, no Republican presidential candidate suggests that gambling harms the weak.

Where did the moralists go? To some degree they were victims of their own success. Crime has fallen. Welfare was reformed. Standards and testing were written into education law. Other issues became more pressing. After 9/11, a lot of the moralists became heavily invested in foreign and defense policy. Defending the Iraq war, and advocating a strategy that could improve our situation there, was a full-time job. President Obama forced conservatives to adopt a defensive position—against Obamacare, against immigration reform, against the Iran deal. The disappointing endgame in Iraq, and the Republican elite's drive to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the diminishing returns from globalization created the conditions for a nationalist revival.

This outcome is unfortunate. The moralists were once the most interesting and intellectually vibrant school of conservatism. They accurately identified a weakening of American self-confidence, a growing sense of entitlement and anomie, the importance of civil society and the cultural fabric. And they are needed once more. The conditions of our cities and suburbs, the state of our schools, the disintegration of the family, gun violence, opioid addiction, mental illness, pornography, welfare—these are subjects ripe for fresh policy analysis. Some of that work is being done. But it rarely finds expression in the public square.

A new politics of character would incorporate the best insights of the other schools of conservatism while rejecting their excesses. It needn't be beholden to the idea that tax cuts will generate enough revenue to pay for themselves. It would recognize that immigration and trade bring costs as well as benefits even as it condemns rhetorical excess. It would treat seriously the idea that government matters. And, perhaps most importantly, in the uncertain and turbulent political era we seem to be entering, a new politics of character would not be necessarily attached to one political party.