Can the Republican Victory Bring Conservative Governance?

The election returns are in and the result is clear: Republicans will have majorities in both houses of Congress beginning in January 2015, including a large cushion in the House.

Now the question is: what kind of party will Republicans be?  Will they seek a reprise of the bruising and ill-considered confrontations of 2011, after their last big electoral victory? Or, more constructively, will they prioritize a positive policy agenda with an eye toward building on their 2014 win in 2016 and beyond?  In answering these questions, the stakes could not be higher for the party’s future or for the nation as a whole.  We believe that the precepts of conservatism, properly understood, should strongly push Republicans toward the latter course.

We laid out the case for this position in our Summer 2014 article in National Affairs, “The Conservative Governing Disposition” (now ungated, though a subscription is well worth the price).  We emphasized that conservatism, the intellectual tradition developed by Edmund Burke, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Michael Oakeshott, Robert Nisbet, and many others, offers a fruitful way of thinking about American political life that has often been absent in recent years:

Dispositional conservatives can and do disagree about the particulars of nearly every policy and political choice. But they are unified by their orientation to social change: They counsel humility, because people are fallible and the world is complex, and therefore urge a healthy respect for evolved social practices and institutions. Tempered by these insights, conservatives can encourage prudential reform to address our society’s problems in ways that are well suited to our society’s character. …

Conservatism has the most to offer societies that have much worth conserving yet run the risk of dissipating their inheritance through wrong-headed, sweeping changes or stubborn inaction. In many ways, this is America’s current situation. On the one hand, some progressives champion a vision characterized by government-centered technocratic expertise, arguing that the current system is weighed down by half measures and unnecessary complications. But by doubling down on centralization and technocracy, these progressives would exacerbate the very problems that have made the system ungovernable and make them permanent. On the other hand, some on the right seek to break with the past in a very different manner — repudiating 80 years of institutional development and reinventing America as a nation that rejects a substantive role for regulation or a social safety net. Though they are often labeled as “conservatives,” their ambitions, and especially their rhetoric, emphasize the need for a sharp break with many features of our current governing institutions. Whatever the merits of that position, it represents a clear divergence from the conservative intellectual tradition.

When applied to the American context, this tradition emphasizes the virtue of incremental adaptation, embodied in our constitutional order and in the mediating social institutions that evolve to fill the spaces made possible by such an order. Now is the time to recover and reapply that tradition, which should rightly aim to sustain these means of incremental improvement rather than forsaking them. This is no easy feat, of course, but it offers the most plausible way to prevent today’s predicament of misgovernment from becoming an overwhelming malaise, and to recover America’s promise of liberty, equality, and dynamism.

Now that Republicans find themselves in a position to legislate, we hope they take these lessons to heart and take up the work of reforming our governmental institutions and developing a governing agenda—perhaps sometimes by reversing wrong turns of recent years, but other times by bringing new developments into alignment with America’s traditions of governance.

There are some encouraging signs to suggest that the party may be up to this task.  As shown in Philip Rucker and Robert Costa’s wide-ranging campaign retrospective, Republicans’ mindset in approaching the 2014 election was very different than in 2010 or 2012.  The party generally sought to support candidates exemplifying qualities of steadiness and competence rather than ideological purity—a strategy that seems to have paid significant dividends at the polls.  Candidates this cycle did not abandon their political or ethical commitments, many of which are of course strongly held, but often devised common sense policy responses to prevailing political realities rather than staking out untenable positions—for example by arguing that birth control should be made available over-the-counter without a prescription, a strategy adopted by Senator-elect Cory Gardner in Colorado, among others.

The party also seems to have realized that it overplayed its hand in the wake of its Tea Party-driven victory in 2010, with the near-disastrous budget fights of 2011 and 2013 winning it little respect from voters (who, in spite of giving Republicans a resounding win in this election, seemed to lack deep enthusiasm for the still-unpopular party).  Perhaps Republicans are even ready, now that they will be negotiating from a position of strength, to think kindly of a c-word they have in recent years come to hold in low regard: compromise.  As Brookings’ Jonathan Rauch wrote, also in National Affairs, “Compromise is not merely a political expedient; it is a republican virtue — indeed, a cardinal virtue, according to no less a conservative luminary than Edmund Burke, who insisted that ‘All government, indeed every human bene-fit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.’” Rauch went on to say: “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Advancing legislation that might attract Democrats on some issues is hard to fathom after six years of building mutual distrust; consensual reform of Obamacare seems farfetched and immigration reform is a political minefield in spite of a good many shared policy priorities on the issues.  But there are plenty of other issues in which the parties aren’t really so far apart and might well find room to work together.  We are thinking of criminal justice, drug policy, education (both K-12 and higher ed), housing finance reform, tax reform, trade, regulatory reform, and even entitlement and pension reform—along with a whole litany of less high-profile issues.  Some of these have been managed through (in many instances regrettable) executive branch improvisation in recent years, and some have merely languished, but all cry out for the kind of detailed, coherent, and realistic policy updating that can only emerge from new legislation.

Where compromise with Democrats is less likely, Republicans should nonetheless seek—at a bare minimum—floor votes on legislation that could plausibly improve the lives of Americans in concrete ways, to illustrate for the American public an understanding of the particular problems they face and policy that might address those problems, as well as to develop policy expertise for future legislative efforts. As we note in our essay:

Because dispositional conservatism is a practical cast of mind oriented toward the purposes of government and its attendant details, embodying it in practice requires getting one’s hands dirty, struggling through the messy and sometimes mundane aspects of governance. In particular, the act of reform — making positive changes on the margin — requires deep interest in and knowledge of our starting place and of the plausible means of making improvements. In other words, the sometimes boring and arduous task of reform, which is essential in a world where so much is worth preserving, requires great and persistent effort.

To be clear, the philosophical tradition of conservatism we have in mind does not mean “less ideological,” or “more moderate,” though those can sometimes be virtues, and are sometimes virtues recommended by conservatism. The conservative cast of mind we have articulated is certainly that—a way of thinking about policy and reform that we think is presently undervalued and underrepresented. But its foundations also suggest substantive policy recommendations across a number of domains. In our essay we highlight some of these domains by way of illustration, such as healthcare and education, where increasingly centralized and technocratic approaches (very much at odds with conservatism) have had bad consequences for Americans present and future.

The stakes, as always, are high. For Republicans, embracing dispositionally conservative values to create an appealing program of governance over the next two years is good policy and good politics.  Unfortunately, some Republicans are so determined to get every bit of bargaining leverage available that they continue to see compromise and even governing as “traps”—but whatever the tactical merits of this position, it is utterly lacking in deeper conservative appeal.  We hope that a resurgence of conservative values makes a longer-term vision possible.