- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2008




As an attitude, America’s conservatives could do worse than to be moved by those lines of William Blake from another place and another time on behalf of a similar sacred cause then not yet realized.

Conservatism has always been and will always be a force to reckon with because it most closely approximates the reality of the human condition, based, as it is, on the cumulative judgment and experience of a people. It is the heir, not the apostate, to the accumulated wisdom, morality and faith of the people.

As a force in electoral politics in any given season, conservatism, as all ideas and causes, is hostage to the effectiveness of the party that carries its banner, the candidates and leaders who articulate its principles and programs and the engagement and spirit of the people who are its natural adherents.

A dispassionate critique of the performance of each of those elements would have to conclude that is the core of the conservative people - our natural adherents - were inflamed with both passion and knowledge of conservative principles. It was the party and the candidates, leaders and conspicuous advocates (with some honorable exceptions) who failed both in their vision and their performance a cause that yearned to be well led.

But fate (if you are a classicist) or the mystery of God (if you are religious) has also played its part this season. Only once since FDR-Truman has the American electorate elected the same party to the White House three times in a row (Reagan, Reagan and H.W. Bush, 1980-1992). And, by the way, only once since Grover Cleveland in 1892 has the American voter not elected the same party to the White House at least twice in a row (Jimmy Carter, 1976-1980).

Moreover, the Republican Party, our reluctant champion, was naturally (if in a few instances, unfairly) held to account for two unpopular wars, manifest corruption and managerial incompetence, a collapsed housing market that resulted in a 20 to 50 percent crash in the home values for most Americans and a financial crisis which threatens world prosperity and has reduced the value of the average American’s stock portfolio by about 40 percent.

But, as someone who has been banging around American politics since the Goldwater glory and defeat of 1964, I need to observe that the first explanation of losing causes and losing parties (liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans) is almost invariably to blame incompetent candidates, ineffective messages and overwhelming events. At a technical level, that is often true. But at a deeper, historic level, the failure was that the cause was not yet ready to lead.

We conservatives were not ready to lead in 1964. By 1980 and 1994 under Reagan and Gingrich, we had figured out how to talk to a majority of the country with both principles and programs that gained a majority endorsement. We were no longer just sitting on our high horse declaiming to a nation. We were on the ground, with the people, leading them into the citadel of power.

At a practical level, it is worth considering how Benjamin Disraeli reformed the modern British Conservative Party in the 19th century. (For a fuller account see “The Inventor of Modern Conservatism; Disraeli and us.” Weekly Standard, by David Gelernter.)

He envisioned the Conservative Party as the true national party, while the Whigs were merely the party of intellectual ideas. In that time, English intellectuals and progressives were fascinated with German ideas, just as today, Democrats are enchanted with European ideas.

Disraeli judged that: “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.” By championing the vote for the people in a century in which that was inevitable, Disraeli formed a conservative party that dominated British politics for a hundred and fifty years.

Today, there are certain profound values - free markets and respect for life - that are renounced at the price of our soul. Free markets, particularly, are under the immediate, explicit assault of the next government. Life may be undermined more surreptitiously.

But, as a national cause championed by a national party, a conservative agenda must learn to speak persuasively to a near majority of Hispanic Americans, or we will be merely a debating society. When Texas joins states such as Colorado, New Mexico (and even North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, Florida and many others) where Hispanic votes are necessary for victory, there is no possibility of national governance without finding that voice.

Our challenge is not to retreat to the comfort of self-congratulatory exile, but to sweat and bleed - and be victorious in the arena of public opinion.

Tony Blankley is a syndicated columnist.

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