- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

(Part of our Reinventing Conservatism series):

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) 2009 will convene in Washington on Thursday. While liberals try to convince themselves and others that the views of Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman and the rest of the founders of the modern conservative movement are no longer “relevant,” nearly 9,000 conservative activists will begin the hard work of rebuilding after an electoral loss.

Whenever Republicans lose an election, liberals tell us that our views have been rejected by an electorate that wants government to do more and more and recognizes, even if we don’t, that our views are outdated, unpopular and unworkable.

This is nothing new.

But this time more than a few conservatives are suggesting that the election of Barack Obama represents not simply a rejection of the performance of Republicans and conservatives in office but a rejection of our philosophy. And that by stubbornly clinging to unpopular beliefs, conservatives are risking political marginalization.

Liberal observers and moderates within the Republican Party have argued this for years. After Barry Goldwater lost in 1964 some in the Republican Party insisted that survival meant moving left; it was the same refrain after Richard Nixon and his apparatchiks botched things up in the 1970s. They dismissed Mr. Reagan as “too conservative,” and are telling us once again that only by embracing a watered down liberalism can the Republican Party survive.

They were wrong in 1964, wrong in 1974 and wrong now.

Exit polls last November revealed that voters were upset not with conservatism, but with the performance of hypocritical Republican politicians who talked like conservatives but acted like liberals.

Mr. Obama took advantage of this mood and by Election Day convinced voters that he was more likely to cut taxes than his Republican opponent, that the last thing he wanted to do was enact a national government-run health care system, and that - unbelievable as it may seem - he would protect the Second Amendment.

This seemingly never-ending debate pits those who have misread the 2008 election results and are perfectly willing, based on that misreading, to trade principle for power against conservatives who insist on a principled politics. It is, in fact, a debate between those who want to use ideas to win political office and those who seek power only to advance their ideas.

Conservatives who work to elect politicians to advance their values must have a foot in two worlds. Although we are motivated by a vision of what we think ought to be, we realize that we and those we elect are working in a world in which compromise and half measures are the norm.

Successful conservative politicians such as Mr. Reagan kept their eye on the big goals. It is one thing to imagine the “City Upon a Hill” and quite another to actually build it.

The modern conservative movement is based on a fundamental belief in the sanctity and freedom of the individual and on the conviction that free markets maximize these freedoms and have historically proven superior to government-directed economics. It follows that a government that is strong enough to protect society, but otherwise leaves us alone to live our own lives and make our own decisions, is superior to any government that tries to make our decisions for us and puts our money into the hands of government bureaucrats.

The question is whether those basic values and beliefs are still real to us, whether policies that flow from those beliefs work in the real world and, finally, whether conservatives can present these values to the voting public in a way that will attract majority support on a given Tuesday in November.

If they aren’t real or if they don’t work, then it’s time to look for new ideas that do work; but if the problem is that we are failing to communicate or apply our beliefs in a way that resonates with people, the problem lies with us and not our ideas.

Conservative values continue to appeal to vast numbers of Americans, but conservative politicians sometimes fail to communicate those values effectively or live up to them once elected. The remedy is not to abandon the values and beliefs that brought us into the political arena in the first place, but to do a better job organizing, communicating, reaching out to new voters and recruiting candidates who are in it for more than a job and the booty that goes with it.

Conservatives have come back from defeat before and will again, but only if we remain true to the values on which the movement and our past success have been built.

• David A. Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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