Thursday, December 28, 2006

Nothing focuses the political mind like defeat.

With Democrats about to assume control of the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, Republicans in general, conservatives in particular and conservative Christians especially face an important choice.

For at least the next two years, they can forget about confirming many, if any, judges who disbelieve in legislating from the bench. There won’t be any John Robertses or Samuel Alitos getting confirmed (or probably nominated). No Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, will allow any through. And while the fate of the “Gang of 14” who vowed in the last session not to participate in any filibuster of judicial nominees except in extreme circumstances has yet to be determined, my guess is their influence will not be as great in a Democratic Senate. Neither will there be a “nuclear option” because there will be no Republican majority leader who might use it.

Cross most important social issues off the conservative resolution list for the next two years. Socially conservative freshman Democrats are unlikely to press them on a liberal leadership. Liberals were happy to sleep with pro-life and anti-same-sex-“marriage” Democrats during the campaign, but don’t look for them to be respected in the postelection morning.

The choice conservative Republicans must make is what to do for the next two years. They might consider the example of Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican. In some ways Mr. Brownback, who is running for president, is trying to reinvent what it means to be a social conservative. To be more precise, he is trying to take the movement back to first principles, demonstrating what he is for, rather than what or whom he opposes.

World Magazine, a conservative evangelical publication, followed Mr. Brownback into the infamous Louisiana penitentiary at Angola, known to the public through the films “Monster’s Ball” and “Dead Man Walking.” Earlier this month, Mr. Brownback addressed 700 inmates in the prison chapel and spent the night in a jail cell along with writer Marvin Olasky, who says his “neighbors” were a serial rapist and a drug cartel killer.

Mr. Brownback answered questions from the inmates, who are accustomed to hearing “tough on crime” messages from conservative Republicans, none of whom to my recollection ever began a presidential campaign in a place like Angola. When they got up the next morning, Mr. Brownback and Mr. Olasky visited Death Row.

A cynic might say Mr. Brownback was grandstanding, but that cynic would have to answer “for whom?” People who back prison reform and social justice issues have mostly been Democrats and political liberals. Such issues don’t play well among the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” crowd.

What I find most appealing about Mr. Brownback’s approach is his positive tone. It came from a cancer scare he had in 1995. For nine months he was unsure of the outcome. “That’s when I felt helpless,” he said. He emerged from cancer with a clean bill of health and also a spiritual transformation. “Before 1995 I was in attack mode,” he told Mr. Olasky. Now he’s a changed person. The tone, though not the substance, of his politics has also changed.

Social conservatives and Republicans might consider Mr. Brownback’s example. If they keep in mind the end, but change tactics, their prospects for achieving their ends might greatly improve. Too many of their constituents have been conditioned by the negative approach. In fund-raising letters, in public pronouncements and from some pulpits has come political and ideological invective not only unbecoming to the source of such statements but a bad example to others. It converts no one to the conservative view and turns off even some who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Republicans.

Here’s my suggested resolution for the Republican-conservative-Christian voter, courtesy of singer-songwriter Glen Campbell:

You got to try a little kindness/ Yes show a little kindness/ Just shine your light for everyone to see/ And if you try a little kindness/ Then you’ll overlook the blindness/ Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets.

From a political standpoint, the best part of this strategy is that it works and might even prompt more people to vote Republican in 2008.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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