Conservatives are at a crossroads. In Washington, the Reagan Revolution has gone off track, with those who would claim his mantle split between advocates for limited government and those who would use the power of the state to produce their desired ends.
Part of this comes in reaction to the movement's apparent failure to block the excesses of Obamaism, which represents the most dramatic shift to the left the country has been forced to endure since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The recent attempt to stop the implementation of "Democare" – the system for reconfiguring the nation's healthcare system that had been called "Obamacare," but which every congressional Democrat now owns – included the throwing of a number of sharp elbows that the right is finding it difficult to overcome.
Reagan's three-legged coalition of interests – built around the need for a strong national defense, support for traditional American values and the rule of law, and the push for limited government as the best way to unleash the economic might of the United States – is coming apart.
The limited government movement is split. Some believe in managing the current crisis in the best way possible and taking victories where they can be found. Others now advocate for what might be termed "Rollback," the need to confront Obama at every turn and to push back, and hard, in every instance, win or lose. Traditional values conservatives, while now winning on issues of longtime importance like abortion and education, have not yet figured out how to confront the cultural shifts that see them losing on issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
Most surprisingly, given the Obama administration's near historic ineptitude in international affairs, few conservatives seem to place anything like the needed emphasis on foreign and defense issues that might serve to unite the two wings of domestic conservatism while simultaneously producing good policy outcomes.
Things are healthier in the states, where conservative Republican governors and state legislators are rewriting tax policy, breaking up labor monopolies that strangle job creation and inhibit competitiveness, improving access to quality education, finding new ways to develop domestic energy resources and improving the living standards for the poor as well as the well off.
In Washington, however, the divisions are so deep that former friends are now nominal enemies. The various factions keep a weather eye out for any perceived slight, jab, insult or inference that will allow them to perpetuate the disagreements until the other guy cries "uncle."
Enter Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee who, though he is just in his first term, has already made a reputation for himself as an intellectual powerhouse who has been at the center of some of the most important policy fights that have occurred over the last 18 months. In a recent speech to The Heritage Foundation on "What's Next for Conservatives," Lee delivered a robust assessment of the current crisis as well as a thoughtful prescription that, if followed, could led to the movement's rebirth.
"One of conservatives' defining virtues is our insistence on learning from history. And to help answer the question, 'what's next?,' I think the most instructive history that conservatives can learn from today is our own," Lee said as he launched into what for many on the right represents a trip down memory lane going back to Ronald Reagan's failure to wrest the 1976 Republican presidential nomination from Gerald Ford at the party convention in Kansas City, Mo. "In other words," he said, "we have been here before."
What the ultimately successful Reagan generation did that made a difference was find ways for "comprehensively re-expressing conservative convictions to fit the time," something Lee continued "has not been done since. Conservative activists and intellectuals are still providing new energy and producing new ideas. But on the whole, elected Republicans and candidates have not held up our end."
"It's time for another Great Debate," he said, "and we should welcome all input: Grassroots and establishment. Conservatives and moderates. Libertarians and traditionalists. Interventionists and non-interventionists. Economic conservatives and social conservatives. All are part of our movement, and all are vital to our success – so all should be welcome in this debate."
Lee is correct. What is needed now is not a civil war that purges the so-called ideologically impure but a civil debate in which all points of view along the spectrum of the freedom agenda can be expressed, openly and without fear, so that a new agenda representing a broad consensus that has economic liberty, support for traditional values and a strong national defense at its core can become the new standard for the Republican Party and its candidates.
It may be sufficient for the Democrats to win elections by simply not being the GOP, as appears to be the case in the current Virginia gubernatorial race and elsewhere. Conservatives must stand for something, something positive that reaches the American people where they live. To win again, the Republicans must be the party of ideas, not a cult of personality that worships politically at the altar of symbols, slogans and half-truths like "Hope and Change" and one in which the ends always justify the means.