Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Coming Battle of Ideas

Last week, the 2012 Presidential Campaign began with the first presidential debate among some of the prospects for the Republican nomination. On the stage were Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson. Absent were Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, as well as possible candidates Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin.

What struck us was not the debate or the candidates themselves, but what they represented, which was perhaps the widest divergence of views within the conservative movement we have ever seen.

In the past 23 years, there have been four cycles -- 1988, 1996, 2000, 2008 -- when there was a contested Republican primary field. In the other two years -- 1992 and 2004 -- we had an incumbent President, both named Bush. However, it's worth noting that in 1992, Pat Buchanan challenged President George Bush.

In the other four years with contested primaries, the makeup was very similar -- all were hawkish on the military, all but maybe one was pro-life, all but one or two were socially conservative (though all claimed to be somewhat), and all were for somewhat limited government and lower taxes. In some cases, you might have someone very socially conservative (like Robertson in 1988 and Quayle in 2000), or someone more protectionist (like Buchanan in 1992, 1996 and 2000), or someone more focused on economics (Gramm in 1996 or Forbes in 2000), but largely the candidates were the same. Two candidates who were somewhat moderate on social issues -- Arlen Specter in 1996 and Rudy Guiliani in 2008 -- went nowhere.

Even in the last cycle, 2008 -- the candidates all pretty much preached similar messages. Fred Thompson was perhaps the most honest of the bunch, speaking boldly about the need to reform entitlements. But, Fred, Huckabee, Romney, Rudy, McCain -- all were the same -- hawkish on defense, generally fiscally conservative, generally socially conservative (Rudy less so). The exception was Ron Paul, who with his small but intense army, stayed in the race til the end, offering a different view on almost every subject -- end the wars overseas, social libertarianism, and economic libertarianism, going much further than most conservatives are willing to go. But largely, Paul was a distraction.

The end result of all four cycles was also the same -- the establishment "next choice" won out -- Bush in 1988, Dole in 1996, Bush in 2000, and McCain in 2008. We went 2-2 in those four, by the way.

However, this year -- in 2012, we are beginning to see the emergence of a conservative movement -- and as such, a Republican party -- with a wide variety of views that are now playing themselves out on the presidential stage.

Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are anti-drug war, anti-war, fiscal conservatives who are increasingly arguing for social libertarianism as well -- essentially, they are arguing for a "get the government out of everything" message.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, brings a message of pro-life, socially conservative views that he is not afraid to express, perhaps less afraid than any major presidential candidate since Pat Robertson, even more so than Mike Huckabee. Rick Santorum has made a point of saying that if the conservative movement, and the country as well, lose their social values, then we aren't really a movement anymore. Santorum, however, is in favor of limited government fiscally and is a traditional hawk on foreign policy.

Herman Cain is a social conservative, but less so than Santorum, seems to be somewhat hawkish on the military, but offers a new viewpoint on tax policy -- advocating very strongly for the Fair Tax. He's not the first to do so -- Huckabee did in 2008 and one wonders if Huckabee and Cain can't go very far if they are both in the same field - and Cain also offers a persona appealing to tea party types -- he makes a big deal about never holding elected office, something that really we've not heard from a serious candidate since perhaps Steve Forbes, and in our view, Cain is more appealing personally than Forbes ever was, even though this blog prefers Forbes' flat tax to Cain's Fair Tax.

Finally there is Tim Pawlenty, who represents the Lamar Alexander/George W. Bush message of past cycles. He would be what Republican nominees for most officers are -- decent fiscal conservative, decent social conservative, hawkish on the military -- but not a passionate advocate for any, with a bit more of a moderate tone that might appeal to swing voters.

Looking beyond the five that participated -- you have the queen of the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, the darling of conservatives in 2008 in Sarah Palin, the establishment king Mitt Romney, the intellectual Newt Gingrich, whose personal "issues" would have (and may still) disqualified him from past fields, and the interesting, and perhaps eventual compromise choice in Mitch Daniels, who on one hand, called for a "truce" on social issues, yet on the other, signed a major pro-life bill just a couple of weeks ago. Of course, you also have Donald Trump, who is a wild card of views and personality all his own...yet one who is in the Top 2 or 3 of most early polls among the GOP field.

Without getting into too much more detail about the candidates themselves, what is striking is how what is playing out here is an emerging battle of ideas within the conservative movement, where we will be debating the following four key broad policy questions:

1. Are we hawkish on defense and terrorism or do we want to pull back? Though most candidates seem to continue to push for a hawkish viewpoint, there seems to be an ever-growing call within certain sections of the tea party and conservative movement, people who are now beyond Ron Paul types, who are advocating for getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, no intervention in Libya, and even pulling back foreign aid from countries that were previously considered vital national security interests. Some of this stems from views of limited government, some of it is Pat Buchanan protectionism, while some of it is simply saying "its none of our business".

2. Beyond the pro-life issue, are we going to be socially conservative? Will we defend the family? The abortion issue continues to be front and center within the conservative movement, as even libertarians are often pro-life, arguing (justifiably) that the individual unborn child has liberty. So, in our view, the pro-life movement is still going strong, as evidenced here in Kansas and also in Indiana, as well as other states, by the passage of fetal pain legislation. Though slow moving battle, it seems that the country is certainly moving in the direction of upholding life.

However, beyond the life issue, it is an open question whether the country, and even the conservative movement, is moving away from social conservatism on issues like marriage, acceptance or non-acceptance of alternative lifestyles, religion, and even the family unit itself. Ron Paul argued for the government getting out of the marriage business entirely last week, a concept that would have gotten him booed off the stage in past cycles, but one that drew applause this time. Here in Kansas, the Republican dominated state legislature didn't pass the Community Defense Act, which would have restricted sex shops. Nationally, the marriage issue is losing some ground -- marriage laws continue to be passed, but concepts like civil unions are gaining more favor. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed. Family units other than the nuclear family are being accepted as mainstream for reasons other than necessity, but rather, by choice. It is also the observation of this blog that churches, though large in numbers, are more luke warm than ever before, talking more exclusively about broad concepts of spirituality and salvation (both essential, of course) and less willing to engage the culture -- for example, in 2008, the Pastor at the very large Church of the Resurrection didn't come out against the Missouri ballot initiative to allow funding for embryonic stem cell research.

So, it remains an open question as to whether or not traditional values will be part of the conservative movement or not, and whether the government will have any role in defining certain moral parameters, which of course, are largely a reflection in which the government is in. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and others will argue it should. Others will either call for a truce or say it shouldn't.

3. What is the role of government? This goes beyond issues of social conservatism, but even economics and government assistance. Should we have a war on drugs? Should substances like marijuana be banned? What's the role of government in education, even at the state and local level? Should there be consumer protections? Even if we all agree many environmental laws go too far, should we have environmental laws at all? Should there be a safety net, at all? Should we even have things like unemployment insurance? This doesn't even get into issues like funding for the arts, etc, where conservatives are largely moving against. On this front, it could very well depend on the issue, but some certainly argue for either none or extremely limited government -- and increasingly, it's harder to find conservatives willing to make a case for at least some government.

4. What is our tax policy going to be? There seems to be an increasing push/acceptance of the Fair Tax, almost to the point where other viewpoints are ostracized, even though there might be good arguments why we shouldn't have the federal government involved in transactions between individuals and businesses, and why taxing services might be problematic, and why a system of prebates might be a road to hell paved with good intentions. What about the flat tax? Should we have any kind of tax on businesses or property?

It seems that in the wake of the tea party movement, the conservative movement is in a phase of what coaches in sports often refer to as "finding ourselves". This is, by the way, in our view, a healthy and productive task, as debate is very healthy as even those who hold firmly to certain viewpoints within those four areas would be wise to have their thoughts challenged from time to time, before running full steam ahead.

Related to this, in the next several weeks and even months, we at Kaw & Border will be exploring these questions in more detail -- including reviewing two lists -- one of five items we think are terrible, but popular ideas -- and one list of five items that are worthy, but unpopular ideas.

Our analysis on the details aside, it is our view that how the conservative movement addresses these questions will have a lasting impact for the next decade and perhaps even the next generation. The answer to these questions could very well decide if certain issues even remain in the mainstream public debate, which in our view, depending on the issue, could be a very good or a very bad thing for the country.

And as these debates play themselves out politically, particularly in the presidential campaign, they could very well have an impact sooner rather than later.