As Republicans prepare to gather in Cleveland to nominate Donald Trump as their nominee, the question that many may ask is: Whatever happened to conservatism? To the extent that conservatism is defined by limited government, free enterprise, respect for federalism, and a respect for enduring institutions like the family and the military—as well as sound moral conventions—it would seem that a credible coherent conservative agenda has lost popular support despite smashing victories in 1994, 2010, and 2014 at the congressional and state levels. Why has conservatism seemingly failed to catch on nationally in 2016? Here are 10 reasons:
First, conservatism was trumped by Bushism. Many conservatives supported the Bush family and its attempts to mix conservatism with what the Bushes described as compassionate, kinder, gentler polices. Thus, conservatives compromised on No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, campaign-finance reform and other similar initiatives. Each compromise affected conservative consistency and credibility, first incrementally, and then more forcefully after the last two presidential elections. Each compromise caused conservative dissatisfaction to grow.
Second, conservatives forgot about the plight of the waitress in Gallipolis, Ohio. The fact is that there are many low-income, hard- working people who have trouble keeping up with a slow economy. They have no connections to K Street, probably never attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting, and never subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. Yet, conservatives never crafted an approach that could lift the working poor, the struggling middle class, or the single waitress working the tables and raising families in many small towns across America.
Third, despite smashing victories at the congressional and state levels in 2010 and 2014, there were few national conservative leaders who lead the charge. These victories were truly from the ground up and yet there was no one around to give coherence and guidance when the winners and the winning ideas took office. This created a leadership vacuum which the Republican leadership tried unsuccessfully to fill.
Fourth, the Iraq war seriously impacted both the conservative and Republican brand. Whatever the merits of the Iraq war and the later Petraeus surge, the political fallout seriously impacted Republican and conservative candidates in 2006 and 2008. Many conservative political figures were swept away in a toxic political environment fueled, in part, by the public’s negative reaction to the management of the war effort. The Democratic takeover of Congress was the result, whose majorities eventually passed the Affordable Care Act.
Fifth, conservatives and the Republican leadership failed to convincingly lead the fight against the Affordable Care Act. Despite strong public support for repeal, the Republican leadership and the Republican nominee for president in 2012 failed to make a convincing argument for repeal and renewal of the healthcare industry.
Sixth, the donor class of the Republican Party had no idea what the grassroots were thinking. Many of these donors undoubtedly made their fortunes in meeting the expectations of clients and customers in their businesses. Yet, they were oblivious when making a $100 million investment in Jeb Bush. Imagine if that money were directed to winning conservative candidates and causes.
Seventh, immigration and internationalism. No two issues divide the base from the elite like these two issues. At a time when the working class is squeezed by depressed wages and a high cost of living, they see big business importing workers to this country and others illegally entering the country. It is especially the latter that is the most galling to the base, as the elite seems to confer a victim and entitlement status to those who broke the law and our borders to enter this country. Combine this with international trade agreements that seem to favor one business over another. Conservatives never understood these issues.
Eighth, the lack of moral leadership. Today, much of the faith-based social and mass media is subsumed in fundraising and friendly infomercial type outreaches. Gone are the more powerful witnesses of a Billy Graham, a Chuck Colson, or a Bishop Fulton Sheen.
Ninth, conservatives have been divided by multiple candidates representing parts of conservatism since 1988. We have seen candidates such as Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Ben Carson, Ron Paul, Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Carly Fiorina, and others not only divide the conservative movement, but also force other candidates to defend outrageous statements and policy positions from sometimes very inexperienced candidates.
Finally, the failure to take a stand. Early in this campaign cycle many committed conservatives could have taken a stand to unify conservatism. But, either due to vanity or just plain reluctance, a broad-based conservative candidate failed to emerge. And the conservative message was drowned and diluted.
As a result of these and perhaps other issues, conservatives and conservatism may be on the outs in November and beyond.
Samuel G. Casolari, J.D., ’83 is a trustee of Grove City College and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.