I can’t say I was vested in any of the Republicans who were thumped in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York City on Election Day. I sensed, though, that last week’s off-year, not-exactly-bellwether contests were mainly a matter of blue states acting blue (and, as Jim Geraghty illustrated regarding Virginia, getting bluer). That said, there’s no doubt the GOP took a battering ten months into the tumultuous Trump presidency. The 2018 alarms are already sounding.
On that score, I’ve been meaning to note that my good friend of many years, Seth Leibsohn, has thrown his hat in the ring for the congressional seat in Arizona’s ninth district, which includes Maricopa County. His campaign website is here. It will be a competitive race, especially if Democrats remain as energized as they now appear to be. Still, the thought of Seth running for the House makes me feel better about the midterms . . . and the reality of Seth in Congress would make me feel better for the country.
A number of us NR-types know Seth from his years as former education secretary Bill Bennett’s radio producer, co-host, and sometime co-author (including a book, The Fight of Our Lives). Seth has been settled in Arizona for a number of years now. He co-hosts a radio program there with Chris Buskirk, and he’s a senior fellow at a West Coast conservative powerhouse, the Claremont Institute (of which Seth was vice president, as he was at Empower America).
As that pedigree implies, Seth is as solid a conservative as you’ll find — on policy points and on the things that really matter, such as the defense of liberty and Western civilization. He will promote an Arizona that has more say in how it is governed, and an America that is unabashedly proud to be American because of what that means about equality and dignity, about how we best lift every person up by unleashing every person’s ingenuity.
Seth would also come to Washington as a conservative who can work with the Trump administration. Here at National Review, our views about the president vary, but generally within a range from opposition to grudging acceptance, which is natural because he is transactional and we are not. Seth, to the contrary, has been a Trump supporter from an early stage. In American Greatness: How Conservative Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn, the book he co-authored with Buskirk, he acknowledged Donald Trump’s flaws but found them, in historical context, to be forgivable, or at least tolerable. He thus chided the president’s conservative critics — “critics” is putting it mildly — for failing to distinguish Trump the man from the policy agenda Trump the candidate represented to his supporters.
I’ll have more to say on another occasion about this critique, because I’m not swayed by the ongoing enterprise to give substantive content to the wispy notion of “Trumpism” — or what the president’s core supporters call the “MAGA agenda,” to which they are far more committed than their champion. For now, suffice it to say that I think Seth has been trying to do what Senator Mike Lee, the terrific Utah Republican, took the lead in doing after the president’s stunning victory last year: namely, to infuse Trump’s populism with conservative principles.
At the time, I took issue with Senator Lee’s semantics — to my mind, he was waging conservatism and calling it populism. My beef is with populism per se (an objection on which I expand in a chapter contributed to the forthcoming Vox Populi — The Perils & Promises of Populism, which Encounter will publish November 28). Not only do I have no objection to the effort to fight for conservative principles in our current, incoherent political moment; the effort is essential. The point is to resist its becoming too wrapped up in the person of Trump.
The ideal is a president who will be a committed vehicle for advancing liberty, limited government, and peace through strength. Trump will advance some of those objectives some of the time, and good for him when he does. He does it, however, out of perceived self-interest, not principled commitment. That makes him unreliable (which is still better than being reliably wrong). A “conservatism” too closely identified with him runs the risk of being seen as unreliable, too.
That’s why I believe Seth will be an excellent congressman. What we need are political leaders who can be persuasive with the administration and can make headway in illustrating to the president that conservative principles are where his self-interest lies — much as, for example, the Federalist Society has done on the crucial matter of judicial appointments.
We need the kind of conservatives who are both culture warriors and skilled strategists.
As a politician, Trump is an expert culture warrior. The Kulturkampf is critical. The Left knows it is the fight that blazes the trail for the installation of its political preferences. As for their counterparts, it is not that most Beltway Republicans lack a strong sense of conservative preferences; it is that, with mainstream opinion elites arrayed against them, they lack the resolve for the fight. Consequently, the Republican version of conservatism becomes little more than slowing the progressive ratchet, and conservative “reforms” are just marginal improvements within an unchallenged statist framework (see, e.g., “repeal and replace” proposals that mangle the very concept of insurance in preserving key Obamacare regulations).
Trump, by contrast, revels in the fight, or at least in taking on the mantle of the fighter. He is, alas, neither informed on principles nor anxious to learn and apply them. Tough to mold principle into enduring policy that way.
We need the kind of conservatives who are both culture warriors and skilled strategists: Those who are animated by Middle America’s wrath over the unaccountable, self-dealing sloth of the political establishment; but who know how Washington works — who understand what the establishment is up against, and can empathize without becoming paralyzed. We need them to be comfortable in their own skin, and sunny because they believe in what they’re doing.
My friend Seth Leibsohn is that kind of conservative. That’s why I’m glad he is running, and I hope he wins. Arizona should hope so, too.