The Corner

Politics & Policy

Conservative Ideas and the Question of Confidence

Reagan at his ranch, April 1985 (National Archives)

Last week, Jonah Goldberg had a column whose main message was, “Conservatives need to argue about ideas.” And this reminded me that I’ve long wanted to say something about California.

A lot of us conservatives have long written it off. California is too changed: too brown, too illegal, too bloated, too listless. All the good people have left, and all the bad people have stayed. You know the rap. Usually, we don’t put it this crudely, but this is what it amounts to.

What about trying to persuade people? What about trying to sell our ideas? Now, it’s usually not like me to be Mary Sunshine. It’s hard to out-cynic me. Over the last ten years, I’ve said a thousand times, “If you think Ronald Reagan could have a political career in California today, you must be smoking something. For all his talents, he couldn’t be elected dogcatcher, much less governor.”

That’s what I say — but I may be wrong. This one thing I know: You’ve got to try. “Never up, never in,” we say in golf. In other words, if you don’t get the putt to the hole, it’s not going in. If you don’t pitch your ideas to people, those ideas aren’t going to have a chance.

I wonder: Do we have so little faith in our ideas and their power? Do we think our ideas are for limited demographics? What pitiful ideas those must be, then!

Over and over, my whole career long, I’ve met people who say, “I was on the left, but Bill Buckley changed my mind.” “I was on the left, but Ronald Reagan changed my mind.” WFB and Reagan were always talking to people, always making a case for their ideas.

Are we doing that sufficiently today? Am I? Jonah does it. Arthur Brooks does it. Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, does it. She is a conservative Republican who wins in a state that’s 3 to 1 Democratic. She goes to places that have rarely seen a Republican and talks to people about ideas, without attaching partisan labels to them.

Today, we often have one tribe screaming and sneering at the other. And tribes multiply into tribe-lets, screaming and sneering some more. (A lot of people on the right don’t regard Jonah Goldberg, Arthur Brooks, and Susana Martinez as conservatives at all. That’s another problem, another post.)

I depart from some of my Reaganite brethren in that I don’t believe that the Reagan playbook is inoperative today. For one thing, it wasn’t really his. He was a popularizer of, an evangelist for, ideas that existed long before him and will exist long after him. Of course, there are always new and necessary applications.

Jimmy Carter liked to quote a schoolteacher of his, Miss Julia — Miss Julia Coleman: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

You know what I would sell, if I were in the arena? Personal freedom. The rule of law. The Constitution, and adherence to it. Equality under the law. Equality of opportunity. Free enterprise. Property rights. Free trade. Civil society. The right to work. A strong defense. American leadership in the world. A sound, non-flaky educational curriculum. The primacy of the family. A sensible environmentalism, as opposed to green madness. Pluralism. Colorblindness. E pluribus unum.

Give it a whirl. Never up, never in. You never know whom you’ll reach, even in California. Of course, practitioners may say I’m naïve . . .

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