Conservatives can’t afford to be philosophically smug

by Craig Westover

Writing a column, one gets letters and e-mail. The “attaboys” are nice. The e-mails and blog comments questioning my motives and parental lineage and suggesting biological acts that are acrobatic if not physically impossible are entertaining. Responses that raise valid points of disagreement are the most rewarding – and worth responding to.

In Sunday’s Pioneer Press, a reader noted of my column questioning Hillary Rodham Clinton’s commitment to core principles, “Westover says Clinton is ‘minimizing the principled foundation of the nation.’ Her quote can be read a different way – not minimizing principle but criticizing the hot air blowing all over the campaign trail, and how it never translates into the real problems in people’s lives.”

The reader is right – Clinton’s wonderment at what freedom and opportunity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean to the parents of a sick child could be read that way. After watching Clinton and Barack Obama debate health care, I would, however, argue that is not how she (or Obama) read it. Their major point of differentiation is whether mandates or subsidies are the best way to coerce and motivate resisters to get with a program of universal coverage. Nonetheless, the reader raises a great point.

Conservatives do a lousy job of translating their rhetoric into solutions for real problems facing real people. It’s easy to disrespect government when government is “them,” but what do you do when government is “us”? If eight years of “compassionate conservatism” and the surviving Republican presidential candidates are an indication (Ron Paul being the distant outlier who proves the rule), “us” runs the government like “them.”

The Bush administration’s expansion of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, the No Child Left Behind Act, which further entangles the federal government in education, and runaway discretionary spending create a legacy that any progressive could be proud of. The Bush administration has proven, in the words of the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, “strongly sympathetic to progressive-style intrusions into civil society.”

To the reader’s point, it’s time the Republican presidential candidates stopped debating who is most like Ronald Reagan. Time to move beyond fact-based but simplistic resistance to the ineffective and costly collective policies of the left. Conservatives must address the real problems of real people by packaging free-market mechanisms into definable policies, proposals and legislation, and sell, sell, sell.

On two of the most-needed initiatives of the Bush administration – private ownership of Social Security accounts and individual tax deductions for privately purchased health insurance – conservatives retreated at the first signs of popular resistance. Faced with entrenched progressive opposition, school choice supporters are wavering, wondering whether a better strategy to improve public education is fighting for curriculum reform. That concession essentially adopts the “one-best system” progressive education philosophy. It simply changes the experts. Like Clinton’s health care proposals, it compromises freedom and opportunity.

Conservatives cannot afford to be philosophically smug; they must hold to their principles but they must also subject principle to policy. Conservatives must build a policy agenda on freedom and opportunity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that enables all Americans to participate in the economy, build wealth and enjoy security through accomplishment. The reader makes a point.

In her opinion piece, “Some ‘local’ projects have wider impact than others,” DFL Sen. Ellen Anderson responded to my column “Pet projects should compete head to head with roads, bridges” by making her best case for St. Paul’s $11 million bonding request for Como Zoo and Conservatory.

“The Como Zoo is a wonderful example of why all ‘local’ projects cannot be dismissed as ‘presents for the folks back home,’ ” she argued. “Some can have significant regional and statewide impact.”

Kudos to the senator. Bringing some transparency to the bonding process is what my column asked for. Anderson’s case for the value and impact of exhibit improvements at Como Zoo can now be judged in the context of specific road and bridge projects and other projects of regional and statewide impact.

In the Star Tribune, U of M president Robert Bruininks blamed road and bridge bonding for less-than-traditional higher education bonding. But the U isn’t entitled to a percentage of the bonding bill any more than St. Paul is entitled to zoo funding. The university’s projects must also compete.

An increase in the gas tax might go to supporting transportation, but any NEED for a statewide gas tax results from the totality of state spending. Spending for a new Science Teaching and Service building at the U and the polar bear exhibit at Como Zoo creates a NEED to raise taxes as much as maintaining Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure. State resources are state resources. Let’s judge all capital spending with that in mind.

Thanks to those furthering the conversation.

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute (www.mnfreemarketinstitute.com).

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wednesday, February 6, 2008