This was published in Politico
By Scot Faulkner & Jonathan Riehl
The continuing crisis in Washington illustrates many things: A dysfunctional, wholly unproductive Congress, a total lack of long-term thinking or leadership from either party, and nonstop partisan bickering. Aside from these systemic problems the past few weeks also illustrate the complete and utter breakdown of conservatism as a force in politics. Republicans may complain of an intransigent President. But President Obama, at least, has an agenda. The Republicans have none. There is no conservative vision, no conservative agenda, no conservative movement.
Others have argued that an emerging problem on the right is the lack of any conservative identity aside from disliking, disparaging, or despising the President and his agenda. Years of opposing instead of proposing has put more nails in the coffin of responsible conservatism. The strategic defeats of 2012 laid bare the vacuum of conservative leadership. The Christmas crisis draws that vacuum into stark relief.
Some may agree, along with the Senate Majority Leader, that the only job of current Republican legislators is to stop anything Obama wants to do. Earlier conservative Congresses have seen it as their primary task to throw sands in the gears of liberal administrations. The problem is that this Republican Congress is not backed by any intellectual or policy foundation that would replace that which they oppose. These Republicans, unlike earlier movement conservatives, are, to borrow a phrase, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
A favorite film of ours, David Lean’s masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia,” offers some valuable lessons, providing a cautionary tale on the difference between warfare and governing. In the movie, T.E. Lawrence and his Bedouin army become experts at blowing up trains, but fall into utter chaos when they try to govern Damascus. Current conservatives hone their demolition skills, while avoiding governing skills. Recently, Sean Hannity admonished Republicans on his radio show to, “forget about governing – focus on fighting”. Worse yet, Republicans are now taking a two week recess instead of building their public case for an alternative approach to budgeting and governing. Instead of oversight hearing exposing government waste and proposing management reforms, they are waiting to pounce on the President’s inaugural address, State of the Union speech, and official budget submission. The Republican game book of defensive guerilla tactics is a recipe for marginalization.
Conservatives love to heap praise on Ronald Reagan, though their mythologizing often masks the hard fought political battles and compromise which led to his election. Movement conservatives devoted years preparing for that election, preparation that included a conservative cohort in Congress wrecking President Carter’s trains and tearing-up his rail lines on a daily basis. Our parliamentary warfare was designed for a purpose – every bill defeated was one less law we would have to reverse once Reagan was President.
The difference between 1978-1980 and the current warfare is that that earlier generation had a core understanding of what was to come. Reagan and the conservative movement that propelled him had a clear vision of what was needed to revive America, defeat communism, and reform government. Reagan was able to articulate that vision in a way that resonated with a majority of the nation not because he had a handful of focus-grouped magic phrases, but because his rhetoric conveyed an actual political and cultural vision grounded in a concrete conservative philosophy.
The current Republican “leadership” offers no vision, because it is no longer grounded in the conservative tradition. Their only vision is further disruption. There is nothing conservative about this. In fact, it smacks more of leftist anarchy. Great conservative thinkers like Friedrich A. Hayek, for example, were championed by Reagan and Thatcher precisely because they sought to create order out of chaos.
The current Republican leaders have indeed become experts at blowing up trains. Both sides display skill at stopping things and ratcheting up the rhetoric in their favored media echo chambers. But the real problem is that both sides have lost the ability to govern. These Republicans (we hesitate to even refer to them as conservatives) have no plan or vision for bringing order out of the chaos they continue to foment. Common ground has vanished. Worse, it is viewed as the domain of the weak.
Wreaking havoc with your opponents is necessary when you are preparing the way for political victory and a fundamental change. However, what if there is no plan after battlefield victory? Republicans have forgotten the lessons of their own conservative movement’s history, which waged tactical political warfare only in the service of a positive political vision, not for warfare’s sake alone, and not for the vilification of an enemy.