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The Political Right Has Lost Its Policy Mojo

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The Political Right Has Lost Its Policy Mojo

Dallas Morning News May 2, 2021
OtherMiscellaneous

A punchy talking point or savage fundraising letter isn’t the same thing as a workable solution.

Despite razor-thin majorities for Democrats in Congress, President Joe Biden is leveraging our economic and public health crises to usher in a new era of big government.

He’s already signed into law a behemoth $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan (on top of several huge plans passed in 2020) and introduced a similarly sized “infrastructure” proposal. He has a second infrastructure plan in the works, and his 2022 budget proposal includes a 16% increase in domestic spending.

Those concerned about a bloated, voracious Uncle Sam, especially those of us on the political right, should look at this with frustration. But also regret. Despite entering office with larger congressional majorities and presiding over a pre-COVID economy with respectable growth and low unemployment, President Donald Trump and Republicans were able to accomplish vanishingly little legislatively. Instead of a bold, coordinated agenda of decentralizing power, catalyzing civil-society activity and addressing national challenges related to immigration, trade and education, we ended up with an aborted effort to replace Obamacare and a waiting-for-Godot infrastructure week.

Part of the story is that, over the last generation, the political right lost its policy mojo, generating too few new ideas. Regardless of the question, they relied on the old standbys — tax cuts and deregulation — as their answers. So when it came time to actually be in charge, the GOP’s policy cupboards were mostly bare apart from these stale staples.

But a bigger issue is that too much of the right has lost the skills and dispositions necessary for governing leadership. It’s one thing to be a backseat driver, issuing fiery press releases criticizing others and reciting fierce talking points on cable-news programs. It’s another thing entirely to know what to do when you are handed the keys.

In truth, it is easier and more fun to be a political gadfly than to be responsible for generating legislation, managing budgets, assembling coalitions and negotiating compromises. The stuff of real-life governing can be thankless, grueling work. You often need to keep a low profile, sweat the details and allow others to get attention. You don’t always get what you want. Critics will attack you for going soft. But, alas, we can’t have only show horses. We need workhorses.

One theme in current right-of-center conversations is that Republican leaders too often went wobbly on tough issues in recent years. This view holds that we need more courageous leaders who are willing to fight. Yes, backbone is certainly a necessary characteristic. The stakes are too high on too many issues for the GOP to go weak-kneed. But bellicosity is not sufficient. A punchy talking point or savage fundraising letter isn’t the same thing as a workable solution. The perfectly snarky tweet or lib-owning Tik Tok doesn’t strike the necessary deal.

Three leadership attributes are essential in this moment. First, we need people with governing on their résumés. Not just people who type or talk for a living, but people with practical experience, real time on task, in the business of statecraft. You can’t really know how to draft compelling proposals, navigate the legislative process, advance regulations, provide oversight or secure funding if your only credentials are writing a newsletter or hosting a podcast. And the courage needed to talk about something is different than the courage to issue, execute and stand by official state action.

Second, we need people with rock-solid conservative governing principles. Too often during the Trump era, what folks on the right believed on Wednesday was a function of what the president or a talk show host said on Tuesday. Now, some on the right are so dedicated to certain ends — punishing Big Tech, protecting manufacturing jobs, establishing law and order, strengthening the family — that they’ll flirt with any means of getting there. Instead, we need leaders who understand and are committed to tried-and-true principles, like federalism, localism, capitalism, tradition, liberty, originalism, opportunity, pluralism and democracy.

Our leaders’ approach to governing must be firmly grounded in the ideas that produced America’s past success, and those leaders must possess a conceptual framework for smartly tackling today’s problems. That is, when facing a novel challenge related to jobs, schools, opioids, housing, or something else, our leaders must begin by applying concepts like limited government, civil society, entrepreneurialism, markets and longstanding institutions to the task at hand.

Lastly, we need leaders who possess the conservative temperament. Productive conservative governing requires gratitude, practical wisdom, modesty, judiciousness and the ability to keep your head when others are losing theirs. Fatalism, cynicism and alarmism too often lead to radical assessments and radical prescriptions. True conservatives don’t go in for conspiracy theories, raze-it-to-the-ground thinking, or grand, revolutionary plans. We need leaders with a stolid comportment, good sense and the willingness to hunker down and make gradual progress on the matters that matter most.

None of this is glamorous. It is not the formula for going viral on social media. But it is the core of responsible governing, which is fundamental to Republican virtue and our nation’s future. When it is time to be in charge again, we’ll need an army of people who know how to get things done, not people who can troll opponents or make clever memes. We need to get about the business of growing the next generation of conservative leaders who can competently conduct the public’s business and make America proud.

This piece originally appeared at The Dallas Morning News

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Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by BasSlabbers/iStock

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