What’s the point of practical conservatism?

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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For much of the time I’ve been a conservative, I’ve often thought “What’s the point?” Not that I was going to start believing any differently, or go off and be a liberal or something — but what was the overall point of worrying about politics when nothing ever really seems to change?

The truth is, observing and obsessing over politics is in my DNA. I can’t change this or stop it any more than a mother could stop worrying about her children or a sports fan, his team’s prospects. It’s simply who I am. I wouldn’t recommend it and don’t necessarily think it’s even normal or healthy. It just is.

And the world of politics just “is.” That’s the problem. Nothing ever changes, at least not in a positive direction. For all my limited-government beliefs, my desire to drastically reduce federal power and my advocacy for the Constitution, when are these agendas ever going to actually materialize? And if they aren’t, why bother at all?

It is this base concern that has always informed my political decisions and alliances. In the 1990s, I saw no value in constantly complaining about Bill Clinton unless Republicans planned on replacing him with someone better. Instead, the GOP and the country elected someone far worse. Now that we have a president even worse than Bush, many of the Republicans running for president this year are doing so on the platform of making Obama a “one-term president!” But then what?

As a conservative friend about my age once said, he’s despised every president during his adult life more than his predecessor. George H.W. Bush was a sorry follow-up to Ronald Reagan. Clinton was worse than H.W. Bush. Then we got another Bush worse than both his dad and Clinton in terms of growing government. Now we’re stuck with the worst president of modern times, who is every bit the incompetent failure Obama’s harshest right-wing critics portray him as.

But again, conservatives are going to replace him with … who exactly?

I’m always looking for the next Barry Goldwater, a candidate who scares the hell out of half the country because everyone knows damn well he is every bit the limited government conservative advertised. When we can finally elect that leader, we’ll start to see substantive change. I think given the size of our debt and public fear over it, the American people are more open than ever to serious decentralization and the reduction of government. Yet, too many conservatives seem more than willing to settle for yet another George W. Bush — a candidate who talks conservative but can feasibly beat Obama to the degree that a voting majority believes he or she is not really anything like a Barry Goldwater. Nothing “rash” will happen. The center will hold. But Republicans will win!

Call me crazy, but battling over who might better manage a political system both right and left often agree is broken doesn’t strike me as a battle worth fighting. And if Republicans actually did manage to elect a president even just slightly better than the current one, it would be the first time this has happened in my lifetime. Ronald Reagan was the best and most conservative president of the last half century — and government exploded even under his tenure. Is there a conservative out there who could actually accomplish what even Reagan couldn’t?

At its core, American conservatism has always been a critique of the modern state. Both Goldwater and Reagan questioned what the role of the federal government should be, believing this was the primary task of any true conservative. Many today seem to believe conservatism is simply a matter of whether Republicans instead of Democrats should be in charge of an ever-expanding federal government. This is backward thinking, and conservatism never has been — and never should be — about making big government simply more Republican.

For too many conservatives, these questions are too philosophical and therefore impractical to be important. I, too, believe in being politically practical. I agree, for example, that the most important goal right now is getting Obama out of the White House. But then what? Bush III? Obama-lite? This is where conservatives must think about philosophy. The history of American conservatism is a history of losing. Practical Republican politics have yet to lead to ideological victory. Quite the opposite. And to the degree that practicality must always trump philosophy means conservatism will continue to lose.

In the tea party movement, I have seen the emergence of an honest and robust philosophical conservatism that has been criticized time and again by the GOP establishment for being too impractical — and thank God for that. The tea party was lampooned and chastised for rallying behind candidates who probably wouldn’t win in 2010, instead of supporting more electable mainstream candidates the movement rejected as not being conservative enough. This was a beautiful thing. And strangely enough, the tea party managed to actually deliver victories for some of these “unelectable” candidates anyway.

Here’s to hoping such “impracticality” remains a dominant force in the grassroots. It’s good to have something really worth rooting for, a point to all this political madness, a reason to care — and a chance that, finally, conservatism might win.

Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.