Historically, conservatism has succeeded when it's offered either a strong intellectual argument or a convincing emotional one. Over the past four years it has done neither particularly well, and Republicans have suffered the consequences.
With CPAC put to bed and the much-anticipated release of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project Report, the talk now turns to implementation. Who is the future of the party?
To look ahead, first let’s look back.
In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, conservatism was the domain of daring intellectuals like F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Russell Kirk, who then begat thought leaders like William F. Buckley Jr, Barry Goldwater and Irving Kristol. Negotiating issues like anti-Utopianism, free market economics, objectivism, federalism and natural law, conservatism was an exercise for academics and the literati, the plaything of young minds at Andover and Yale, a fixture of Manhattan cocktail parties.
Then in the 80s conservatism adopted decidedly populist undertones, making earnest overtures to evangelicals, blue-collar workers, and middle-class entrepreneurs. The messengers and messages were different, but Hayek's supply-side economics, Kirk's Christianity and Kristol's neoconservatism were alive and well in Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who promoted a conservatism marked by compassion and common sense for the everyman.
Today's conservatism is perceived as neither high-minded nor of the people, existing instead in some nether region of inconsequentiality. Even though Buckley lives on in National Review, and great intellectuals like Mark Steyn and Thomas Sowell still propel the movement, popular caricature of conservatism in the mainstream mocks it as anti-intellectual, anti-science, unserious and incurious.
On the flip side, despite the huge successes of right-wing broadcasters like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, fluent in the language of emotion, and despite the success of populist-ish governors like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, and despite the effectiveness of the Tea Party in corralling conservatism into a grassroots cause, the movement's been successfully caricatured by liberals as plutocratic, corporatist, anti-other and anti-poor.
I believe both are unfair characterizations, but if politics is perception, conservatism is failing on both fronts. The good news is, the job of revitalizing both the movement's rich history of intellectualism and its everyman tradition has two very capable applicants. The bad news is, they will need to work together.
Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are often pitted against one another, competing for influence and authority. At times, they seem to encourage this, and they may in fact end up competing in 2016. But their differences now and until then should be exploited in productive ways for the party to address those two deficiencies.
Paul's Ayn Randian, highly intellectualized conservatism is informed by libertarian and federalist principles, not by a visceral populist impulse or an evangelical one.
And Rubio’s conservatism is emotional, channeling Reagan. The son of a Cuban bartender, he speaks the language of hard-working, middle class, immigrant America.
The question isn’t, Whose vision of the future should conservatives adopt, but how can both be promoted to successfully revitalize the movement as one of intellectual merit and emotional connection? To counter huge deficiencies among the electorate, conservatism needs them both. And whether they realize it or not, they will need each other.