“Reformed Conservatives” are all the rage in Washington and the political press lately. They’re either the brightest new thinkers on the right side of the aisle or the 2014 cycle’s biggest losers as their champion, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), was defeated by a little-known challenger in his Virginia primary contest last month.
Last week, many of the smartest conservative brains were featured in a New York Times Magazine piece documenting their rise, beliefs and various personalities.
While I admire those interviewed, the author points out this new breed has been tagged as "elitists" already. Indeed, if you’re a conservative being interviewed by The New York Times while sitting at the Palm Restaurant eating filet mignon, one should expect the writer to draw such a conclusion.
[sharequote align="center"]Change will come from the fruited plain because Washington has no incentive to change how it works.[/sharequote]
And while one poorly chosen lunch spot doesn’t disqualify the good work and thinking this group is doing, it does bring into stark relief one undeniable fact: True reform – conservative or otherwise – will not come from inside the Beltway.
Washington and most of its institutions, regardless of political party, are inextricably tied to one another – mostly by the two dysfunctional parents of politics: money and power. The wall-to-wall associations and think tanks ultimately owe their allegiance to deep pockets – be they individuals, corporations or unions.
Indeed, these groups exist specifically to help ensure that whatever status quo a given interest is trying to preserve has a chorus of angry and indignant voices waving signs and screaming "the end is nigh" when an unwanted proposal appears.
If anyone in Washington wanted to truly change the game, they could. Collectively, they hold all the levers of policy making – and while many well-entrenched interests would surely be unhappy, it could theoretically be done.
With a new Gallup survey out recently showing the lowest-ever trust ratings in the three branches of government, now would be the time they can and should legitimately look past the Beltway for a different operating model.
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The Capitoline City has become a rabbit warren of hyper-competing micro-interests for which everything is a zero sum game – if I win, you must lose – there can be no greater good.
On the right, “The Establishment” wants to work within the current system and tinker with issues large and small. The Tea Party, on the other hand, resides for the most part, outside Washington, driven by passion and true dissatisfaction with how the federal government operates.
Neither of those outlooks leads to truly addressing any of the issues we as a country face – from our crumbling public education system, to entitlements to national security. And neither has as of late been particularly compelling to voters in General Elections. The problems we face are too large for messing about on the margins, and burning down a house to spite those living in it is not a strategy.
Instead, conservatives should do what Americans have often done when Washington can’t or won’t get its act together: Look to the states. States, not being able to print their own money must pass their budgets every year. They must make the choices – easy and difficult – that those at the Federal level avoid by cranking up the printing press.
Conservative politicians outside the Beltway are able to win elections and succeed in governing regardless of what state they’re in. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan’s Rick Snyder are three excellent examples of leaders, who despite living in states that are overwhelming Democratic or have strong liberal roots, have shown that political and policy successes are actually possible.
In this Jan. 14, 2014 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
But there are more than just politicians to look for.
As an example, later this week, Lincoln Labs, an organization started in the wake of the 2012 elections by three young, conservative technologists will hold its first annual conference, Reboot, in San Francisco. A lineup of notable political and tech thinkers, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), will gather to discuss how technology can and should be utilized to address both high-level and so-called "bread and butter" issues facing Americans.
Groups like Lincoln Labs are essential because they provide the energy, the optimism and the vision needed to see a problem and devise a solution. Largely free of the burdens of worrying how one D.C. faction or another views them, they provide a vital voice to the conservative argument for smaller government, less regulation and ultimately, more personal liberty.
Ultimately, change can and will come from the fruited plain because no one in Washington has much incentive to change how they do things.
Presidents and politicians can talk about doing things differently, but only when we truly provide some positive policy proscriptions, tested at the state level, and implemented by leaders whom we can elect to national office, will we finally start to see real change.
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