Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ten Commandments for a Conservative Opposition Party

It may be a little too early to start discussing the post-election political landscape, but I'm going to do it anyway. Many of us hope that an Obama landslide and lopsided Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress will result in the disintegration of the Republican coalition as we know it today. The national GOP of the 21st century is politically impotent, intellectually impoverished, and morally bankrupt. Like an inefficient, top-heavy conglomerate in the M&A-crazed 1980s, the Republican Party needs to be taken over, broken up, and sold for whatever the pieces can fetch.

But prolonged one-party rule would not be desirable for either the country or the Democratic Party itself. Corruption and complacency, perhaps to a staggering degree, would be inevitable. A decent, fair-minded opposition party is necessary -- if not as a coalition partner, at least as a check on harebrained ideas and a scold to warn against capitulation to the baser impulses. Conservatives may be lousy at governing, but they should be able to handle the role of Greek chorus.

Serving as the loyal opposition, however, requires political virtues that the national Republican Party has not demonstrated for ages. Republicans need to start from scratch. I am neither a conservative nor an ex-conservative, but I can offer some tips. To help the future Republican remnant adjust to their new role, I've compiled a list of the fundamentals, using a language they can understand: the Ten Commandments for a decent Conservative opposition party.

1. Reality is reality; you will have no other realities. Political good faith begins with agreeing that 2+2=4. Don't deny or ignore facts because they are unpleasant. Don't distort or denounce science because its discoveries are unpalatable. Apply your principles to the world; do not reshape the world to prove your principles.

2. Keep the holy out of government. You cannot participate in American democracy if you cannot respect the separation of church and state. A theocratic opposition party will not work. You can honor the traditional religious impulses of your members without injecting them into policy debates. Democrats can be persuaded by reason, but we will no longer be bullied by dogma.

3. Cast out your demons. If you attempt to make scapegoats out of gays, immigrants, minorities, Muslims, or any other group, we will not listen. We don't believe in demons, and neither can you if you want to have a say in the future of the nation.

4. You will not lie. Well, at least you will not lie all the time. Democrats are not naive about political dissembling, but government cannot function if almost every utterance is a falsehood. We will ignore future Cheneys who deny having made statements that are on video for all to see, and future Palins who read "guilty" and claim it says "innocent."

5. You will not reduce "values" to Puritanism. Democrats do not believe that the function of government in the 21st century is to enforce sexual rigidity across the land. You can promote the interests of American families without coercing abstinence or conventionality.

6. You will not profit unduly from government service. Corruption is a fact of public life, but it need not be a major factor in every public decision. Clean up your act, and help us keep ours clean as well if the temptations of power threaten to overwhelm us.

7. Argue positions, not labels. If you disagree with a policy proposal, explain why in clear language. Do not simply scorn it as "liberal," "socialist," or use any other cliched anathema. Your old coded vocabulary is useless now.

8. Abandon your economic fetishes. We understand that by nature, you are averse to taxes. Your role is to articulate that position responsibly, not to proclaim tax cuts the sole solution for every economic problem from a deep recession to runaway inflation. We laugh at Laffer.

9. Do not advocate on behalf of the rich alone. Democrats realize that a Conservative party will tend to favor business interests, and therefore the affluent, but you must keep that tendency in check. If serving large corporations and the top 1% of U.S. earners occupies your every thought, you will be useless to the country.

10. Do not covet our power to the point of paralysis. Yes, you will be plotting your return to power. Yes, you will occasionally resort to obstructionism. These are normal habits for opposition parties. But if you become obsessed with regaining what you have lost in a fair fight, or if you undertake an endless crusade to undermine the legitimacy of the new Democratic majority, you will reduce yourselves to complete irrelevance and harm the country along the way.

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