Raising the Standard.

WANTED: Conservative Confidence

…Or, at the very least, competence. (Photo by Blake Seitz

“At Monday night’s ‘Great Debate’ between the Young Democrats and the College Republicans , the GOP squad displayed a disturbing predilection for surrender.”


What, exactly, do young Republicans believe? It’s a question worth asking, not because youthful conservatives are an especially nuanced lot, but because their opinions will drive future Republican campaigns and messaging. For full-spectrum conservatives, this is worrisome.

It seems that young right-wingers exist in two camps. On one hand, there are the bow-tie wearing Reaganites. They don’t know much about public policy, but they’ve slopped plates at enough county parades to know a thing or two about retail politics. A steady diet of pop conservatism (heavy on Bill O’Reilly, light on Edmund Burke) has ensured a lifetime of straight-ticket voting, but don’t expect too much help if you need to answer questions about conservatism itself. The second camp consists of Rand and Ron Paul devotees, eager to engage in dorm room showdowns on anything from foreign non-intervention to their garbled understanding of the gold standard. But one tendency appears to unite young GOP voters: squishiness, especially when liberal peers are at hand.

THE EDITORS: Read our color commentary on last year’s “Great Debate” here.

Case in point: At Monday night’s “Great Debate” between the Young Democrats and the College Republicans , the GOP squad displayed a disturbing predilection for surrender.

Now, I recognize that under the bright lights of a debate stage, at an event sponsored solely by left-leaning campus organizations, turning in a masterful conservative performance is a tall order. Furthermore, the very nature of the debate makes compelling policy discussion nearly impossible. Are the debaters supposed to speak for the entire heterogeneous mass of their party’s voters? I don’t envy the task of a Democrat asked to distill the myriad demands of the special interests that compose his party into a unified message. Do the GOP debaters have to bridge the Tea Party-establishment divide, or choose a side? It’s all a rather silly endeavor.

Regardless of the shortcomings of the venue, the very least I expected of the Republican debate team was a defense of the party’s stance on abortion, and a much stronger answer regarding the politics of gay marriage. This defense was not forthcoming. Sure, a mere 27 percent of millennials identify as “conservative on social issues.” But forgive my assumption that this population contained nearly all of the 23 percent of millennials who identify as (or lean) Republican.

As someone who identifies more strongly as a social conservative than many of my Republican peers, some trepidation when addressing such questions isn’t what surprised me as I read debate coverage. I was struck by the sheer spinelessness of the Republican students when faced with questions regarding marriage and abortion.

In a declaration that would make John Kerry proud, one of the College Republicans said that, “If a majority of people agree with [same-sex marriage], our position will change.” Newsflash, amigos: they already do. But wait, most Americans also support the minimum wage hike you argued against later in the debate. And most Americans think we should raise taxes on rich folks and corporations. Here’s the thing: Conservatives don’t choose our beliefs based on polls. Young partisans are so steeped in the vote-grubbing milieu of electoral politics that a statement with such brazen disregard for the search for truth, so devoid of any commitment to tradition, seems only natural.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the GOP debaters should have opened up a weapons-grade can of Jerry Falwell on the audience. And in fairness, a vociferous denunciation of gay marriage would have been hard to require (again, given the atmosphere of the college campus). But the debaters could at least have sounded the alarm about the creeping violations of religious liberty that are sure to follow court rulings on gay marriage, and already have.

They could have run up the flag of federalism, and defended to the hilt each state’s prerogative to reject innovations arrived at yesterday in the voting booth in their definition of matrimony. They could have even honorably admitted defeat on the issue and pledged to focus on issues of the family and social capital more broadly as part of a reform agenda. But they did none of these things. They surrendered. They have started to believe the Democrats’ arguments that the “right side of history” has been decided, and that this is today’s “civil rights movement.” I fear that countless other young Republicans are following suit.

The abortion case is even more confusing. As before, polls are a poor guide to selecting principles. But even if one does subscribe to the polls-first mentality, opposition to abortion should be fair game. There is no overwhelming national consensus in the direction of the pro-choice or pro-life camp. A plurality believes that abortion is “morally wrong.” Over 60 percent would outlaw abortion after 15 weeks. Heck, just as many millennials want abortion illegal in all situations as want it legal in all situations. This should be stable political ground on which to argue for the rights of the unborn.

What say you, debaters? “Abortion is an evolving issue within the party.” Really? I have seen zero evidence for this proposition. Sure, the party may be evolving on the issue of nominating nincompoops who spout off about rape, but this has nothing to do with the position of the party on abortion itself.

Rather than take an unpopular stand, the debaters capitulated. If the conservative movement and the Republican Party are to remain relevant, young conservatives need to grow up, and fast. Now is not the time to be cowed by the bright lights of leftist scrutiny.

John Henry Thompson is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE

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