1. Opinion

Nickens: Can conservatism survive Trump?


There was no mention of Stormy Daniels. Or of payoffs by the president's lawyer. Or of Russian meddling in the election.

Instead, the panel discussion last Sunday at The Heritage Foundation focused on this intriguing, long-term question: Can conservatism survive Trump?

The answer in the conference room at the nation's premier conservative think tank: Maybe.

Lee Edwards, a Heritage fellow and prominent historian of the nation's conservative movement, took the long view. Predictably, he distanced conservatism from President Donald Trump, who has angered mainstream conservative columnists and elected leaders as much as he has liberals. Edwards also pointed out that conservatism has survived other bumps over the years and survived, including Barry Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election, Ronald Reagan's failure to win the Republican nomination in 1976 and President George H.W. Bush's "Read my lips: No new taxes!" vow at the 1988 Republican convention that turned out to be firm but flexible.

Now, Edwards predicted, conservatism will survive "Trump's 1,000 flights of fantasy.'' In fact, he said, "the more salient question is can Trump survive without conservatism?'

Even more interesting is the way Edwards described conservatism as a movement rather than a political party. He argued that five core conservative values — limited government, free enterprise, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional American values and a strong national defense — are as relevant as ever. As a long-time adviser and biographer for conservative Republicans from Goldwater to Reagan, he clearly sees the long-term ideals as larger than one person or election.

In this era of constant Trump tweets and breathless cable news commentators, it was frankly refreshing to hear a thoughtful, sober attempt to put the current chaos into historical perspective. But other panelists were not as optimistic.

Mona Charen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center, was more directly critical of Trump's abandonment of conservative positions. She gave him credit for appointing Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and other conservative judges, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and reducing regulations in areas such as the environment and banking (I would argue that none of those are positives, but that's another column). But Charen sharply criticized Trump's threats of new tarriffs and declared the "embrace of protectionism is a profound retreat from the free market.'' She also complained that the president failed to persuade Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and she warned of rising federal deficits.

"There is no hierarchy of values in Trump's mind beyond himself,'' she said, adding that many conservatives feel "dispirited and alienated.''

"Can conservatism survive this taint?" Charen asked. "I'm not so sure.''

Matthew Spalding, who oversees the operations of Hillsdale College's Washington headquarters across the street from the Heritage Foundation, suggested Trump's election did not trigger a crisis among conservatives but reflected a crisis that already existed. After all, he emerged from a crowded primary field that included more qualified mainstream conservatives, including former Gov. Jeb Bush. Spalding described a federal government run by regulation and bureaucrats rather than by elected leaders because "Congress today is AWOL.''

So where do we go from here, in a world unsettled by Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear withdrawal and the continuing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election?

As Spalding accurately pointed out, both political parties are "hollow shells.'' Yet the idea of a viable third major political party springing up from these ashes does not seem possible. And while the panelists agree that Trump obviously is a disruptive force, they do not see him as transformational. As Michael Franc of the Hoover Institution observed, no one can imagine new think tanks springing up in Washington to promote Trumpism and compete with Heritage, Hoover and the other bastions of conservative thought.

On the campaign trail, there also is no consensus on how to cope with Trump. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board earlier this month that she advises Democratic candidates not to push for impeaching the president, which would energize his supporters, and to focus on issues important in their congressional districts. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has been glued to Trump, doesn't mention him in his Senate campaign commercials and has no announced plans to campaign with him. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam doesn't talk about Trump in his campaign commercials as he runs for the Republican nomination for governor against U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has Trump's favor and is a regular on Fox News.

Three take-aways:

• Conservatives are not monolithic, but many are just as concerned as liberals about the behavior and actions of this president.

• With some exceptions, candidates from both political parties are wary of engaging directly with Trump lest it blow up in their faces.

• There isn't any firmer grasp of this president or of his lasting impact from inside the Washington beltway than there is from Tampa Bay.