Have conservatives already lost the 2020 election?
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Political campaigns are about more than electing someone to office in a particular year. Campaigns frame the policy debate for years to come and popularize ideas. Nowhere is this truer than in the extraordinarily public presidential campaigns played out on our national stage every four years. 

Unlike the gaggle of Democratic candidates vying for the 2020 nomination and introducing themselves and their ideas to a national audience for future reference, the GOP appear united behind a single candidate who has a somewhat selective relationship with conservatism. 


The public must regularly be reminded that “Republican” and “conservative” are not interchangeable. If the GOP is still “conservative” it is not entirely clear what they are conserving. The party, once seen as fairly reliable in its support of the rule of law, free markets, free trade, free speech, free press, and opposed to giving away free stuff, has hedged those principles, as of late. 

In the face of populism, protectionism, hostility to a free press, and cozying up to some of the world’s worst people, a modern conservative is someone who stands athwart yelling “slow your roll” at a time when nobody – not even many Republicans – are inclined to do so. A conservative sees the intrinsic value in a free and virtuous society, even when such a notion is wildly unpopular and deemed politically inexpedient. 

In reality, the “conservative movement” has always been a loose center-right coalition. During the Cold War, the conservative coalition was bound together by a shared opposition to the spread of communism. Most of that coalition also shared core views of conservatism or classical liberalism sometimes expressed as “ordered liberty.” In a 1982 speech, Ronald Reagan declared that the principle of ordered liberty is founded on the belief that “[t]here can be no freedom without order and there is no order without virtue.” Acknowledging freedom’s reliance upon virtue was a hallmark of conservatism for many years.

The post-Cold War conservative coalition is splintering, making the GOP’s “millennial problem” and the need for competition of ideas even more pronounced. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown puts it “Democrats are the party of young people, Republicans the party of the olds.”Various polls indicate that the majority of millennials have a very low opinion of the Republican establishment. Although party support is waning on both sides of the aisle, millennials are particularly disenchanted with the GOP, according to a 2018 Pew report. And with this demographic set to contend with Boomers in size of the electorate pie, politicians would be wise to consider the source of this disillusionment. 

Millennials are more ethnically diverse than prior generations of Americans. Elements of the GOP - the party of Lincoln - embrace trade protectionism, restrictionist immigration policies, and a brand of nationalism that many of them find intolerable, making the entire party seem backward and exclusionary in the eyes of this racially and culturally diverse generation. Wherever you stand in your support for President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS US raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks MORE, conservatives have an interest in cultivating a deep bench of future candidates and ensuring that conservatism thrives far into the future. The 2020 election cycle will leave impressions on young voters for years to come.


Currently, President Trump is being challenged by William WeldWilliam (Bill) WeldRalph Gants, chief justice of Massachusetts supreme court, dies at 65 The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden visits Kenosha | Trump's double-voting suggestion draws fire | Facebook clamps down on election ads Biden picks up endorsements from nearly 100 Republicans MORE, former governor of Massachusetts and vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian ticket in 2016. Early polls indicate President Trump having a crushing advantage over Weld. 

Kevin D. Williamson recently made a case that Reagan, Goldwater, and Buckley conservatives can express their displeasure with the Trump administration by casting a vote for Weld. But, Williamson acknowledges this is solely an act of defiance and frustration, rather than an electoral game changer. More to the point, Weld doesn’t strike us as having the je ne sais quoi to articulate an alternate vision of conservatism that will speak to young people for years beyond this election cycle. Besides, presidential debates between two septuagenarians hardly casts Republicans as a forward-looking party.

In addition to Weld, Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashBiden: 'Prince Philip gladly dedicated himself to the people of the UK' Battle rages over vaccine passports Republicans eye primaries in impeachment vote MORE (R-Mich.), a vocal, independent-minded fiscal conservative and constitutionalist, might be considering a bid for the Libertarian Party’s nomination. When asked if he would run as a disrupter in 2020, Amash told CNN, “I would never rule anything out. That’s not on my radar right now, but I think that it is important that we have someone in there who is presenting a vision for America that is different from what these two parties are presenting.”

Amash would certainly present a vision that is vastly different from many self-professing conservatives in Washington but would likely be consistent with a Reaganite conservatism. After all, Reagan famously said, “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” However, if Amash runs as a Libertarian, he won’t be able to leverage the national platform of a major national party including primary elections, caucuses and debates.

Those of us old enough to have lived during the same time as Reagan or Buckley can draw upon experience and recollection of what “conservatism” means to us. But the younger generation has no such experience. Young people’s views of conservatism are being shaped by the current administration who regularly belittle prior Republican officials and abandon conservative policies and principles. In the absence of an engaging spokesperson for a principled conservative vision, young voters could be forgiven for conflating populist protectionism with conservatism. 

Conservatives of the Reaganite variety must be prepared to play the long game again, extolling the virtues of principle over petty partisanshipThe 1980 election of Reagan was made possible, in part, by the ideas introduced by Barry Goldwater in his 1964 campaign and championed for decades by William F. Buckley, Jr. In 2020, we may be missing out on that Goldwater forerunner to tomorrow’s Reagan.

Lamenting conservatism’s missed opportunity to debate the future accomplishes little. It's up to those outside the political class to not just hunker down in a bulwark to conserve conservatism but to enthusiastically evangelize the younger generation on conservative principles. The principles of economic freedom, personal liberty, the rule of law, prudence, and equal opportunity-for-all are just as viable and liberating today as they were in 1980 or 1955. It’s up to those of us who understand what’s at stake to impart this knowledge to the next generation.

Doug McCullough is Director of the Lone Star Policy Institute and partner at McCullough Sudan PLLC, law firm in Houston, Texas. Brooke Medina is Communications Director of Civitas Institute in Raleigh, N.C.