Conservatism and Republicanism, though clearly linked, are two distinct concepts. At times this truth seems obvious, but at other times the distinction is less clear. We have recently entered one of those phases where the lines have blurred.
Ever since the results of this year's election rolled in, there's been a raging debate over why Republicans lost and what they need to do to prevail in future contests. At times, this debate has descended into an opportunity for various factions within the party to advance their particular point of view -- that social issues need to sidelined, for instance, or that Republicans need to abandon their obsession with cutting taxes. At other times, it has been a productive exercise in exploring how the Republican Party can modernize.
Conservative commentators and thinkers have been leading participants in this conversation. This is natural. After all, if conservatism is to exist outside of an abstract theory in books, magazines and journal articles, then the Republican Party remains the most practical vehicle for achieving the movement's policy goals. But at the same time, as conservatives rush to save the Republican Party, it's important that they don't lose conservatism itself.
To give a more tangible example from the current political debate: In the coming months, Republicans are wrestling with whether it's too politically risky to push bold entitlement reforms.
On the one hand, Republicans can look back and say that they've been burned whenever they've tried to push fundamental changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They lost the big fight over Social Security personal accounts in 2005, and they lost again this year with a ticket that favored overhauling Medicare.
But on the other hand, though Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost, they still dominated among older voters, despite ferocious attacks portraying them as callous men who wanted to push Granny over the cliff.
Of course, we lack a pure-play test of how the Medicare reform issue shook out. Romney attacked President Obama as the one who had really cut Medicare, and promised to restore funding levels to current seniors if elected. And after an election in which they struggled to win over Hispanics, single women and young voters, many Republicans may conclude that they won't be able to risk alienating their loyal constituency of older voters by pushing sweeping reforms to programs they depend on.
The politics of entitlement reform may be debatable, but the math is not. The aging of the population and rising health care costs are together triggering explosive growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. If left unchecked, these programs will place a crushing burden on federal taxpayers, cripple states and stifle economic growth.
It isn't moral to impose these problems on future generations. It isn't right to cede ground to liberals and allow ever higher taxes to chase ever higher spending, while government takes on an increasingly intrusive role in people's lives.
Conservatives cannot live in a bubble. We're never going to realize a federal government with powers truly limited to those narrowly enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. But even if a reaffirmation of principles doesn't entail advocating utopian political positions -- such as scrapping the entire welfare state -- conservatives shouldn't allow their core beliefs be dictated by what may or may not improve the short-term prospects for Republicans. Conservatism is not a political strategy.
As members of a political party, Republicans are understandably concerned with winning elections. But as heirs to an intellectual tradition, conservatives must be focused on advancing a moral vision and communicating deeper truths.
Philip Klein (email@example.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.