Perhaps unintentionally, the 2013 Bradley Symposium earlier this month revealed the gaps in current conservative political thought—or, more correctly, ideas for conservative political action. Convened by the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, this year’s program on June 12th brought together a variety of past winners of the Bradley Prizes, awarded to conservative scholars, educators, and public figures who best reflect the mission and values of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Although stated in broad terms in promotional materials for the program as recognizing and honoring the “shapers of public opinion who understand the demands of liberty and are able to come to its defense,” Bradley Foundation CEO Michael Grebe opened the program with a succinct enumeration of the elements in the conservative belief system they aimed to celebrate: free market conservatism, limited competent government, and defense of American ideals at home and abroad. To its credit, the Bradley Center, led by William Schambra, convenes these symposia annually, and they are usually spirited, challenging debates on the application of conservative beliefs to the problems of the day.

This year’s gathering laid bare a key problem of the “pantheon of conservative heroes,” as Grebe described the 17 speakers, all former Bradley winners. (This year’s winners—Fox News president Roger Ailes, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, former solicitor general Paul Clement, and author Yuval Levin—were not on the agenda, but honored later at an event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.) The conservative thinkers’ problem? Almost to a man or woman, they were flummoxed by specifics. They could bemoan current policies, condemn President Obama as, in the words of keynoter and Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer, “way left of liberal,” and fret about government encroachments on the free market, but they offered little in the way of concrete ideas to address critical social issues.

Though speaking at the close of the event, Krauthammer channeled the unstated fear of many that their standard-bearing Republican Party might be facing “Whig-like extinction”; he didn’t agree, obviously, suggesting that the Italian Communist Party could have beaten John McCain in 2008 in an election six weeks after the financial collapse and that Romney the “plutocrat” was the wrong candidate to make the case against the cradle-to-grave welfare state, but the 2010 off-year elections, highlighted by victories in Wisconsin and Michigan and other state houses, constituted “the empirical refutation that our idea is in decline.”

Krauthammer and others could condemn Obama as a “social democrat on the European model” defending the welfare state that has been, in his mind, historically and empirically proved not to work, but they were oddly desultory about what they would propose in specifics. They all talked less or smaller government, but none could address the continuing questions of Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who asked for specifics about what these conservative luminaries would actually do to respond to specific social problems.

Bob Woodson founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in 1981, at that time called the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, during the first year of the Reagan Administration. A MacArthur “genius grant” winner and a former senior director at the National Urban League, Woodson founded the Center based on three principles:

“Those suffering the problem must be involved in the creation and implementation of the solution; [t]he principles of the market economy should be applied to the solution of societal problems; [and] Faith-based and value-generating organizations are uniquely qualified to address the problems of poverty.”

Without a doubt a deeply committed conservative, Woodson is not an armchair critic, but an activist. The Center’s own litany of program initiatives include its Violence Free Zone programs in middle schools and high schools (famous because of the Center’s intervention in the Benning Terrace public housing project in Washington, D.C. after a 12-year-old boy was killed in violence between two rival gangs), its promotion of resident management of federally assisted public housing, and the training of 2,600 neighborhood and faith-based leaders around the nation.

Whether one agrees with Woodson’s strongly faith- and self-help-oriented approach to dealing with problems of urban violence and drug use, at least Woodson does something. His role at the Bradley Symposium, it seems, was to press his fellow panelists in any way possible to say something concrete about what they would do about specific issues.

“The greatest challenge facing the nation is how we treat the least of God’s children,” Woodson said. “The challenge we face as conservatives is what is our solution to this problem.” While he condemned the approach of the left and the “professional service industry” as picking problems that are “fundable” rather than “solvable” and viewing people in need as “a sea of victims,” he decried the right’s view of “the least of God’s children” as “a sea of aliens.” When the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald bemoaned attacks from the left as supposedly limiting what conservatives were permitted to say, Woodson countered that the problem isn’t about the right to name or talk about problems, but to have credibility as critics by proposing concrete actions.   In response to Mac Donald’s contention that the “lower half” of society was “emulating the black underclass” (in terms of family and drug problems) and Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner’s assertion that that the “lower half” of society was not handling societal freedoms well (citing people not marrying and people dependent on government subsidies like disability assistance as two notable indicators), Woodson countered by asking, “why can’t we gather young people and let them instruct us about what incentives they need?” Rather than making pronouncements of what is wrong about people’s behavior, Woodson argued for asking them to participate in devising the solutions that they would respond to make things better. But Woodson’s concern that conservatives treat people in need as aliens suggests that they really don’t bother to actually ask people about what is happening in their lives that make these “freedoms” so difficult to handle. Woodson is clearly suggesting that the conservative critics are pretty removed from the scene of action and the people whose lives they purport to want to improve.   

“If we want to be credible to the public,” Woodson said, “we should demonstrate how embracing [conservative] principles has a consequence of improving the quality of life for these people.” As an example, Woodson cited a drug and alcohol program in Texas that was run by ex-addicts, but the government wanted closed down because the staff weren’t licensed. Woodson and his colleagues came together to save the organization, as part of his view that people ought to be mobilized in designing solutions to their problems.

Did the others on the panel have specifics to suggest? Woodson nearly turned apoplectic when MacDonald “put in a plug for the Boy Scouts” as “the solution for the inner city problem.” In her view, the Boy Scouts have been tragically stigmatized and undermined by the gay rights movement. If anything, Woodson has experience with urban gangs, which might not be overwhelmed by the Boy Scouts’ evangelism or Mac Donald’s call for “traditional values.” Sounding like he was near to throwing in the towel, Woodson responded by saying “we need to be a little more imaginative.” Perhaps he was imagining Mac Donald leading the Boy Scouts (“anything with a uniform,” she said) into gang negotiations.

When Harvard University history professor Stephan Thernstrom offered the opinion that maybe charter schools and vouchers were a good idea, though he admitted he didn’t know much about them, Woodson violated the conservative movement’s market canon by suggesting that it is possible to support voucher programs and private schools, but “most kids are in public schools.” To affect educational outcomes, it was important to invest in public schools. “If we were to take a fraction of the billion dollars we spent on attack ads in the last election and invest in schools,” he mused, conditions and outcomes for kids in inner cities would be vastly different.

But Woodson was largely alone in his call for concrete responses to critical social issues. A panel of conservative economists bemoaned the drift of the U.S. away from a free market economy, notwithstanding record corporate profits that far outstripped wage earnings. The Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson complained that young people growing up in California, the “blue state model” of a redistributionist economy which houses one-third of all welfare recipients in the U.S., will not have the same choices as young people in Texas. Hanson roundly condemned comprehensive immigration reform (except for allowing in immigrants with specific needed skill sets) and economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago suggested that the U.S. should charge immigrants for the right to come, suggesting, by way of illustration, a $50,000 entry fee that would exclude people who couldn’t pay, except for people with skills who would borrow to come because of the upside of coming to the States, counting on being able to earn enough that they could pay the money back.

Barone suggested that there is a “war against DeTocquevillian institutions” being perpetrated by people who are more inclined to believe in the efficacy of government and just happen to run government institutions such as the IRS. Several of these conservative luminaries decried what they saw as government, media, and academic restrictions on free expression, with Mac Donald declaring that “the idea that women are victims in this society is absurd” and railing against Title IX and against rules restricting “hate speech.”

Much like Woodson’s challenge to the panelists for concrete action ideas, panel moderator Leon Kass of the American Enterprise Institute gave a reminder to his colleagues that all of the conservatives gathered in the room for the Bradley Symposium were speaking freely, without any indication that government was intervening to prevent their statements. He added that if government were restrained, as the speakers generally called for, conservatives would still face the larger questions about how to promote the personal and political culture of freedom that conservatives envision to produce the young graduates of schools who are “knowledgeable and attentive and caring for their country.” The responses to Kass’s opening were as weak as those to Woodson’s pleas. Ward Connerly, the anti-affirmative action crusader from the American Civil Liberties Institute, called for “instill(ing) an appreciation of the value of freedom.” Barone said that people should study history; Mac Donald again lauded the Boy Scouts and expressed surprise that conservatives haven’t rallied to the defense of the group as a “civic revival machine…producing boys who can be good husbands.”

And so it went. Krauthammer said that the “future for…conservative thought is positive,” but Woodson’s presence should have reminded everyone that the present and future for conservative action that actually results in bettering the conditions of the poor is pretty thin. That’s the weakness in the conservative movement of today. It is loaded with critics who can produce tracts eviscerating social democracy, but it can’t seem to get around to suggesting anything concrete to do. From working with inner city gangs to creating violence free zones and training inner city leaders, it takes action, not theory, to produce change. That’s where conservatives are increasingly bereft of ideas.