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May 22, 2006
Conservative Angst A Product Of Unrealistic Expectations?

The Washington Post ran a column yesterday by Richard Vigurie titled "Bush's Base Betrayal" that listed the bill of particulars of conservative outrage. Vigurie appears to have left nothing off the list in his attempt to nail his theses to the virtual Witenburg Castle Church as he advances the argument for a philosophical split within the GOP. Unfortunately, Vigurie lets conservatives off the hook with a bit of revisionist history:

Republicans were desperate to retake the White House, conservatives were desperate to get the Clinton liberals out and there was no direct heir to Reagan running for president. So most conservatives supported Bush as the strongest candidate -- some enthusiastically and some, like me, reluctantly. After the disastrous presidency of his father, our support for the son was a triumph of hope over experience.

Once he took office, conservatives were willing to grant this Bush a honeymoon. We were happy when he proposed tax cuts (small, but tax cuts nonetheless) and when he pushed for a missile defense system. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and conservatives came to see support for the president as an act of patriotism.

Conservatives tolerated the No Child Left Behind Act, an extensive intrusion into state and local education, and the budget-busting Medicare prescription drug benefit. They tolerated the greatest increase in spending since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. They tolerated Bush's failure to veto a single bill, and his refusal to enforce immigration laws. They even tolerated his signing of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul, even though Bush's opposition to that measure was a key reason they backed him over Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the 2000 primaries.

In 2004, Republican leaders pleaded with conservatives -- particularly religious conservatives -- to register people to vote and help them turn out on Election Day. Those efforts strengthened Republicans in Congress and probably saved the Bush presidency. We were told: Just wait till the second term. Then, the president, freed of concern over reelection and backed by a Republican Congress, would take off the gloves and fight for the conservative agenda. Just wait.

We're still waiting.

If conservatives really want to understand where we are, we need a much better understanding of how we got here. Later in his piece, Vigurie compares the relationship between the GOP and conservatives as that of an unfaithful husband and a wronged wife, a not-so-subtle reference to getting screwed that permeates the entire piece. However, if the above really represents conservative thought, then a better comparison would be found in Al Green's soul classic "The Snake", in which a woman dies from being bit by the snake she helped rescue regardless of the obvious risks.

First off, let's get rid of the notion that we ever thought George Bush was a conservative on anything but right-to-life and tax issues. The reason Dick Cheney is the vice president is because Bush needed a staunch conservative on the ticket in order to get the conservatives to come out and vote, a fact that many seem to have forgotten. This wasn't a "triumph of hope over experience," it was the political calculation that we needed a moderate-sounding candidate to beat the sitting vice-president of a popular president. George Bush ran for office on the promise of increased spending on education and a Medicare prescription plan; weren't conservatives paying attention?

We can also jettison the statement that conservatives supported Bush after 9/11 out of a sense of patriotism. A significant number of conservatives wanted a change in foreign policy from the Kissinger/Scowcroft "realist" school that prized stability over democracy. Stability brought nothing but the radicalism that comes from oppression, a radicalism that our so-called friends in the Middle East turned against us rather than their own kleptocracies. Paleocons like William F. Buckley preferred realism, but the increasing terrorist attacks on American assets provoked conservatives to demand the Wilsonian foreign-policy vision that Bush gave us. Many of us still support it as the only long-term solution to Islamofascism.

In truth, George Bush has hardly moved at all. He has always prided himself on his more center-right approach. If conservatives ever thought of Bush as one of their own, they fooled themselves on the basis of his tax cuts and his promise to appoint conservative judges. With the exception of the Harriet Miers mistake, he has come through on those promises. Otherwise, he's been the big-government moderate he's always been.

Vigurie stands on more solid ground when he castigates Congress. Our elected representatives have made a mockery of the Contract with America that delivered the House to the GOP twelve years ago. They have pursued pork as though they somehow had been called to the Last Cosmic Luau. The Senate in particular has shown a reluctance to engage in fiscal sanity while at the same time refusing to unify behind the judicial appointees of Bush. The blame for the greatest increase in spending belongs to them as well as a president who refuses to veto the appropriations.

We all know the indictments. The question is what to do about them.

Vigurie argues that the conservatives should balk at the harness in 2006, and apparently also in 2008:

But unhappy conservatives should be taken seriously. When conservatives are unhappy, bad things happen to the Republican Party.

In 1948, conservatives were unhappy with Thomas E. Dewey's liberal Republican "me too" campaign, and enough of them stayed home to give the election to Harry S. Truman. In 1960, conservatives were unhappy with Richard M. Nixon's negotiations with Nelson A. Rockefeller to divide the spoils of victory before victory was even achieved, and John F. Kennedy won.

In 1974, conservatives were unhappy with the corruption and Big Government policies of Nixon's White House and with President Gerald R. Ford's selection of Rockefeller as his vice president, and this led to major Republican losses in the congressional races that year. By 1976, conservatives were fed up with Ford's adoption of Rockefeller's agenda, and Jimmy Carter was elected with the backing of Christian conservatives.

In 1992, conservatives were so unhappy with President George H.W. Bush's open disdain for them that they staged an open rebellion, first with the candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan and then with Ross Perot. The result was an incumbent president receiving a paltry 37 percent of the vote. In 1998, conservatives were demoralized by congressional Republicans' wild spending and their backing away from conservative ideas. The result was an unexpected loss of seats in the House and the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Well, let's recap what happened with those elections. After 1948, we got caught with our pants down in the Korean Peninsula, forcing us into a brutal war of attrition against the North Koreans and then the Chinese. After 1960, the US botched a counterrevolution against Fidel Castro and got us stuck in Viet Nam after an ill-advised coup. In 1976, conservative ennui put Jimmy Carter in the White House and gave us four years of economic misery and allowed the Islamists to gain a toehold in Iran -- and presented the world with an example of American impotence that directly led to 9/11. In 1992, after we made our point in the Gulf (albeit incompletely), we failed to respond to a series of provocations that again directly led to 9/11. (In 1974, in case Vigurie doesn't remember, the conservatives could have run George Washington in every Congressional race and we still would have lost 40 seats. It's the natural reaction when the party leader disgraces his office and resigns the Presidency.)

When conservatives stay home, bad things happen to the country, not just the GOP. Do we really want to have another Jimmy Carter style presidency in order to gain some perspective?

And let's not forget that only one of those examples resulted in a movement conservative taking the White House. Eisenhower governed as a moderate, spending freely on infrastructure and warning about the military-industrial complex. Nixon may have been the most liberal Republican president ever, inmposing wage and price controls and establishing the confiscatory EPA and the Endangered Species Act. Bush has been Bush, after all. Only Reagan managed to get himself elected after a conservative withdrawal, and that was due to the utter incompetence of the Carter administration. Why? Because conservatives abstained, and the GOP wouldn't trust them with power after their acts of petulance.

The history of our strikes should demonstrate the necessity of our continued engagement. We need to take one piece of advice from Vigurie: stop donating to party-leadership committees. No money to the RNC, the Republican Senatorial or Congressional Campaign Commitees, until that leadership proves its responsiveness to conservatives. We need to redirect those funds to conservative candidates instead, loosening the power that current leadership has on our representatives. If they do not fear the cutoff of electoral funding, they will be less inclined to follow in lockstep behind the spendthrifts. It's this activism that will enable conservatives to take control of the GOP, instead of abandoning it to the people who spend like drunken sailors.

Others blogging on this topic:

  • Stephen Bainbridge

  • Mark Tapscott

  • Bruce Kesler
  • Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
    Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 22, 2006 5:51 AM

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