TCS Daily


Two Hurricanes and the Conservative Crisis

By Ryan H. Sager - October 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Two hurricanes, one literal and one figurative, came along and ripped the roof off of the conservative coalition's happy home. It was bound to happen sooner or later -- that cracks would start forming, that dissent would start seeping in -- but Katrina and Harriet hurried the process along. Now, a debate that wasn't scheduled to start until 2007 or 2008 is making an early debut: What will conservatism mean when President Bush passes from the national stage?

Of course, reports of the president's political death are greatly exaggerated. As Bill Clinton reminded us all long ago, the Constitution makes the president relevant. Yet the recent revolt against the direction Bush is leading conservatives and the Republican Party reminds us that the politicians, the pundits and the people at large are already staking out territory in what promises to be a bloody battle for the heart and soul of the GOP.

First, there was Hurricane Katrina.

While the fight that ensued among Republicans in the House of Representatives was nominally about an excessive spending plan pushed by the administration to make up for the Michael "Heckuvajob" Brown fiasco, it was actually about something far deeper: not just the excessive spending from the early days of the Bush administration, but a deep sense that the conservative movement is increasingly betraying its ideals by standing behind him as his "compassionate conservatism" yields increasingly Big Government Conservatism.

"The conservative movement is at a crossroads in America," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), leader of the spending rebellion in the House, told a group of young conservatives on Capitol Hill late last month. "As the Republican Party did 40 years ago, today is another time for choosing whether we are committed to the ideals of limited government, fiscal discipline and traditional moral values or whether we will continue to sacrifice those principles on the altar of preserving our governing majority."

Pence's speech, delivered not long after the congressman was dressed down by a (pre-indictment) Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert, may some day come to be known as another shot heard 'round the world -- as it were, against another King George.

Backing up Pence and his band of rebels, was a rather remarkable statement signed by the chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, on behalf of the organization's board of directors. It declared that: "The Republican Party has abandoned its traditional belief that the individual has supremacy over the state. Big government, in the hands of any party, threatens the rights and privacy of that individual." What's more, the statement said, "In the hands of the GOP, the federal government has grown bigger and faster in the last five years than during any previous five year period since The New Deal."

The New Deal? No he di-int ... In the GOP, them's known as "fightin' words."

Then, there was Hurricane Harriet.

If small-government conservatives had been fed up with the administration for, oh, about five years, this was a wake-up call for the social-conservatives. While a handful of Evangelical leaders, such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson, were quickly quieted with assurances that Miers is -- wink, wink - 'one of us', most social conservatives remember that they've been told "trust me" by Republican presidents five or six times too many.

And while the White House and its minions (aided by liberal pundits) try to spin the conservative debate over Miers as one between snobs and slobs -- elitist conservative intellectuals versus the base -- a much more important fissure is showing: that between the GOP's pragmatists and its idealists.

No one serious (and perhaps no one at all) is making the case that Miers is "qualified," in any conventional sense of the word, to serve on the Supreme Court. Instead, some are making the case that Miers is Bush's pick and that should be good enough for conservatives; or, at least, that trying to derail her will only hurt the president and the party.

While pragmatism is essential to any political movement that hopes to implement some of its ideas in the real world rather than rant about all of them in conferences and on blogs, with Miers these pragmatists may have taken the concept too far.

In the current conservative crisis, there are going to be a lot of pragmatists running around yelling that everything is fine - in large part because that's what's easy and expedient. But it seems unlikely that they will be able to stifle debate. Conservatives were hungry for power in 2000, after eight years of Clinton, and ready to unite behind anyone who looked like a winner. Debates about the meaning of conservatism could wait until another day. Not so this time around.

Many conservatives will enter 2008 with a profound sense of ambivalence. After eight years of Bush, they will be asking, "Is this all there is?" Unless the conservative movement can rediscover a purpose other than perpetuating its and the Republican Party's power, the answer will not weather the storm.

Ryan Sager, a member of the editorial board of The New York Post, is writing a book about the future of the Republican Party. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.

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