Reclaiming Conservatism

The conservative movement is dead. At least, anything resembling the traditional conservative movement.

As represented by the Bush administration, Republican congressional majority, and right-leaning punditocracy, conservatism means more federal spending, an expanded welfare state, federalization of local and state issues, warrantless surveillance, executive branch dominance, Wilsonian global intervention, and endless war.

Indeed, it is hard to find a conservative initiative today that seeks to limit government power and enhance individual liberty. Ending earmarks and promoting school choice, perhaps. But not much else. For the most part conservative activists view their mission as defending the Bush administration. The particular issues matter little. Whatever today’s Republican leadership desires, conservatives must provide.

However, not all conservatives espouse the new imperial conservatism, which treats the Republican president as a monarch who must be obeyed, perhaps even worshipped. Vic Gold, a speech writer for former Senator and GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, last year penned a devastating critique of the Bush administration and its conservative acolytes. A number of traditionalists, including direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie and the late William F. Buckley, founder of National Review magazine, also have criticized administration policies.

Mickey Edwards, former conservative Republican congressman, now adds his voice. In Reclaiming Conservatism, he warns:

"On Capitol Hill, Congress acted as though its top priority was party unity, demonstrated in the form of an almost abject subservience to the head of a constitutionally separate branch of government. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the White House, the president, who called himself (and was called by others) a conservative, had become the very embodiment of everything conservatives had long feared and warned against. Operating almost unchecked by any other branch of government, he ordered wiretaps on citizens’ phones, held prisoners without trial or charges, and refused to provide information to Congress even when federal law required him to do so. For nearly half a century, conservatives had worried that a leftist president, if given the opportunity, might do such things. Now those things were being done by a man who called himself a ‘conservative,’ and ‘conservatives’ cheered him on. Those who once had wanted only that the government leave them alone as much as possible, who once had warned of the dangers of Big Brother, had created the monster government they most feared."

Such is "modern" and "enlightened" conservatism.

Edwards’ analysis, is, to paraphrase a common slogan, short and sour, a scathing review of the tragic deterioration of a great ideological movement that once transformed America. Conservatism has meant different things to different people at different times in different places. American conservatism originally was a variant of European liberalism. The conservative movement then was dedicated to conserving traditional liberties. Explains Edwards: "Keeping government in check was not only the primary ingredient of the Lockean and Madisonian liberalism that lay at the heart of America’s founding document; it was also the key element defining what a truly American conservatism was all about."

No longer, alas. The current administration is the culmination of several political trends. Edwards points to the growing importance of the South to the Republican Party’s success, as well as the rise of the Religious Right. Moreover, he notes, "Neoconservatism clearly illustrates how much the ‘American,’ or Constitution-based, conservatism of the Goldwater era has been supplanted." Even before plotting multiple wars, to the neoconservatives "concentrated power seemed a necessity for ensuring that their ideas were implemented," he explains.

Of course, the neoconservatives most needed that concentrated power to inaugurate war. Although today’s Right promotes promiscuous war-making, it was not always so. Writes Edwards: "In the minds of most conservatives, the ultimate purpose of a strong national defense had been to deter war; now war was increasingly seen not as a last option, but as a useful tool for the nation to achieve worthy ends. Constitutional limits on the president’s ability to wage war were considered almost quaint."

It is easy to quibble with one or another of his points, and his analysis is sure to spark some criticism even by conservatives who agree with most of his arguments. But there is no doubting Edwards’ overall analysis. He writes: "By the time George W. Bush assumed the presidency, what had once been the focus of American conservatism – personal liberty and restrained government – had almost ceased to exist as a motivating force for the movement. Conservatives had finally attained power, but they had ceased to be conservatives, at least in the uniquely American sense of the word."

Many conservatives were cowed by Republican politicians who demanded absolute loyalty to the new regime, acting as a Greek Chorus for every expansion of government authority. Edwards, however, cheerfully points out that America’s new monarchical president has no conservative clothes.

Edwards reserves perhaps his sharpest attack on the "new social vision couched in the rhetoric of ‘traditional’ (that is, religious) mores." But that is not the only sacred cow of modern conservatism which he shoots. Edwards criticizes conservative support for constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and abortion, as well as federal legislation to define marriage, strip courts of jurisdiction, and prohibit gays in the military. He argues against the constitutionality of the line item veto.

His critique of individual issues is less important than the lesson he draws from the larger political fight. Explains Edwards:

"What once formed the core of conservative thought has been lost in the pursuit of other priorities, such as reduced spending and partisan advantage. It is difficult to know whether today’s conservatives have consciously chosen to disregard the Constitution or whether questions of constitutionality simply don’t intrude on their thinking, but this avid pursuit of unconstitutional goals is of a piece with the willing surrender of Congress’s obligation to act as a check on presidential ambition. A Republican Congress, under conservative direction, virtually ceased any meaningful oversight over the executive branch even in the midst of a controversial and costly war."

But that’s not all, he contends. The Republican congressional party emphasized acquiescence over debate when it came to administration proposals. Moreover, he writes, "The demise of deliberation has been buttressed by impatience with the constraints of the Constitution." This tendency always has existed within the political system. But Edwards is horrified that conservatives "had ceased to become the crossing guards cautioning citizens to look both ways; they had joined in the fun of visualizing a world that looked good to them and setting about to impose it on the nation." And, in fact, on the entire world.

The result is what Edwards terms "the American monarchy." Executive aggrandizement did not begin with George W. Bush, of course. But "defiance of Congress has been a hallmark of the Bush administration," he writes. Conservatives and Republicans attacked President Franklin Roosevelt for exceeding proper executive authority. Today they applaud President Bush for doing the same. Notes Edwards: "No president – in fact, not all of the previous forty-two presidents combined – has so aggressively or repeatedly declared the right to simply ignore laws that would restrict his power. This is, of course, a fundamental rejection of essential conservative principles."

But the problem runs deeper. It is a rejection of the basis of constitutional government. Edwards understands what so many left-wing critics of the Bush administration miss: "Ad hominem attacks on Bush’s intellect or honesty or psychological motivations – a presumed rivalry with his father, for example – cloud the real issue. What is frightening is to have a president who lacks an understanding of, or is dismissive of, constitutional constraints on his authority."

Edwards extends this critique to President Bush’s conduct of foreign policy. Although conservatives were never pacifists, they usually were reluctant warriors. A powerful military was meant to limit war, not conduct social engineering around the globe.

As Edwards puts it:

"The Constitution was written by individuals intimately familiar with the propensity of European monarchs to send their subjects off to die on foreign battlefields. If the ‘walls’ built into [the Constitution] have any overriding objective, it is to prevent the same thing from happening here. The United States might indeed choose to go to war, but that decision would be made not by a single political leader but by representatives of the people themselves. In a document that far exceeded the practices of most other contemporary societies in limiting central authority, there was no more striking departure from the norms of the day than deliberately withholding from the chief executive the power to declare war. No American could be sent off to fight, and possibly to die, unless the people themselves determined that the cause was one that was worth the cost."

Edwards details conservative principles and a strategy for "reclaiming conservatism." He emphasizes that he is no libertarian and offers much with which to disagree. But anyone who believes in limited government and individual liberty should endorse his call for a return to constitutional governance. Explains Edwards:

"Every member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, should be forced by his or her constituents to demand that any president, regardless of party, follow the Constitution and abide by any statute that has been signed into law. No exceptions. No silence. Here lies the line between constitutional government and unchecked power."

Citing Article 1, Section 8, which enumerates the powers of Congress, Edwards suggests that the proper question for legislators is "What part of this do you not understand?" It’s a great question.

Obviously, conservatives are not the only people at fault. Admits Edwards: "liberals too often believe in enhancing the power of the state and are too willing to sacrifice the rights of individuals to the collective." But conservatives, at least those in power today, share the same view.

Which leaves the Constitution, and particularly its provisions restraining government power and protecting individual liberties, largely undefended. It is a document "not to be taken lightly, not to be set aside whenever doing so might provide partisan advantage or victory on some issue that seemed important in the moment," argues Edwards. But much of the Right has abandoned it.

For this reason Edwards challenges conservatives. "If the Constitution and its fervent embrace of citizen rights is lost, they will bear the responsibility for its demise."

They will not be the only ones to blame. But Edwards’ essential point is critical: conservatives risk sharing responsibility for the destruction of one of the few barriers left to aggrandizing state power. If this happens, all Americans will lose.