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The Conservative Movement Dragged Down

By Bruce Bartlett

With George W. Bush's popularity down to just 33 percent in the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, liberals like Paul Krugman are starting to salivate at the possibility of bringing down not only the Republican Party, but conservative ideas, as well. Conservatives, too, are becoming concerned about the prospect, and some now are looking to distance themselves from the looming Republican crack-up.

Those most concerned about this are conservatives old enough to remember when the conservative movement's attachment to the Republican Party was much more circumspect than it is today. They remember too well the viciousness of the Republican establishment's attacks on conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Although these men eventually became viewed as pillars of the party, it greeted them initially as wreckers.

Older conservatives also remember Richard Nixon, with whom they made a fateful alliance in 1968, even though they knew he was never really one of them. But the imperative of getting Democrats out of the White House and his electability caused them to unite behind him. In the end, Nixon proved a disaster for conservatives and the Republican Party, as well.

Now, some of the veterans of that era are starting to speak out, saying that Bush's mistakes may lead to a political defeat for Republicans and conservatives of Nixonian proportions. One of these is Jeffrey Hart, a longtime editor of National Review magazine and professor of English at Dartmouth College.

In a neglected article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Nov. 20, Hart blasted Bush. He is no conservative, Hart said, "but a right-wing ideologue who steers by abstractions in both foreign and domestic policy. ... As a conservative, I am seething with outrage at his performance."

On conservative grounds, Hart faults Bush for his positions on Iraq, Social Security, stem-cell research and tax policy. Their failure, Hart argues, lies in Bush's view of such issues in abstract terms that are not anchored in the traditional conservative concern for prudence, informed by the study of history and human nature. Hart concludes that Bush "doesn't have a conservative bone in his body."

In his new book, "The Making of the Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times" (ISI Books), Hart blames Bush's disconnect from historical conservatism on his evangelical Christianity. He cites an important analysis of this view by Wilfred McClay of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Said McClay in a Feb. 23, 2005, speech, "Evangelism, by its very nature, has an uneasy relationship with conservatism."

That is because evangelism emphasizes the personal relationship between man and God, disconnected from doctrine and tradition. In short, it is diametrically opposed to the Catholic vision of Christianity, which many conservatives view as being much more compatible with the nature of philosophical conservatism because it is anchored in doctrine and tradition.

Consequently, Bush is too easily able to invoke God in support of whatever he has decided to do. To evangelicals, his understanding of God's word is as good as anyone else's, and so he is perfectly entitled to do so. They view the depth of his belief as the principal determinant of the genuineness of his vision, not whether it is well grounded in a proper understanding of biblical principles, logic and history.

Hart likens Bush to William Jennings Bryan, who had a similarly individualistic view of God that also appealed powerfully to those in America's heartland -- the so-called red states. But Bryan ultimately was a disaster for the Democratic Party, enabling the more secular Republicans to win in 1896, 1900 and 1908.

Another important critic of Bush is Georgetown University government professor George W. Carey, long one of the leading conservative intellectuals in America. Writing in the fall 2005 issue of Modern Age, the nation's most important conservative academic journal, Carey finds nothing conservative about Bush's policies. "To apply the word 'conservative' to Bush and his administration, as the media routinely does, not only is misleading, but also debases conservatism," he says.

Carey lambastes Bush for moving the Republican Party further away from conservative principles than it already was. He is appalled that Democrats are now able to argue, "not without substantial justification," to being the party of fiscal responsibility. Carey calls Bush's foreign policy "Wilsonianism on steroids" and argues that it would be strenuously opposed by conservative icons Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet and Richard M. Weaver.

Both Hart and Carey are disappointed by the younger generation of conservatives who run National Review and other conservative journals for subordinating conservatism to transitory politics. They believe that conservatives should maintain a healthy distance from the Republican Party, because the nature of politics necessarily involves compromise and reliance on leaders of dubious quality and motives. The conservative movement also gets dragged down when bad Republican leaders engineer political defeats for the party, as seems likely this fall.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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