For a political reporter looking for a good story, a national convention has become a pretty barren field. Journalists typically just enjoy the expense account, skip most of the scripted, focus-grouped speeches, and listen instead to Jack Germond or David Broder reminisce about the Taft-Eisenhower floor fight of 1952 or the Chicago riots of 1968. In New York this year, even the protests were made for TV.
The oasis in recent Republican conventions has been the platform committee. In these hearings, the week before the convention, conservative activists and local party officials would spend four days hashing out the party’s official stance on such issues as taxes, defense, abortion, and education.
In contrast to the convention proper, where every word is vetted by the campaign and the party to make sure it will appeal to the undecided voters watching on TV, the platform hearing provided debate, ideas, substance, and (something certainly not found on the podium at the convention) actual conservatives.
Predictably, the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign put an end to that. Beginning with the party’s refusal to give platform delegates the names and contact info of other delegates, it was clear that things were going to work differently this year.
The typical four days of debate was cut down to two. The platform was a monstrous 90-page document drafted by Bush-Cheney campaign hands instead of by movement conservatives, as it had been in past years.
Even the subcommittees were created in such a way as to replace debate and substance with polished message. Whereas in 1992 there was an “Economy, Trade, Jobs and Budget” subcommittee, this year saw a “Building an Innovative Economy to Compete in the World” subcommittee and another one called “Ushering in an Ownership Era.”
The “Protecting Our Families” subcommittee dealt with abortion and homosexual marriage, thus drawing the bulk of the staunch pro-life delegates, who then were frustrated when they found that embryonic stem-cell research was in the “Strengthening Our Communities” subcommittee as a healthcare issue rather than as a life issue. Delegates who wanted to talk about curbing illegal immigration were shoved aside when their efforts to oppose amnesty were ruled nongermane in the “Winning the War on Terror” subcommittee.
At the end of the whole process, the mainstream media reliably told the story of how the Republicans for Choice and pro-“homosexual marriage” Log Cabin Republicans were shot down, belying the big-tent image the party placed up on the podium. Untold, except in a few conservative outlets, were the victories the Bush-Cheney campaign won for big government, open borders, and Wilsonian interventionism. In short, the current administration has put the GOP on record as the party of neoconservatism.
Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum gnashed its teeth over amnesty and open borders. The American Conservative Union rolled its eyes over the big government. Traditional movement conservatives resigned themselves to biting the bullet one more time and hoping against reason that Bush would act like a conservative in his second term.
The Bushies were cursed as unprincipled pragmatists, but no one really asked why the GOP has decided neoconservatism is the most pragmatic way to run. Also unasked was why the party rank and file—lawmakers and platform delegates—have gone along with this neocon transformation.
In the name of compassionate conservatism, the right has accepted bigger government. For the false promise of the Hispanic vote, conservatives have embraced open borders. For the sake of a wedge issue and as a result of a love of country, the right has come to terms with a utopianist, interventionist foreign policy. In other words, while holding on to some conservative goals, the right has somehow accepted most of the political premises of left.
In 1996, the Republican platform still contained a plank calling for the abolition of the Department of Education (ED). There is no constitutional justification for such a Cabinet department—created by Jimmy Carter as a gift to the teachers unions—and its price tag was rapidly growing. In 2000, however, the abolish-the-ED plank was torn up in recognition of the GOP nominee’s pledge to be the “Education President.” “No Child Left Behind” was one of George W. Bush’s top campaign pledges, expanding the federal reach into education and increasing the budget of the Department of Education.
By 2004, the Republican plank on education read like a retort to the 1996 platform. The original draft triumphantly declared: “President Bush and Congressional Republicans have provided the largest increase in federal education funding in history and the highest percentage gain since Lyndon Johnson.”
Why would conservatives and the party of local control and limited government think outspending LBJ was something to brag about?
Ronald Reagan taught that, in the face of a problem, government ought to look for the things it does to cause or exacerbate the issue and then stop doing those things. If the party and the conservative movement he led ever believed that, they do not anymore.
The GOP has granted the Democrats’ premises of what the problems are in this country, including inadequate public schools and high prescription-drug prices. It has gone one step more and granted that the government ought to do something about these problems. This imperative may be a flaw inherent in democratic politics in the world of 24-hour media, where results and accomplishments are demanded. Now, it has infected the right, granting a victory to a big-government “conservatism” that tries to use government for its ends.
Indeed, one of President Bush’s advantages in this campaign is that he can point to four years of “accomplishments” in the White House (including two regime changes and a drastic increase in the federal role in prescription drugs and education) while John Kerry’s 20 years in the Senate are strikingly lacking in accomplishments.
That most voters look for the government to do something might not be enough to cause so much bad policy in a Republican government if the conservatives, in their hearts, did not agree with this liberal view. The right, however, signed on to the do something doctrine in nominating and electing George W. Bush, who promised from the beginning of his campaign to use Washington to fix our schools and prescription-drug prices. “If we don’t do something about this now,” one conservative Republican staffer told me during the prescription-drug debates, “the Democrats will when they take over.”
He was probably correct. Republican leaders are no longer able to articulate the idea that the best thing for the government to do about some problems is to get out of the way. If any problem arises, and a Republican government doesn’t do something about it, they are philosophically unequipped to explain themselves.
Years of tactical posturing and contracts with America have produced Republican wins, but they have also eroded any conservative philosophy. In the end, stuff like “No Child Left Behind” is the best that such an emasculated conservatism can produce. This bill buys into the left’s philosophy of throwing more government and more tax dollars at already failed government programs. Its conservatism is in the “accountability” it imposes on school districts: rewarding success and punishing failure. Limited government has given way to “good government”—a victory demonstrated by a Weekly Standard mailer featuring a caricature of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a battle cry to “terminate bad government.”
Terminating government’s role in any aspect of our lives is out of the question. A few conservatives at the platform debates objected to the declaration that “[p]ublic education is the foundation of civil society.” What about family, community, or religion? Efforts to strike this phrase, or even the word public, were summarily rejected.
The message was clear, and typically neoconservative: Government has a central place in our lives, so let’s make it work for us.
Education is only one example of where the current Republican government, with the endorsement of most of Washington’s “conservatives,” has shown it really has no alternative to the left’s belief that more government is the solution. Prescription drugs, increased farm subsidies, and a general explosion in federal spending demonstrate that the GOP has bought wholly into this worldview.
Even less successful than the opposition to the big-education platform language was the push for stronger immigration enforcement and border control. With the platform transformed into campaign propaganda, it naturally contained a ringing endorsement of President Bush’s amnesty program for illegal aliens, while simultaneously and nonsensically declaring that “we oppose amnesty.”
The amnesty plank reads:
A growing economy requires a growing number of workers, and President Bush has proposed a new temporary workers program to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.
This new program would allow workers who currently hold jobs to come out of the shadows and to participate legally in America’s economy.
All efforts to modify or remove this plank were summarily rejected by the campaign’s proxies. Less ambitious amendments, such as one asserting illegal immigrants ought not to receive Social Security benefits, were also crushed. Denying drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition to illegals were both rejected.
Since unemployment may be President Bush’s Achilles heel this election year, the call for a greater supply of labor seems an odd one. Further, non-Cuban immigrants tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Finally, as the GOP makes the case that we are fighting a war that was “brought to us” and tries to defend John Ashcroft’s increased surveillance power, why would we not try to keep tighter control over who enters our country?
At the platform hearings in New York, however, these arguments got nowhere. Unfettered immigration has always been favored by the Republican establishment. While the conservative base generally argues for more control on immigration, every Republican presidential nominee in the last half-century has favored open borders. The Democratic establishment, for the most part, agrees with the GOP on this. At the platform hearings in August, one Washington conservative leader gave a succinct answer as to why he never expected success in trying to curb illegal border-crossing: “Republicans look at illegal immigrants and see cheap labor. Democrats see votes.”
The key to the establishment’s victory over the grassroots on this issue lies in the Bush campaign’s claim that it, too, expects to garner Hispanic votes as a result of increased Mexican immigration. In meetings with reporters for the past three years, top Bush political aides Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman have stressed that they are going after the Hispanic vote. In 2002, they pointed to the success among Hispanic voters of GOP gubernatorial candidates George Pataki and Jeb Bush as signs that President Bush can improve on his share of 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, as long as they play nice. Most political signs, however, suggest the GOP has given up on the Hispanic vote. If a congressional district is more than one-third Hispanic (again, excepting Cubans), Republicans almost never run a serious candidate at all, and those that they do run almost never win. In fact, to protect Texas’s only Hispanic Republican congressman, the state party, in the latest redistricting plan, had to make his district nearly 20 percent less Hispanic.
Rove has said in private that Arizona and Nevada are in danger of voting Democratic in 2004 because of their increased Hispanic population.
Come election time and decisions regarding candidates and cash, the party does not really act like it can win the Hispanic vote; in public, however, the Bushies pretend they can. At the Republican National Convention, the GOP led up to Bush’s speech with a movie about Hispanics and an introduction by former Housing Secretary Mel Martinez.
The claim that the Republicans are pursuing the Hispanic vote serves two purposes. First, it creates an impression of a tolerant big tent to make undecided white voters feel better about voting GOP—an old trick. Second, and more to the point, it quells rebellions in the base.
Angry conservatives who do not put a premium on cheap workers can wince and accept Bush’s open-borders policies for the same reason they accept his Medicare prescriptions-drug entitlement: They are politically necessary evils. Accordingly, most platform delegates stuck to the campaign’s line on immigration.
That a false promise of Hispanic votes can cause the conservative movement to roll over surely shows a weakness of spine. On big government, the right might actually have bought into the left’s philosophy; on immigration, however, the right has simply shown its willingness to sacrifice principle for the sake of politics.
In this way, the conservative movement has started to forget its purpose. Sacrificing issues that involve the preservation of American lives (every September 11 terrorist had to cross our borders) and culture for perceived political gain should be the stuff of a campaign, not of a movement.
The conservative movement, however, has apparently accepted its role as a part of the GOP campaign. Such a transformation may be inevitable whenever career considerations start playing a large role, as is always the case in any sizable movement.
If the Republican platform is read as the philosophical foundation of the party, then the GOP exists mostly for the sake of foreign policy. “Winning the War on Terror” made up nearly half of the platform. The document sounded nothing like the “humble” foreign policy George W. Bush called for in the 2000 election. It enshrined as party policy the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East for the sake of stability.
The platform adopts Bush’s line that “freedom is the Almight’s gift to every man, woman, and child in the world.” The War on Terror section opens with President Bush’s words: “Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace. . . . [W]e will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”
Worrying about everyone else’s business used to be the hobby of the left. At the highest levels, however, foreign intervention has always been the dogma of the establishment in both parties. Every President and every Republican nominee going back to Wendell Willkie has been an interventionist, even when the party’s base has been more like Robert Taft.
Now, however, grassroots conservatives have abandoned their skepticism of the establishment’s overseas ambitions. This acquiescence is the result of the workings of the conservative press and the radical left.
On September 11, 2001, the most hawkish elements on the right were perched atop National Review and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, two of the most prominent publications on the right. Throw in William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and you have a “conservative” press that comes down almost entirely on the neoconservative side of the right’s foreign-policy debate.
For many conservatives undecided about the wisdom of nation- and region-building, a quick look at the most vocal opponents of Bush’s wars and Israel policy was decisive. Driven largely by an adolescent hatred of America inculcated in academia and public schools, the leftist antiwar and anti-Bush protestors have made fools of themselves over the past three years. The pinnacle of their absurdity may have been when some American leftists volunteered to be human shields for the Iraqis.
The other faces of resistance to a neocon foreign policy were conservative journalists Pat Buchanan and Bob Novak, who were repeatedly smeared as antisemitic and unpatriotic by the rest of the conservative press.
Thus, most of the right, reluctant to join the America haters or the accused racists, signed on to the war in Iraq. Following some variation of the imperative to halt partisanship at the water’s edge, the GOP grassroots at the platform hearing faithfully followed Bush’s Wilsonian lead. The grand language and ambitious foreign-policy goals, unlike the big-government and open-borders language, received absolutely no vocal resistance, because it appealed to a real sensibility in these conservatives: patriotism.
Neoconservatism, as Norman Podhoretz made clear in his book Making It, is conservatism adapted to fit in with Georgetown cocktail parties and to avert the career disasters traditional conservatism often yields. It is also a conservatism, its adherents say, that holds optimism and pragmatism at its heart.
It is fitting, then, that a conservative movement would become a neoconservative movement. In a movement, there are daily fights in the media and on Capitol Hill. There are jobs and promotions. There are foundation grants and subscribers. Once conservatives become professional conservatives, the neoconservative dispositions become more natural.
The Republican platform approved this summer in New York enshrines the near-total professionalization of the right. The efficient platform process produced a feel-good, well-polished document that solidifies the neoconservative victory over not just a party but a movement.