Beltway right's antics prevent conservative president

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 17, 2000

It is highly misleading to call this political rigmarole we are now in the throes of "campaign season." "Season" would imply that there is some point in the year, indeed some point during any four-year period, where we don't engage in some national obsession over who is going to be the next president. Especially for Beltway types, who become bored with whoever the current president is in about five seconds and spend the rest of their time yearning for a new one.

So, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, why don't conservatives seem to care about the presidency? After all, Paul Weyrich complained that conservatives were "monarchists at heart" not that long ago, yet conservatives can't seem to muster enough interest in who is going to be president to take any substantive steps to insure that it will be one of us.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, an exemplar of establishment Republicanism, is far and away the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination. The only Republican who seems to have any chance of wresting the nomination away from him is Sen. John McCain, who has become a media darling for his willingness to stake out liberal positions. Steve Forbes' once-formidable campaign is stalled, both Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer languish in the single digits.

For the fourth consecutive presidential election, movement conservatives have failed to unify around a conservative candidate and nominate him over an establishment Republican. Perhaps conservatives can be forgiven for 1992, as George H.W. Bush was the incumbent and the right is divided over Patrick Buchanan. But there is some explaining to do over 1988, 1996 and 2000.

Why can't movement conservatives beat establishment Republicans? The answer is simply that conservative candidates aren't getting conservative votes. Polls clearly show a plurality, if not quite a majority, of conservatives are backing Gov. Bush. Dan Quayle, Sen. Bob Smith and Rep. John Kasich dropped out before the first votes were cast (all but Quayle dropped out prior to the Ames straw poll), Pat Buchanan is now seeking the Reform Party nomination instead, Jack Kemp and Sen. John Ashcroft didn't even declare candidacies. But the blame lies not with conservative voters.

The Beltway right is responsible for these dire straits in the presidential sweepstakes. Conservative pundits resigned themselves early on to the inevitability of Bush. They generally wrote Quayle off as a loser, made fun of Smith, smeared Buchanan and decided Kasich was too young and impetuous. Ashcroft seemed to be the best candidate to unify the various types of conservatives, but conservative journalists offered him little encouragement. Conservative intellectuals are busily concocting clever policy schemes for Bush to hock that he'll probably ignore, conservative operatives are typing up their resumes so Bush can employ them in the dreaded bureaucracy when he so "inevitably" wins.

Conservatives were complicit in the nomination of the elder George Bush in 1988, over conservatives Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson and Pete du Pont. David Keene of the American Conservative Union supported Bob Dole, as he would again in 1996. Conservative officeholders touted Bush as the defender of Reagan's tax cuts, not the former NFL quarterback who drafted them. Many religious right leaders actually supported Bush over Robertson, just as Robertson would tacitly support Dole in 1996 and George W. this year over the likes of Alan Keyes.

In 1996, Beltway conservatives alternately droned on about the inevitability of Dole, criticized him for not being Ronald Reagan and failed to aid conservative alternatives. The Weekly Standard (enlisting such notables as Bill Bennett) ignored the conservatives running against Dole and instead supported imaginary candidates who weren't even running, self-described "Rockefeller Republican" Colin Powell and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, before backing the not especially conservative Lamar Alexander. After Phil Gramm fizzled out (which was largely his own fault), the right could have capitalized on Pat Buchanan's upset in New Hampshire or the less provocative Steve Forbes' wins in Delaware and Arizona. Instead, Beltway conservatives mainly circled their wagons around Dole in South Carolina.

This pattern looks like it is going to be repeated in 2000. Conservatives themselves seem to believe that the only way to win is to back an establishment Republican or find a carbon copy of Ronald Reagan. We have accepted the self-defeating proposition that Reagan's victories were anomalous. So instead of electing a president, or even nominating a conservative candidate, Beltway conservatives occupy themselves with (a) grudgingly letting Bush win and then griping about him through the whole campaign, (b) pretending Bush or even McCain are actually serious conservatives or (c) ignoring the presidency altogether while conducting nasty civil wars over what conservatism really is and which people really are conservatives.

Such is the defeatism and triviality of today's conservative movement. The result will be that many conservative voters will tire of these games as Pat Buchanan has, and defect with him from the GOP to a party that's even worse. This will generate much caterwauling from the Beltway right, especially if the Democrats win the general election. But they will have no one but themselves to blame.

Antle, a Massachusetts native, is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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