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A dearth of conservative leadership

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 3, 2002

President Bush recently argued that his tax cut was responsible for the fitful return of economic growth because it "put money back in the people's pockets." While the tax cut indisputably did put money in people's pockets - the pockets of the people who earned the money, rather than the government - this argument nevertheless turns the supply-side case for lower tax rates that conservatives have been making for years on its head. Bush is effectively saying that the positive economic impact of lower taxes is a demand-side phenomenon, a Keynesian argument.

This may seem like a trivial point - we got a tax cut didn't we? - but it is not. As I noted in an earlier article, conservatives have become much less reticent about criticizing Bush for his perceived slights against conservative doctrine. His leadership on conservative issues is inseparable from his understanding of those issues and his articulation of the ideas most conservatives share.

Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in his review of the first year of the Bush presidency for National Review that conservatives are lucky the president is as conservative as he is, for they have no institutional or organizational power to make him be. That magazine's founder William F. Buckley, Jr. remarked on a television program during the 2000 campaign that Bush was "conservative but not a conservative," an important distinction that explains why the president sometimes pleases and other times aggravates the people who elected him and want to see themselves as his ideological soulmates.

In other words, President Bush is basically conservative in his values and ideas about government, but has no real philosophical or ideological bent that tethers him to the conservative movement. He sees the world much the same way as conservatives do but is not systematic in his political thought. And of course he also is an elected official who relies on the approval of voters, which conservative writers do not.

Given that we live in an imperfect world and that politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible, this should not be a particularly big deal. Bush isn't an ideal conservative, but he'll sign tax cuts, stop our tax dollars from going to support abortions in the Third World and avoid economically disastrous calamities like the Kyoto Accord. None of this could be said for Al Gore.

The trouble is that Bush is regarded as the nation's preeminent conservative leader. Conservatives voted for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush, but for the most part they saw them as politicians they "could do business with," to quote Margaret Thatcher's memorable phrase about Gorbachev, rather than as one of them. Conservatives see Bush in the same light as Ronald Reagan, as an embodiment of conservatism's highest political aspirations. And even Reagan presided over a growing federal government.

The Gipper may have been unique, but someone needs to play his role as the political leader of the conservative movement. Reagan's predecessors were Barry Goldwater and Robert Taft. He has never had a real successor, and if his successor is George W. Bush, the shift from Taft to Goldwater to Reagan to Bush does not bode well for conservatism's commitment to smaller government.

Senators Rick Santorum, R-Penn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas during a recent news conference
Senators Rick Santorum, R-Penn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas during a recent news conference

Who are the conservative leaders? Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Dick Armey are all retiring. Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) has never really occupied their place on the national stage and a series of political missteps may even cost him the GOP nomination to Rep. John Sunnunu (R-NH). If Smith survives, he will face a strong challenge from Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is an indefatigable defender of the Constitution, but he has had limited impact in moving the Republican Party. John McCain has moved decidedly to the left over the last decade. Attorney General John Ashcroft is a favorite among conservatives of some stripes, but since the PATRIOT Act his standing among more libertarian conservatives has sunk as low as Janet Reno's.

Among elected officials, the two most important conservatives left in Washington are Senate Minority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK) and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). With the possible exceptions of outgoing incumbents John Engler in Michigan and Frank Keating in Oklahoma, there aren't any impressively conservative governors. (New Mexico's Gary Johnson is a personal favorite, but his libertarian stance on drugs makes him a non-starter with most of the right. Arkansas' Mike Huckabee also deserves honorable mention.) Bill Simon in California could become a real conservative leader, but he has to get elected first, which - despite his leads in several polls other than the Field poll of registered rather than likely voters - is no certainty. Brett Schundler would have emerged as a major conservative leader had he not been defeated in New Jersey.

Of course, true conservatives know that politics isn't everything. Unfortunately, most conservative writers and idea men, in sharp contrast with people like the late Russell Kirk, are little more than Republican Party public relations people.

This isn't an impassioned plea for the next Ronald Reagan, since there will never be another, or even for electing a "purely" conservative president to save the country. Conservatives need more than Republican election victories; conservatives need to have more people seeking victory in the battle of ideas. Right now, the front lines are looking pretty thin.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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