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It's no time to accommodate the GOP's leftward drift

By W. James Antle III
web posted September 6, 2004

It's time to play that favorite game of political analysts and commentators: already bored with this year's ongoing presidential campaign, let's begin to speculate about the 2008 race. Of particular interest to my readers, no doubt, is the question of who will replace George W. Bush as the GOP standard-bearer four years hence.

The line-up of speakers at the Republican National Convention offers us a glimpse at some of the possibilities: Sen. John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, his successor Michael Bloomberg, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (presently constitutionally ineligible for the presidency, although the likes of Sen. Orrin Hatch don't seem to mind changing that) and New York Gov. George Pataki.

You'll notice that this group isn't especially conservative. All of them except for McCain are pro-choice. Although some of them profess to be opposed to the judicial imposition of same-sex marriage, none of them back any of the major proposals that might actually do something about it. Most of them have mixed records on taxes and the size of government. They don't even offer anything to those of us who were among the minority on the right opposed to the Iraq adventure; everyone on this roster favors a policy of bombing the Middle East into democracy. If you're a conservative who is disenchanted with President Bush, you must glumly conclude that most of his likely successors are even worse.

Conservatives can still hope to campaign for the lonely limited-government proponent Congressman Ron Paul or his immigration-reform stalwart colleague Tom Tancredo, but neither of them is likely to run and both would be rebuffed by the party establishment if they did. Enthusiasm for Colorado Gov. Bill Owens seems to be on the wane and it is still too early to tell what Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist would offer the right if he served in an executive capacity.

President Giuliani? Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani addresses delegates at the RNC
President Giuliani? Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani addresses delegates at the RNC

Perhaps most disturbing, however, are signs that movement conservatives are already planning on folding their tents and signing on with more moderate candidates. Case in point was a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by David Frum touting Giuliani for president. This is the same David Frum who wrote about possible Republican candidacies by Jack Kemp, Pat Buchanan and Bill Bennett in his book Dead Right ten years ago and found all of them wanting in their commitment to conservative principles.

Giuliani was a fine mayor who performed admirably in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and was as conservative as someone who could actually be elected in New York City can reasonably be expected to be. I've long maintained his career was a good test for when it is prudent to support more liberal Republicans. But pace Frum, he's not someone who differs with conservatives on just one issue (abortion) – he holds positions noticeably to the left of grassroots conservatives on issues ranging from gun control to gay marriage to immigration.

And on abortion, Giuliani is to the left of even most pro-choice moderates. He opposes a ban on partial-birth abortion and would not compromise even to secure the Conservative Party ballot line in his abandoned Senate race against Hillary Clinton. Schwarzenegger, Pataki and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, favor outlawing partial-birth abortion despite being mainly pro-choice.

Frum hopes that Giuliani would be able to reach out to pro-lifers by opposing embryonic stem-cell research and promising to appoint strict-constructionist judges who would be likely to believe that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. But even many pro-life politicians shrink from these tasks. There is nothing in Giuliani's record that makes him likely to embrace such recommendations. Moreover, as Frum's National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru noted, it isn't clear that there is a large political constituency for this combination of positions.

Even if Giuliani could square this circle and garner significant pro-life support, why should conservative journalists cheer for a candidate from the left wing of the Republican Party? In politics, concessions must be made and ideological purity must sometimes take a backseat to electability. But this is primarily a concern for party apparatchiks in the trenches. Conservative writers and policy wonks are in the business of ideas, not winning votes. Why should compromise begin with us?

It has become a ritual for the Beltway right to ignore or even pull the rug out from under principled conservative alternatives to establishment Republicans, subordinating first principles and policy objectives to the GOP's electoral prospects. Beltway conservatives played a pivotal role in the victory of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush over opponents on their right.

If some of today's conservative gatekeepers were in business decades ago, Ronald Reagan may have never been nominated. Surely, the conservative movement wouldn't have cast its lot with Robert Taft or Barry Goldwater.

When the postwar conservative movement began its revival in the 1950s, its leading intellectuals could distinguish the difference between their identity and the Republican Party. They might have preferred Dwight Eisenhower to Adlai Stevenson, but they operated under no illusions that Eisenhower Republicanism was sufficient. (Though in certain sectors of today's GOP, Eisenhower Republicanism would be an improvement!)

In Dead Right, Frum advised his ideological comrades that "conservative intellectuals should be at work on something a little more ambitious than the Republican Party's next campaign manifesto." Indeed they should be. The next presidential election is likely to be even more difficult for conservatives than this one. Preemptively surrendering on issues that animate the grassroots won't make it any easier.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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