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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Enter Stage Right -- http://www.enterstageright.com