Conservatives gathering this weekend in Washington at a summit sponsored by National Review magazine will be pondering their movement's future, inside the GOP, separate from the party or even if it has a future.
This will also be true for the Republican lawmakers who are huddling at their annual retreat this weekend. Conservatives will be asking similar questions when they meet in Washington at the annual CPAC meeting in March and on bobbing cruise liners in the Pacific, courtesy of the Weekly Standard. In between excessive eating and drinking, they will all be asking themselves, "Where do we go from here?"
These meetings are no less critical for the movement than the Council of Trent was for the Catholic Church but conservatives are wondering if it will take 35 years to right themselves; that is how long the bishops and priests took to debate after Martin Luther's broadside before they could move forward. Across the United States, in bars and restaurants, in churches and over the dinner table, people who revere Ronald Reagan not just as a nice fellow, but as someone who articulated their philosophy of less government and more freedom are wondering how their ideology went off the tracks so badly.
The Republican Party is in as critical shape as it was in 1974. It is so hopelessly confused, it stands for precious little that Americans find attractive. This is in part due to the war in Iraq, but not entirely. After the November elections, a CNN poll astonishingly found that more than 60 percent of Americans now believe the GOP to be the party of "big government." After McCain-Feingold, prescription drug benefits, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, lobbying scandals, bloated energy, farm, and transportation bills and unrestricted growth of government along with invasion of personal privacy, who can blame them?
Just this past weekend, locally elected Republican officials in the Northwest and Maine proposed banning cigarette smoking in cars with children under 18 years of age and mandatory drug testing for all elected officials. Ignorance aside, stooging for cheap media aside, these ideological illiterates who proposed this nonsense are more dangerous to the GOP than Hillary Clinton ever hoped to be. By suggesting these clear violations of parental rights and the cherished right of privacy, they, incrementally, help redefine the GOP to the American people as "Police State Republicans." Will parents have to carry papers proving their children’s age? Will elected officials have to get a note from their doctor demonstrating they are “drug free?” Bit by bit, the lust for power is destroying the Republicans from within.
The GOP itself has been corrupted by a love of government and as any student of Thomas Jefferson will tell you, all but the most stalwart will eventually be seduced by power. The GOP has not just been seduced by power, it has become its concubine. GOP lobbying firms openly advertise their ability to get millions in graft for just thirty pieces of silver, and many in the three co-joined Republican coalitions of national defense, social and economic conservatives, which were ironically brought together by an aversion to too much government, are devotees of government. Some of their various leaders can more faithfully articulate why they need government, better than why they don’t need government.
The foreign policy right, which used to subscribe to the projection of American power to only protect American interests, has become dominated by neo-conservatism, which seems to substitute American interests for the interests of all civilized nations. The economic right, whose libertarian roots stemmed from a desire to be freed from excessive government taxation and regulations, now supports corporate welfare, subsidies, and amnesty for corporate executives who break the law by hiring illegal aliens—not to mention amnesty for 12 million illegal aliens.
Cynical politicians have manipulated the social right, through the meddling in the Terry Schiavo case, to the banning of gambling on the internet and a constitutional amendment defining marriage has helped transform the conservative movement, which was once about the expansion of freedom, into "Big Christian Brother" which is now concerned with the expansion of virtue. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty for a political party to say out of one side of its mouth, overturn Roe because we believe behavioral issues belong at the state level, while out of the other side of its mouth say we need to federalize the private act of marriage. Republicanism has become incoherent for most Americans.
So it is good that conservatives are gathering and talking. What they do will determine the future of the GOP. The movement can…and possibly should…survive without the Republican Party. But the GOP is a dead duck without conservatism. So when conservatives gather, they would do well to ask themselves, is Ronald Reagan’s minimalist government philosophy gone? Do they no longer subscribe to “maximum freedom consistent with law and order” as the Gipper said in 1964? Or is the only thing left of Reaganism inside the movement and the GOP his rhetoric?
The conservative movement can heal itself, if all factions are willing to compromise and give up their infatuation with government, power and access and again embrace Reagan’s small government, do-it-yourself philosophy. The GOP, on the other hand, may have reached its own "Thermidor," that point in the French revolution when it fell apart and the various factions began to bicker amongst themselves. Even their leader, Robespierre, was beheaded. Let’s hope there is less bloodshed within the GOP.