Last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) got a lot of media attention. Deservedly so. Some of the speakers were great successes. George Will delivered a half-hour speech that deserves to be heard by everyone in this country. No one has ever accused this most thoughtful writer of being wildly overheated. He never felt a thrill go up and down his leg--even when Ronald Reagan was elected. So, when George Will says liberals are attacking the foundations of the American experiment in ordered liberty, take notice.
Marco Rubio’s keynote address was a huge hit. The former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives might well be described as the anti-Obama. That’s not just because the conservative candidate for U.S. Senate opposes so many of President Obama’s policies. He does, and he’s seen his poll numbers climb in direct proportion to the President’s slide. It’s more than that. Marco Rubio understands why America is exceptional in the world. He inherited from his Cuban exile parents a passion for liberty and fierce aversion to government attempts to control every aspect of our lives.
Barack Obama has been most eloquent in discussing his “Dreams from my Father.” But he seems tragically determined to import for us the very aspects of post-independence Kenya that made his father’s too short life a nightmare. What part of tribalism, cronyism, corruption, and socialism--the bane of too many newly-independent African nations--do we want to establish here? When President Obama praises certain Wall Street bankers--while denouncing the rest as “fat cats”--you can be sure that the ones he praises are big donors to the liberal politicians and causes. Crony capitalism at its worst.
Rubio is teaching all of us why we need to preserve what Lincoln called “this last best hope of earth.” But that quote reminds us of some of the CPAC sour notes. What kind of conservatism is it that hosts a workshop on “Lincoln Friend or Foe?” Isn’t it strange that conservatives are forever deploring the fact that more black Americans aren’t voting for the “Party of Lincoln?” So here comes a workshop that raises the specter of Lincoln as father of big government.
William F. Buckley, Jr., performed a great service for conservatism in the fifties. He expelled from serious consideration the anti-Semites, the racists, the conspiracy mongers who always collect on the fringes of any vital political movement.
Conservatives need to embrace, not reject, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. Can anything be more conservative than conserving the Constitution, the Great Republic which it framed, and the “right to rise” which Lincoln stood for? In Lincoln’s own day, some politicians argued that the Declaration of Independence was a “self-evident lie.” It would be sad to see conservatives today reject Lincoln’s powerful defense of the Founders. If Lincoln was guilty of “invading” Virginia and other seceding states, then what have we to say about Washington “invading” Pennsylvania to put down the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion? In calling for 75,000 volunteers in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln even used the same language his hero Washington used to quell “combinations too powerful to be suppressed” by the normal judicial authorities.
Theodore Roosevelt may seem a harder case for conservatives to defend. It is entirely true that T.R. was occasionally carried away with energetic use of executive authority. T.R. ran on the Progressive Party platform in 1912. Too bad. Most of us who admire Theodore Roosevelt wish he had never split the GOP and allowed Woodrow Wilson to slip into the White House. T.R., it is true, conceded too much to the Progressives’ “lunatic fringe” in his Bull Moose candidacy in 1912. (That’s the source from which President Obama, for example, traces his plan for nationalized health care.)
We need to judge T.R. more by his highly successful 8 years in the White House.
As President, Theodore Roosevelt was the first to concern himself about social issues of grave import. He worried about falling birthrates and rising divorce rates. He campaigned against dangerous working conditions in factories, mines, and logging camps for women and children.
He was for conservation, but had little use for those who wanted to seal off our natural resources and prevent Americans from properly using them.
Most of all, T.R. was a realistic and idealistic world statesman. He won his Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an actual peace between warring Russian and Japanese Empires. He did not win it for sonorous speeches about peace. When he accepted the Prize in Oslo, he sternly warned that preparedness for war was the best way to preserve peace. His latter day critics could learn from him. During World War I, it is true, that T.R. lost his head in attacking the Wilson administration. But it is equally true that Roosevelt’s demand for unconditional surrender of Germany, the trial of the Kaiser and his criminal military clique for war crimes, his determination to stand strong with America’s allies--all of these promised a more realistic way to end the global conflict. T.R.’s plan for victory in World War I was successfully applied to victory in World War II. The second Roosevelt and President Truman might have been consciously applying T.R.’s formulas.
Wilson’s spectacular failure with the Versailles Treaty led the U.S. Senate to reject it. Liberals consider that rejection a tragedy, and have been trying to enact Wilsonian internationalism ever since. Wilson’s foggy notions are the basis for the Obama administration’s wrong-headed approach to international affairs.
Conservatives can rightly reject Wilson’s progressivism, avoid T.R.’s Bull Moose excesses of 1912, but safely embrace Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt White House records. Just a hint for success with the American people: Don’t knock Mount Rushmore’s “Fab Four.” No other nation has produced four such gifted and devoted statesmen from among its own ranks. These men came to power not through conquest, or divine right, but by the free choice of free citizens. Let liberals reject America’s past. Let liberals try to elect a new people. Conservatives can stand proudly with the best of our nation’s freely elected leaders.
Former Reagan Department of Education official Bob Morrison contributed to this report. Morrison currently serves as a Senior Fellow at FRC for Policy Studies.