Winter of Discontent

We are hearing a depth and breadth of criticism of Bush that few would have predicted a few months back, from both the traditionalist and libertarian wings of conservatism. The gloves are off. The Washington Times reports that 27 Republican senators — almost half of the party's members in the chamber — have publicly expressed specific doubts about Miers or said they must withhold any support for her nomination until after the hearings.

But more than Miers is at issue. The administration is being taken to task for the “Wilsonian internationalist” worldview that motivated the invasion of Iraq, for its “big government” and “tax and spend” policies that have led to federal deficits of unprecedented size, for “shipping jobs overseas,” for lax immigration policies — and now for picking a candidate for the Supreme Court who offers not a clue that she is committed to the constitutional principles that have been at the heart of the conservative movement’s opposition to judicial activism since the days of the Warren Court. The press reported in the days after her nomination that Miers is undergoing a “crash course” in constitutional law to prepare her for the grilling she will undergo in her confirmation process. It is easy to picture the editorial staffs at the Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard grabbing for the Rolaids. What’s going on?

The conservatives attacking Bush come at him from a variety of angles. Some argue that Bush is revealing a disdain for movement conservatism now that he no longer needs conservative foot soldiers in a re-election campaign; that he never viewed conservatives and right-to-lifers as anything more than a wedge of the electoral vote he needed to get into office; that in his heart of hearts Bush is what used to be called a “Rockefeller Republican” — a big government, socially liberal Republican — and no longer cares if anyone knows it.

Others stress that Bush is convinced that conservatives have nowhere else to go; that they will grumble a bit about the way he is fighting the war in Iraq, his domestic policies and his choice of Miers, but will get over it and vote Republican once election day comes around. Those who take this position maintain that conservatives will come to appreciate the necessary compromises that Bush has made in order to keep the Right in power; that his flexibility on the issues is a castor oil of sorts required to keep the Democrats from carrying the day. The corollary is that conservative ideologues who put principles above politics permit “the ideal to get in the way of the good”; that they do not realize — but will upon reflection — that hard-line conservatism cannot win at the ballot box and that is better to gain partial victories than permit men such as Al Gore and John Kerry to take power.

There is yet another position that has been heard of late on the Right. It stresses a view of Bush associated until now with his hard-left critics: that the man is an intellectual lightweight who reads little and is unaware of the clash of ideas that has shaped the culture wars since the 1960s; that he is an aging fraternity boy caught by surprise that anyone in the country was concerned enough about things such as strict constructionism and judicial activism to make a fuss over his selection of Miers. The implication is that Bush would be unable to make his way through a legal brief prepared by the scholars favored by conservatives, such as Michael Luttig or Michael McConnell, much less appreciate the stakes in the legal battles that they have waged; that he cannot appreciate why many on the Right are deeply disappointed to see such men overlooked in favor of Miers.

Who’s correct about all this? Who knows? None of the gurus who have been taking Bush to task knows for sure what is going on inside his head. So let me throw in my two cents as well. Take it for what it is worth. Here is what I think is at the source of the current tension between Bush and the conservatives: movement conservatives are forgetting that there are many Republicans who are Republicans first, and conservatives second; who don’t think it necessary to have spent years pondering the works of Russell Kirk, James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall to make public policy. I would say that Bush is one of them.

How bad is that? It depends. Most working politicians do not delve deeply into the scholarly work that supports their political stance. That is true for Democrats, as well as Republicans. I would bet the mortgage that Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer could not recognize a passage from Lester Thurow or John Rawls if it hit them on the head. It is par for the course for aides to feed politicians the passages from academic theorists that they need for their sound bites.

It seems fair to me to conclude that what motivates Republicans like Bush is not conservative principles but keeping “their team” in power. They think it a better team for the country than the Democrats’. They believe it is more pro-business, more committed to a strong military, and less committed to big-government answers to our societal needs than the opposition Democrats. They agree with movement conservatives on these items, but not on every priority. For them, compromises on issues such as abortion, immigration policy and federal judgeships seem reasonable as part of the “big picture.”

They think it better to secure a victory with a Harriet Miers than go down in a fight over someone like Robert Bork. Better to live with the problems of illegal immigration than lose the segment of the Hispanic vote that kept the Florida electoral votes out of the hands of Al Gore; better to live with bloated federal domestic spending than give the impression that you lack compassion for the poor and lose the vote of the soccer moms and give the presidency to John Kerry.

But don’t those who think this way understand that they are “selling out” on conservative principles? No, they do not. Their attention is fixed on the big picture of keeping Democrats out of power. Which means that in the next presidential election they will be focusing on what is necessary to keep Hillary Clinton (and Bill Clinton) out of the White House.

If you think the current brouhaha between conservatives and Republican loyalists is intense, think about what will happen when Hillary is center stage. If the polls indicate that nominating a slate that includes a pro-choice, pro-gay rights candidate such as Rudolph Giuliani is the only way to do it, the loyalists Republicans will go for Giuliani in a heartbeat. They will compromise on conservative principles as easily as Bush bypassed the conservative judges he overlooked in favor of Harriet Miers.

How much of a sell-out would that be? Remember, you can’t answer that question by arguing that Hillary can be beaten by a principled conservative who will not compromise on principles. The question is whether it is a reasonable compromise or a sell-out to back someone like Giuliani — if you think she can’t.

What will I do if Giuliani becomes a serious contender for the Republican nomination? I’d fight his candidacy every inch of the way. But if he became the Republican nominee and the choice was either him or Hillary, I’d pull the lever next to his name in a heartbeat.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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