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The Conservative Curmudgeon
April 25, 2008

Where Does American Conservatism Go From Here?
by Allan C. Brownfeld

As the Bush Administration enters its final phase, increasing numbers of conservatives are expressing growing dismay about its legacy.

Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chairman for l8 years and the leading Republican economist for the last three decades, levels harsh criticism at President Bush and the Republican Party in his memoir, THE AGE OF TURBULENCE: ADVENTURES IN A NEW WORLD. He argues that Bush abandoned the central conservative principle of fiscal restraint: "My biggest frustration remained the president's unwillingness to wield his veto against out-of-control spending. Not exercising the veto power became a hallmark of the Bush presidency.... To my mind, Bush's collaborate-don't-confront approach was a major mistake."

In Greenspan's view, " Smaller government, lower spending, lower taxes, less regulation -- they had the resources to do it, they had the knowledge to do it. They had the political majorities to do it, and they didn't. In the end, political control trumped policy, and they achieved neither political control nor policy."


Burke Wisdom Disregarded

In his column entitled "The Republican Collapse," conservative NEW YORK TIMES columnist David Brooks explains how philosophical drift has led to political decline: "The modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke. What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.... Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East."

Brooks points out that "the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, 'pleasing commencements' but 'lamentable conclusions'.... The Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition, and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation's unique network of moral and social restraints."


Executive Power Expanded

Traditionally, conservatives have expressed fear of the growth of executive power. This administration has sought dramatic expansion of such power in the name of protecting Americans from terrorism. Many Republicans have acquiesced in this expansion of government power, but a few have been critical.

Former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK), author of RECLAIMING CONSERVATISM and a lecturer at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, notes one certitude in today's political arena, " Neither Barry Goldwater, who gave birth to the modern conservative movement, nor Ronald Reagan, the man most of this year's (Republican) candidates claim to be most like, would have much of a chance. A Goldwater candidacy would be a nonstarter. In Goldwater's mind, what 'conservatism' was trying to conserve was the U.S. Constitution, with its firm lines between state and citizen.... Had either party limited the right of habeas corpus, conducted wiretaps on American citizens without a warrant.... Goldwater would have led a popular uprising in opposition."

In October 2003, Jack Goldsmith, a legal scholar with strong conservative credentials, was hired to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the president and the attorney general about the legality of presidential actions. As he was briefed on counterterrorism measures the Bush administration had adopted in the wake of September 11, Goldsmith says he was alarmed to discover that many of those policies "rested on severely damaged legal foundations." In his view, the legal opinions that supported these counterterrorism operations were "sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the president."

In his book THE TERROR PRESIDENCY, Goldsmith states that central priority of the administration was to maintain and expand the president's formal legal powers. Goldsmith says that lawyers soon realized that they "could gain traction for a particular course of action -- usually going it alone -- by arguing that alternative proposals would diminish the president's power."

Growing Disenchantment
The combination of deficit spending, the growth of executive power, and the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq has left many conservatives completely disillusioned. "I've never seen conservatives so downright fed up," says long-time conservative leader Richard Viguerie.

THE ECONOMIST notes that, "Mr. Bush has... presided over the biggest expansion in government spending since his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, provoking fury on the right. His prescription-drug benefit was the largest expansion of government entitlements in 40 years. He has increased federal education spending by about 60 percent and added some 7,000 pages of new regulations. Pat Toomey, the head of the Club for Growth, says the conservative base feels 'disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government'.... The Republicans have failed the most important test of any political movement -- wielding power successfully. They have botched a war. They have splurged on spending. And they have alienated a huge section of the population."
Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, writes in NATIONAL JOURNAL that, "Unexpectedly, George W. Bush, Reagan's would-be heir, has divided the conservative movement.... In his obsession with marginalizing the Democrats, and in his determination to be a 'transformational' president, Bush embraced an activism that unmoored the party from its libertarian preference for small government and its traditionalist preference for orderly incrementalism."

There is now, argues Professor George Carey of Georgetown University, "an apparently unbridgeable divide between traditional conservatives and the Bush administration on major policy matters."

Many conservatives are concerned that the Republican Party may no longer be viewed as a vehicle through which to advance the program of smaller and limited government, balanced budgets, and a prudent foreign policy. Whatever happens, it is clear that the American political landscape has been dramatically altered as conservatives ponder their -- and the nation's -- future.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and a contributing editor to such publications as HUMAN EVENTS, THE ST. CROIX REVIEW, and THE WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS.

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