Ralph Hallow, the chief political correspondent for the Washington Times, is a nice guy with a beautifully cultivated cynical streak, but he is a sucker for stories about impending factional wars in the Republican party. Earlier this week, he wrote an article claiming that “conservative activists” are upset about their lack of influence over the Bush administration, influence which has been lost to neoconservatives who favor big government at home and abroad. The story is built around a memo written by Donald Devine, a vice chairman of the American Conservative Union and an official in the Reagan administration (where he was described as the president’s “terrible swift sword”), which does indeed make the claim that traditional limited-government conservatism is being hijacked by the neos.
Devine gets several things right, and conservatives ought to think about those things. He fears that the conservatives run a risk of becoming “just a lobbying force for the Republican party,” rather than a group that pulls the party, and the country, to the right. (I can’t help but recall, however, that when I wrote an article that made a very similar point, Devine criticized me for it.) He is also right to suggest that the lack of a political constituency for limited government is a major problem that conservatives need to address.
The rest of Devine’s analysis is cracked. I should note here that Devine’s memo frequently criticizes National Review, a point that Hallow does not mention, perhaps as a kindness to us — or to him. I’ll respond to various Devine distortions before getting to the larger problem with his analysis.
Devine tells a story about a remark by “the president’s chief strategist. . . at a recent White House briefing”: “Reacting to the first three questions from the conservative audience pushing him to fight harder for a judicial nominee then before the Senate, he replied: ‘It is strange that conservatives are pushing us so hard on this when normally, you would be opposing us for nominating a judge with a relatively moderate record and who served under Bill Clinton. The Democrats have been so relentless that the whole battle has been between the left and the political center.’ Truly, this advisor is a political genius. He put his finger directly on the nub of the matter. Conservatism today is not even on the battlefield.” I find this story hard to believe, and a White House official in a position to know denies that Karl Rove ever said any such thing. The judicial nominee in question, from Devine’s description, would appear to be Miguel Estrada. The idea that he is not a conservative can fairly be characterized as eccentric.
Devine writes, “National Review writer David Frum [issued] a banner denunciation of any conservative with reservations about the invasion of Iraq. Those conservative intellectuals and activists opposed or even those critical of it before the fighting or even those who mentioned that protecting Israel’s interests could complicate matters were all labeled paleo-conservatives and pushed off to the nutty fringe. The only good guys remaining on the right were neo-conservatives.” This is false. Not only does Frum not consider himself a neoconservative; he quite explicitly noted that conservatives in good standing could have reservations about, or even oppose, the war. In the very issue in which Frum’s article appears, he had a short article lauding an antiwar conservative (Heather MacDonald).
Devine again: “[O]nce Buckley turned the magazine to others and [Frank] Meyer died, NR editorial policy drifted to the establishment Republican center. When I met with one of the later editors, he told me his goal was to turn National Review into the American Economist, aping the British centrist establishment magazine. Unfortunately, he was all too successful. As a result, today, Reagan mainstream conservatism lacks a public intellectual voice.” Devine is referring to a conversation he had with Rich Lowry, the magazine’s current editor. Lowry said he admired the quality of the writing in the Economist, not that magazine’s politics.
Devine seems to have two basic problems with National Review and other conservatives: We are allegedly not committed to limited government, in part because of our fealty to President Bush, and we allegedly favor an American empire. On the first point, I would note that NR opposed the farm bill, the steel and lumber tariffs, the education bill, and campaign-finance reform. (We have also pushed for the deregulation of electricity and of telecommunications, while Devine’s ACU opposed both on wholly specious grounds.) In any case, the limited-government critique is a bit rich coming from a man who, like Devine, spent much of the last two decades flacking for Bob Dole.
On the second point, Devine writes, “Empire Makes Or Breaks Conservatism. Global empire is an important issue for conservatism. If the U.S. government has the ability to bring peace and democracy to the world, big government can obviously also run America’s economy and plan its social life — and limited government becomes irrelevant.” The implication that Devine calls “obvious” is, obviously, not even logical: The ability to frighten would-be aggressors actually doesn’t imply that price controls are a good idea. But the bigger problem with Devine’s argument is that the word “empire” is serving as an incantation rather than as a concept. What’s the operational distinction between true, anti-imperial conservatives and bad, imperial “neo-conservatives”? Almost nobody is seriously calling for an occupation of Syria — not The Weekly Standard (another Devine target), and certainly not National Review. Devine can’t mean that support for the Iraq war disqualifies someone as a conservative, can he? If he does mean that — and he does not wish to identify conservatism with libertarianism or paleoconservatism, which also seems to be the case — then it appears that the only true conservative around is Don Devine.
Devine says he wants to get “the Reagan agenda back on the political battlefield.” Picking his battles more carefully would be a good start.