Politics & Policy

When Conservatives Goof

Sometimes the conservative movement disgusts me.

I think my conservative credentials are pretty good. While there’s room to my right, it’s more of a crawl space than a vast expanse. I hate all the right things (the French Revolution, post-modernism, positivism, scientism, hyper-rationalism, Clintonism, blame-America-firstism, etc). I revere the right thinkers (the Founders, St. Augustine, Burke, Strauss, Oakeshott, Buckley, Hayek, Kristol the Elder, et al.). I’ve read the important books (no, really, I have; or at least the important parts) and I love all the stuff I’m supposed to love (America, puppies, limited government, the constitutional order, good old fashioned red-baiting, ice-cold beer as opposed to the “cosmopolitan” European warm stuff). I even come from a good family whose conservative credentials and good service in the cause I would stack against anybody’s. Besides, I have paid my dues several times over.

So I feel I have every right to say this: Sometimes the conservative movement disgusts me. Sometimes it’s our stupidity, as when Republican congressmen tell the press their internal strategy in lieu of substance and message. “Well if we can just keep the minority vote down, we can pick up a few seats.” Or, “if we can frame the issues so as to appear that we are more in favor of tax cuts…” blah blah blah. Meanwhile, merciless class warriors like David Bonior will say, “We Democrats believe in helping all Americans achieve the American dream, even if that inconveniences the undeserving rich. We want to help the children, the poor, the infirm, the cats, the dogs, the fat, the thin, the goats, that guy over there, your brother, you, me, everybody, everybody!”

But stupidity is perhaps the most forgivable of faults. How can Alec Baldwin, for example, be held accountable for the fact that he thought the trick with the SATs was to make the prettiest pattern with the little ovals on the answer sheet?

But when conservatives are cruel or nasty and wrong; when they fuel the very stereotypes many of us spend a lot of energy trying to dispel; it is unforgivable. Have you ever been in an argument with a pack of know-nothing liberals? If so, you’ve probably had a conservative come join in, ostensibly to help your cause, only to reveal himself as an embarrassing bigot or freak. All of a sudden you’re forced to say things like “no, the reason we should get rid of affirmative action has nothing to do with blacks being ‘inferior,’ it has to do with the rule of law and universal standards.”

What’s worse is that it makes liberals think that everything conservatives say is just some kind of “code words” for racist, sexist, weird stuff.

That’s how I feel about many of the conservatives rallying against John McCain right now. I have not been terribly supportive of the McCain campaign. National Review magazine has been positively brutal. But the sort of moronic, venal, cowardly, and immoral stuff being thrown at McCain from certain segments of the loony Right is sending me his way. At the risk of e-mail-box overflow, I think these people are revealing themselves as fools and they are hurting the conservative movement.

Exhibit A is Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich, who was a vital leader in the conservative movement 20 years ago, is embarrassing himself and the rest of us. Last year he wrote a profoundly goofy letter to the movement calling on conservatives to take their marbles and go home because politics was no longer conservative business. Then — surprise — he endorsed Steve Forbes, whose campaign was renowned for buying support in certain conservative ghettos.

Apparently Weyrich was re-energized by his Forbes experience, or perhaps he was embarrassed to discover that he was a general without troops when his call for surrender was ignored in all quarters. Either way, he is in the politics business again and we are all the poorer for it. He has now taken to suggesting that John McCain is a Communist spy working at the bidding of some geriatric cabal of Vietnamese Communists. “The Cambodian Khmer Rouge has claimed that ‘McCain is a Vietnamese agent,’ for what it’s worth,” writes Weyrich.

Weyrich quotes various conspiratorial websites (which I will not link to) and then says, there’s got to be some reason so many people think McCain is a “traitor.”

These are the tactics of Communists, Klansmen, and the worst sorts of John Birchers; cite a volume of lies and disinformation and then say, “well, there’s so much of it some of it must be true.” Weyrich should have stuck with his original plan and quit politics.

And so should a lot of other people. A church flier in South Carolina calls him the “fag candidate.” Literature from a pro-Bush, pro-Life group shows a picture of a baby and reads “this little guy wants you to vote for George W. Bush.” McCain supporters get cold calls from unnamed Bush supporters calling him a “baby killer” who “wants to increase abortion on demand.” There are flyers “showing” McCain with Saddam Hussein, saying he voted to keep Hussein in office. My e-mail box brims with nastiness and lies of all kinds. I would repeat them but then the nuts would invoke my column as more evidence.

McCain is not a flawless candidate. There are worthy things to criticize him about. (I don’t believe, though, that the Keating Five is one of them. That was a mistake that he clearly saw as a smudge on his honor, which I think explains his zealotry on campaign finance. Besides, he was the one Republican singled out by a nasty and embarrassed Democratic Senate. And he was exonerated. But reasonable people may differ here.) I have criticized him in this space and elsewhere on campaign finance “reform” many times. There are plenty of arguments for voting for Bush or even Keyes instead of McCain.

But the policy differences between Bush and McCain are very small. On abortion, the contrast is purely tactical, at least on paper. Both candidates believe there should be allowances for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. The only difference between the two is that McCain would change the platform to say that. Bush wouldn’t. On everything except military reform I probably agree with Bush more than McCain, especially in the area of taxes. But the differences between the two are negligible, which makes the attacks on McCain absolutely unwarranted.

More importantly, the candidates are so similar that style becomes more important than substance. And it seems ever clearer that Bush’s style is the less preferable. He gained early in the polls because his bromides were poll-tested and focus-grouped. He was the perfectly packaged anti-Clinton for a population that wasn’t paying much attention to politics. He may be infinitely more decent and honorable than Bill Clinton, but he is still relying on a Clintonesque kind of politics. His functionaries and lackeys try to make his opponents illegitimate while he crafts his message with the aid of polling data and a finger in the wind. At least when McCain says something you disagree with you know it’s his own idea.

So many correspondents write me saying that McCain shouldn’t be able to win with the help of Democrats and independents. This would be valid if there was any evidence that Democrats were going his way for tactical anti-Republican reasons. There is none. Republicans who fear a candidate popular outside the base are being silly. Nobody said, “these damn Reagan Democrats are ruining the party!” twenty years ago. Indeed among those Reagan Democrats were nascent GOPers like Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett. McCain has the potential to make the Republican party a real majority party. That was supposed to be the appeal of Bush, why should it now be the curse of McCain?

Paul Gigot writes today in the Wall Street Journal that Bush will deserve his South Carolina victory, if he gets it. This is the first time I can remember disagreeing with Gigot in years. Bush will not own his victory outright, despite having spent down his coffers and his credibility. He will owe dishonorable people a dishonorable debt.

VARIOUS ANNOUNCEMENTSFirst off, we are in need of a new webmaster because we used this one up. As I mentioned last week our current Duke of URL is leaving National Review — after he heals from the beatings. Apparently he thinks a job promising fewer hours, beatings, and insults that pays more for less (and we know more cash means more airplane glue) is preferable to working in the digital bamboo tiger cage we put him in. So if you are interested in working at the Elysium Fields of conservatism; if you’re intrigued by the idea of me slandering your good name in my column day after day; if you would like to work long hours on the most exciting conservative journalistic enterprise on the web; if you don’t mind living in New York; if you are hungry and eager; and, oh yeah, if you know how to operate the strings and pulleys that make websites work, then you should let me know.

Seriously, it is a great opportunity for the right person. So, send me an e-mail that says “I want the job!” in the subject header, if you want the job.

Announcement Number 2: I am delighted to inform you that we have added another outstanding exclusive columnist to NRO’s roster of George Will, Larry Kudlow, Jonah — doesn’t my name look great next to these guys — Goldberg and Mike Potemra. It is Steve Moore of the Cato institute. He will be writing a regular column on economics and budgetary issues called “The Bottom Line.” Check it out.

Announcement Number 3: I am not wearing pants.

Announcement Number 4: NR Online will be maintaining its coverage of the South Carolina primary and the Republican race throughout the weekend. Ramesh Ponnuru is in SC right now and he will be filing continually. We will also receive updates from South Carolina talk show host and columnist Michael Graham. Plus, more analysis from yours truly, Rich Lowry, Larry Kudlow and the whole gang.

Announcement 5: Keep an eye out for my interview with David Frum about his new, exemplary book on the 1970s.

Announcement 6: Click here [Link defunct] for Derrick Max — another Cato guy! — on Bush’s campaign finance reforms.

Annoucement 7: I have put on my pants.


The Latest