EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the December 22, 2003, issue of National Review.
Have conservatives abandoned their principles in the Bush era? Has partisanship trumped ideological conviction? If we are speaking of the activists, journalists, think-tankers, and other unelected opinion leaders of the Right, the answer is plainly no. Conservatives have had no trouble denouncing President Bush’s steel tariffs, his Medicare bill, his profligate spending, and so on. Libertarian-minded conservatives have roundly criticized the Patriot Act. Social conservatives have complained that the administration has not done more to resist gay rights. Conservatives have, by my lights, been if anything too unreflective in their criticisms, too unwilling to acknowledge the political circumstances that constrain (even if they do not determine) Bush’s actions on Medicare or trade.
It is true, however, that conservatives have become more partisan in recent years: more heavily invested, that is, in the fortunes of the Republican party. But this is not an entirely bad thing since there are principled reasons for it. The fact is that conservatives’ fortunes are tied to those of the Republican party. There will always be some tension between an ideological movement and the political party in which it exercises its principal influence. But that tension has lessened as conservatives have become part of the party establishment and the party establishment has moved right. The near parity between the major political parties, together with that rightward move, has raised the stakes. To put it more concretely: Making sure that a moderate Republican beats a Democrat in a House district in Georgia matters more to conservatives now than it would have in 1976.
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