Politics & Policy

No Party Man

I'm not the Republican Paul Begala.

The other day I wrote a column offering some suggestions to the Democrats about how they could improve their plight.

In response I received a boatload of e-mail. (How many e-mails would fit in a boat anyway?) Many Democrats and liberals told me I should keep my advice to myself because, in the words of one, “Why would Democrats ever take advice from a right-winger like you?!”

Meanwhile, many Republicans offered a different point of view. “Why do you want to help the Democrats?” many asked. “Let them fail!” asserted the chorus to my right.

Well, here’s the thing: I don’t take any giant amount of pride in being a Republican. I’m a conservative.

This is a distinction lost on the mainstream media. Most cable-news networks consider conservatives, Republicans, and–even more egregiously–libertarians utterly interchangeable. I get booked to debate liberals on TV all the time. In about half the circumstances, my opponent is a Democratic-party operative, or “consultant.” The same happens to liberal journalists who are booked with various GOP activists. The problem with this arrangement is that, by their very nature, party apparatchiks care about their party more than ideas.

Consider CNN’s Crossfire. This landmark show deserves much of the credit or blame, depending on your perspective, for the shout-show format of cable news dominating all of the networks today. In its current iteration, it pits Tucker Carlson and Bob Novak on the right versus James Carville and Paul Begala on the left. The problem is that Carlson and Novak–whatever their faults–are conservatives and/or journalists first and Republicans second. Carlson now thinks the war in Iraq was a mistake, and Novak always did. That hardly qualifies them as White House spokesmen. Begala and Carville, meanwhile, are Democrats before anything else and spin for their party more than their principles. Or, to be more fair than I am normally accustomed, they see their party and their principles as one and the same thing.

Let me put it this way: I want the Democratic party to move to the center on cultural and economic issues. Yes, it would mean that the Democrats would win more elections. That’s pretty much beyond dispute. Bill Clinton was the only Democratic president to be reelected since Roosevelt, and it was because he moved his party to the political center.

If the Democrats won more elections by moving to the middle, it would be bad news for the Republican party, to be sure. But it would be good news for America–if you believe, as I do, that America would be better off moving in a more conservative direction. Keep in mind that when the Democrats move to the left, the Republicans move leftward to the middle–that is, to the left. So Republicans who cheer the leftward tilt of the Democrats shouldn’t be surprised when the entire political center of gravity moves to the left as well.

Remember when that court declared the “under God” portion of the pledge of allegiance unconstitutional? Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle immediately denounced the decision. I’m sure they were sincere. But even if they weren’t, it was smart politics because no politician wants to run against the pledge of allegiance. Now, someone who puts the interests of the Republican party ahead of everything else would have been disappointed by the Democrats’ maneuver. But no conservative in his right mind would have been upset about it, because the whole point of conservatism is to conserve those customs, institutions and values we consider essential for a healthy society.

Of course, during an election year the differences between conservatives and Republicans–as well as those between liberals and Democrats–become especially blurred. That’s because elections force everyone to choose sides, to make the achievable good preferable to the unattainable perfect. Antiwar liberals held their noses and voted for Kerry even though he promised to fight harder than Bush. Small government conservatives contained their disgust for Bush’s overspending.

But now the election is over, and I think you can expect to see a lot more daylight between conservatives and Bush. By all accounts, Bush and Karl Rove want to seal the Republican party as the majority for a generation. I’m all for it, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like everything the White House does to achieve this. The No Child Left Behind Act was a deliberate attempt to steal education from Democrats as an issue. It was somewhat successful, but that doesn’t mean conservatives should suddenly cheer federal meddling in local education. The expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs was a fiscal train wreck.

The White House has many excellent ideas–tax reform, overhauling Social Security, etc.–that conservatives should get behind. But if the goal is to make the Republican party the majority party by making it the more “reasonable” big-government party, I suspect you won’t find it so easy to confuse conservatives and Republicans in the near future.

(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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