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Nation Topics - Conservatives and the American Right

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It was the start of another Conservative Political Action Conference--the annual gathering of several thousand activists--and Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot, in unexciting fashion, was telling the right-wingers his party would push the Bush agenda "in civil tones." Civil tones, though, are not usually embraced at CPACs, where attendees often denounce liberals as socialist buffoons, the media as a hotbed of anti-conservative bias and less-right Republicans as sellouts intimidated by the powers of a diabolical left. A year ago conservatives scuttled Racicot's appointment as Attorney General, claiming he was not sufficiently antiabortion. Now, as he spoke, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, a leading social conservative, told me he heartily approved of Racicot: "He makes the establishment happy, and he's telling us the party platform [against abortion] is not going to change in 2004." Is that enough for the religious right? Don't its members want to hear more social conservatism from George W? Nah, Sheldon replied. "He doesn't have to stroke us and then have James Carville beat him up for that. We're not going anywhere." He then applauded enthusiastically for Racicot.

Throughout CPAC, it was clear that Bush is aces with a mostly satisfied, still-going-strong conservative movement and that the ideologues of the right don't have much space to wage battles separate from Bush's agenda. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, noted that conservatives currently have two concerns regarding the Administration. First, will it use the national security crisis to impede civil liberties more than necessary? Second, will it become enamored of government as a solution to ills beyond the war on terrorism? But no one at CPAC wanted to point fingers over such matters.

Conservatives seemed content to let Bush be Bush. Few CPACers called for pushing the Administration to do more to end abortion, or to beat back affirmative action, or to replace the income tax. When advocates criticized Bush policies, they did so without assailing Bush. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre soundly condemned the expansion of government power since September 11--"wand rape" at airports, "vast new powers" for the CIA, FBI e-mail intercepts--but he refused to blame Bush or Attorney General Ashcroft (both of whom have been slavish to the NRA on its core issue) for these liberty-threatening developments. Fiscal conservatives voiced anger over Bush's new budget for its overall increase of 9 percent (although it contains severe domestic cuts). "We do not need more money for Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, education," huffed Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. "It's important we remain stalwarts of small government." But he did not attack the President or his aides. The war, Keene remarked, "takes the edge off the criticism of most conservatives. The first obligation of government is defense, and conservatives are happy to have a President who rises to the occasion. They are willing to put up with a lot to see that."

With a pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-tax cut, anti-Kyoto, pro-military guy riding high in the White House, CPACers appeared less crabby than in previous (Clinton-era) years. Still, there was the usual grousing that Democrats are better streetfighters than Republicans (I kid you not) and that the media are arrayed against conservatives. (Don't these people watch MSNBC, which now airs theocratic Republican Alan Keyes?) When a delegate asked Racicot about anti-Republican media bias, he griped that it's tough "to get a conservative message across," because that requires "a higher level of incisive analysis" and calls on people to engage in "a higher level of conduct." He added, "Children don't always like to hear what's passed on to them in terms of advice and counsel, and I think that's true with the conservative message."

Several speakers, including antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, urged conservatives to mount a crusade against illegal aliens and to lobby for antiterrorism profiling focused on foreigners. (Right-wing strategist Grover Norquist, representing yay-for-cheap-labor and business-oriented conservatives, warned his comrades not to engage in activity that could alienate immigrant communities.) M. Stanton Evans, a founder of the modern conservative movement, suggested that the right could score points by decrying the "dismantling" of the national security system, which he attributed to political correctness. "CIA agents are sitting out in Langley," he explained, "sewing diversity quilts." (A CIA spokeswoman I contacted said its employees do not engage in the forced sewing of feel-good quilts. She noted that ten years ago a group of CIA employees who were quilting hobbyists fashioned a quilt on their own time.)

The tone was one of quiet triumphalism. Most speakers appeared in sync with Karl Rove's belief that voters will appreciate Bush's handling of the war and reward Republicans in this year's elections. Columnist Fred Barnes opined that it's silly to believe that Democrats can trump the war on terrorism with issues like the patients' bill of rights. Talking head Chris Matthews praised Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as "grown-ups" who exude "authenticity" and poked Democrats as the party of "whining." But GOP political consultant Marc Rotterman voiced a note of caution, foreseeing a Democratic effort to "Enron this Administration" by accusing Bush of neglecting domestic concerns, being in league with big business and raiding Social Security. "At the end of the day," he observed, "the economy always comes into play. If we're still at slow growth rates, it will impact Congressional races. I am not sure Bush's popularity translates to the House and Senate races."

Still, as pollster Kellyanne Conway maintained, at this point conservatives have little grounds for worrying or complaining. "George W. Bush has been more Reagan than Bush. His record now is impervious to conservative criticism." Does that pose difficulty for the die-hard conservatives who might want more--or perhaps less--from Bush? "Well," she said with a wink, "for some conservatives it is easier to be against something. But they're going to have to wait."

Right-wing climate-change deniers worked hand-in-glove with John Stossel to portray schoolchild as being 'scared green' on a recent ABC special.

John Stossel has a conservative stable of pundits when it come to his questionable reporting of evironmental issues.

GOP strategist Karl Rove and the politics of destruction.

As the proverbial curtain rises on the Bush era in national politics, it's hard to know just how pessimistic progressives should be about the new President's aims and intentions. On a rhetorical level, we were greeted with an inaugural address that with a few minor adjustments could have been given by an incoming president of the NAACP. Look at the substance, however, and we find nominees at the Justice and Interior departments who could have been vetted by the John Birch Society, if not the Army of the Confederacy. The two warring sides of the Republican psyche were neatly illustrated recently at a dinner sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable at the Regency Hotel in New York, where two current stars of the Republican rubber-chicken circuit, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute "research scholar" and Olin fellow Dinesh D'Souza, held forth after a nicely Republican red-meat repast.

Brooks is still riding the wave of his bestselling work of "comic sociology" about America's new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. His talk, like the book, is mostly affectionate ribbing of this class for its bourgeois consumption habits and bohemian self-image. Though he'd be loath to admit it, Brooks is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, not unlike Poppy Bush before he got the bit of presidential ambition in his teeth and found his principles run over by a Reagan landslide. (Just what Brooks is doing in a party dominated not by Prescott Bush and Elliot Richardson but Dick Armey and Tom DeLay is a question for another day.) A self-confessed Bobo, Brooks has only one problem with this tolerant, secular-minded and self-satisfied elite--its lack of civic consciousness.

There are no poor people in the Bobo world--even illegal Guatemalan nannies are treated as if they are taking care of your children and cleaning your bathroom as a lifestyle choice rather than out of economic necessity. "The new elite," as Brooks explained to the assembled philanthropists, "has no ethic of chivalry." Charitable giving as a percentage of assets has not remotely kept up with the unprecedented explosion of wealth in the United States during the past decade.

The virtues of such selfishness, on the other hand, have never escaped Dinesh D'Souza. The young Indian immigrant made his name in this country giving eloquent voice to the most morally repugnant aspects of Reagan-era Republicanism. He began his career as an obnoxious Dartmouth undergrad, publishing crude racist attacks in the off-campus conservative newspaper, followed by a stint at a Princeton magazine where he delighted in exposing details of female undergrads' sex lives. His first book was a loving appreciation of aspiring ayatollah Jerry Falwell.

D'Souza became a national phenomenon with a book attacking PC culture at universities, which was defensible, if overstated, and an apologia for American racism, which he termed "rational discrimination." With its pseudointellectual patina, D'Souza's work, even more than Charles Murray's, seems designed to offer solace to those who miss the good old days of Jim Crow laws and late-night cross burnings. Segregation, he argued, was designed to protect African-Americans and "to assure that [they], like the handicapped, would be...permitted to perform to the capacity of their arrested development." It would end when "blacks as a group can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force."

D'Souza is touring for a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. (It is a measure of how well-funded are right-wing arguments that I have so far received four unrequested copies.) The thrust of his argument is the opposite of that of Brooks. Simply put, wealth has no obligations to poverty except to avoid it. As he once argued for the logic of racism, he now speaks for the morality of parsimony. The United States, he asserts, is "probably the best society that now exists or has ever existed."

D'Souza is the kind of moral philosopher who pays more attention to the musings of the Ayn Rand-spouting entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, who races his BMW over speed bumps while attacking the moral probings of the clergy, than he does to the combined works of John Rawls and Richard Rorty. (Terming the latter "Rip Van Rorty" is what passes for wit in these pages.) Reinhold Niebuhr receives no mention at all.

Of course, it's not exactly hard to find billionaires who think of themselves as altruists regardless of the obscene amounts of wealth they accumulate. But it is much more cost-effective to induce "intellectuals" to say it for them. D'Souza fills this purpose not only by celebrating mass wealth but by abolishing poverty. "Poverty," he argues, "understood as the absence of food, clothing, and shelter, is no longer a significant problem in America." His evidence for this breathtaking claim is that even poor people have refrigerators these days, and many of them are fat. That 30 million Americans still struggle beneath the poverty line and 42 million lack the benefit of health insurance represent, to D'Souza, mere speed bumps on our highway to capitalist utopia.

When Bush père was inaugurated, he too made a great show of what was not yet called "compassionate conservatism." He acknowledged that poor people exist and that somebody should do something about it, but as a society, he warned, we had "more will than wallet." (And anyway, his contributors were demanding a cut in the tax on capital gains.) Dubya closed his inaugural with a similar flourish, in which he promised to work "to make our country more just and generous."

To show that Dubya is even remotely serious about his agenda for the poor, he and his Administration will have to ponder the kinds of questions raised by Brooks about the moral obligations of wealth. That is, after all, about the best one can expect from Republicans. But to the degree that he wishes to prove what his enemies insist to be true--that all this compassionate conservatism is simply a frilly frock in which to clothe the Reaganite Republican values of top-down class war--expect to hear plenty more from Dinesh D'Souza.

The likely Bush cabinet will have some who have shown sympathy for the Southern Confederacy—a disturbing trend in the late twentieth century.

Whoever wins the legal battles over the election, and with them the presidency, recent events will cast a long shadow over American political life in the years ahead. For the first week and a half, the behavior of the two parties did not differ much. Both were playing legal hardball while pretending to act on a basis of high principle. Principles are general rules that are supposed to guide conduct in each case as it arises. Vice President Al Gore and Governor George Bush were doing it the other way around: Their conduct in each case was guiding their choice of principles. Often, this comically required throwing out yesterday's principle in favor of its opposite today. For instance, not twenty-four hours after Bush's strategist-in-chief, former Secretary of State James Baker, had delivered a public sermon on the need to avoid legal action in order to reach "closure" in the election, he was filing a federal case to overturn Florida's election laws. Gore meanwhile was lecturing the country on the importance of counting every vote while fighting to exclude absentee ballots, known to favor Bush. Quite missing on either side was any instance of action taken against self-interest in the name of principle, which is to say any principled act. None of this, however, was perhaps very surprising. The candidates were merely behaving the way lawyers always do in courtrooms. Each was pressing his side's interest to the utmost in the hope of influencing the decisions of the judges.

The tone abruptly changed on the Republican side with the decision by the Florida Supreme Court to permit the recounts of counties that had been sought by Gore. For the first time since election night, the GOP was faced with the prospect of losing the election. Its response was to make an incendiary accusation: that Gore was engaged in a "theft" of the election, as the House majority whip, the impeachment zealot Tom DeLay, put it. The charge was accompanied by a campaign to delegitimize the Florida Supreme Court. In a remarkable statement of defiance, Baker declared the Florida decision "unacceptable," and Bush charged that what the court had done was to "usurp" the powers of the Florida legislature and executive.

Of course, if Gore had been stealing the election, it would have been the obligation of the Bush campaign as well as any other responsible person, Republican, Democrat or other, to point this out and vigorously protest it. In fact, the charge was baseless. The point is not that the particulars of the Republican allegations--that the Florida court had overreached its authority, that Democratic officials were changing the rules for counting votes midstream, that the Gore campaign was demanding multiple recounts--were false (some had merit, some did not--just as some of the Gore campaign's charges against the Bush campaign's legal maneuvering had merit and some did not); it was that even if all the charges were true they did not come anywhere near to justifying the sensational conclusion that Gore was "stealing" an election. To steal an election, after all, would be a crime. If the accusation were true, Gore should not only lose the election; he should be thrown in jail. The fact that a false and defamatory charge of this magnitude--a big lie, if there ever was one--was made by the campaign of a man who may soon be President itself severely damages the political system. For to the extent that people believe it, they must believe that American democracy is a sham, and the American political system is exactly as strong as the support it gets from the American people, and no more.

The campaign of accusation and vilification, moreover, had an evident purpose: to justify extraordinary recourses contemplated by the Bush campaign. One was the step of inviting the Republican-dominated Florida state legislature to ignore the election result and itself appoint electors. Baker solicited this action in the press conference in which he called the Florida decision unacceptable. Another was a challenge to the results by Congress. News reports suddenly appeared that DeLay was "studying" this option. Either option would have guaranteed a full-scale constitutional crisis. In short, by charging that Gore was stealing the election, the Republicans had laid the ground for the eruption of a self-created political Vesuvius in the event that the recounts placed Gore in the lead.

Of course, things didn't work out that way. Gore did not catch up, and Vesuvius stayed quiet. It is important to reflect on how this happened. The answer is that Miami-Dade County, where the beginnings of a recount had strongly suggested that its completion would give Gore the lead in Florida, abruptly called it off. On the morning of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the board of canvassers decided that in the interest of time it would count only those ballots that had gone uncounted by the voting machines. In the afternoon, they decided to cancel even that smaller recount. It was the decisive moment. In all likelihood, it cost Gore the certification and, perhaps, the election. In the interval between the decision to do a partial recount and the decision to cancel it, there was a minor Republican riot inside and outside the county building. When the canvassing board moved to a new room that made observation more difficult, GOP Representative John Sweeney of New York ordered, "Shut it down!" and, in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, who witnessed the scene, "semi-spontaneous combustion took over." Republican observers of the election pounded on doors and walls. Democratic observers trying to give interviews to the press were shouted down. Television cameramen were punched. A Democratic counter falsely accused of stealing a ballot had to be given police protection. A canvasser told Bill Redeker of ABC News right after the demonstrations that he had been "convinced that what we were doing was perceived as not being fair and open." Approached by reporters, the demonstrators strangely would not give their names. We now know that many of them were Republican House staffers, organized by the very Tom DeLay who had said the election was being stolen. Others were operatives of the Bush campaign. It was not Vesuvius; it was a taste of lava from a small crack that had been opened in the volcano. But it may have been enough to deny Gore the White House. Gigot commented, "If it is possible to have a bourgeois riot, it happened here Wednesday. And it could end up saving the presidency for George W. Bush." It is, indeed, possible to have a bourgeois riot. Without suggesting any historical equivalence, let us recall that Mussolini, Hitler and supporters of Pinochet, among others, managed to do it.

Intimidation was in the air. That George Bush--he who was going to stop the "bickering in Washington" but has waged political war in Florida--countenanced the result is especially discouraging. It dims to the vanishing point any hope that if elected he would be willing or able to rein in the firebrands of his party. Meanwhile, Bush's announcement that he will begin a transition with private funds is merely the same medicine in more palatable form. The message is unchanged: We are entitled to rule; give us what we want--or else. The riot in the county building was a sample of what the Republicans had in mind. The threats to precipitate a constitutional crisis were others. For now, the Republicans have been placated. Bush won his certification, and has crowned himself President-elect. But the threat has not been withdrawn and will probably be carried out if the legal cases turn in Gore's favor. Vesuvius has not been dismantled. It is being held in reserve for further use in the unfolding election crisis, or thereafter.

Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign for the presidency has evolved
into a dangerous game. On one hand, the candidate insists it doesn't
matter if George W. Bush beats Al Gore. Yet we also are assured that
Nader doesn't pull votes from Gore in closely contested states. Both
positions are patently false.

With very few exceptions, most states are up for grabs, including
California, where the once huge gap between Bush and Gore has narrowed.
Nader now is poised to cost Gore an electoral majority. There is no
comparable threat to siphon conservative voters from Bush by the
floundering Reform Party campaign of Pat Buchanan.

Nader's supporters are potential Gore, not Bush, voters. "The Nader
campaign talks about its appeal to disaffected [John] McCain, [Jesse]
Ventura and [Ross] Perot voters, but I have rarely met one at a Nader
rally," says reporter Matt Welsh, who has been covering the Nader
campaign for the online journal http://www.newsforchange.com. Welsh
added: "The biggest applause lines are those that appeal to the
progressive wing of the Democratic Party."

Those Nader supporters have an obligation to vote for Gore because a
Republican sweep of the White House and Congress would spell disaster for
environmental protection and for efforts to increase the minimum wage and
the earned income tax credit, not to mention the hard-won gains made by
women and minorities. Nader knows better than anyone that there has been
a huge difference between the Clinton Administration and the Republican
Congress on those issues.

Nor should Nader be downplaying the consequences for the Supreme Court
if Bush is elected. On the campaign trail, he muddies the issue by
observing that some Republican Presidents have appointed moderates to the
Court, ignoring Bush's pledge to Pat Robertson and the rest of the GOP's
right wing that he would name judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas. As it is, the Court in the past five years has struck
down twenty-five progressive laws that Clinton managed to get through Congress,
including parts of the Brady gun control bill and the Violence Against
Women Act.

That is why leading progressives like Sen. Paul D. Wellstone
(D-Minn.), Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem have taken to the hustings to
convince Naderites to vote for Gore. It is not their intention, or mine,
to deny Nader credit as the most consistent and effective crusader for
consumer interests in the history of this nation. It is also true that
Nader deserves thanks for raising basic issues arising from the corporate
dominance of our political process, which the major candidates have
pointedly ignored.

And, yes, it does mock democracy to have denied Nader and Buchanan a
place in the debates, particularly given moderator Jim Lehrer's apparent
indifference to the role of big money in undermining representative
democracy. Let me also add that I feel betrayed by a Democratic candidate
who is so gutless as to not even utter the name of the President, whose
enormously successful administration is the source of Gore's credibility.

So Gore's not perfect--what else is new? Most often, the majority of
voters end up siding with the electable candidate who comes closest to
their political thinking. For progressives in this election, that is
clearly Gore. Certainly, Robertson and his allies on the Republican right
now justify their support of Bush as a vote for the lesser evil. They get
nervous when Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism" and plays to
the center, but they hold their noses and rally around his candidacy
because that is the best they've got.

It is time for progressive Democrats to be equally practical. Gore is
a centrist Democrat, and he will not likely do much to rein in corporate
power, pass much-needed universal health care or reverse the travesty of
welfare "reform," which will prove a disaster in the next recession.

But Gore is on record as supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign
reform measure, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. He
would protect Social Security and Medicare from Bush's irresponsible
privatization schemes. He has an expansive view of civil rights
protection for minorities and gays. And he has as consistent a record in
support of the environment as any major politician.

Finally, from my experience interviewing Gore and observing him in
action, he is far better than his media notices. Like Clinton, but in
sharp contrast with Bush, Gore is very bright, has seriously worked the
issues and sincerely believes that an effective federal government is
necessary for the well-being of the populace.

That may not make for a green revolution, but it's a lot better deal
than a Bush White House with the doors thrown open for Trent Lott, Jesse
Helms, Pat Robertson and Charlton Heston to run amok.

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