Political Hay

Victory, Not Bipartisanship

No retreat, no surrender, should be the conservative endgame -- though tell that to the bipartisan moderates meeting in Norman, Oklahoma on Monday.

By 1.3.08

To what end?

Defeating Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards isn't a good enough reason for a conservative triumph in 2008. Getting back the House and Senate, a difficult task, isn't a good reason either. After all, once the Democrat's nominee is vanquished the winner has to do something the next four years. To replace Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader with (presumably) John Boehner and Mitch McConnell is worthless if the next GOP-controlled Congress picks up where the last one left off, whipping through thousands of earmarks while shrugging at budget deficits.

And bipartisanship?

The call has gone forth for those addicted to manners over substance. Come to the University of Oklahoma on January 7th to explore a potential independent movement based on America's alleged need for "bipartisanship." Ahhh bipartisanship. The holy grail of political moderates.

There are several questions conservatives should be asking of themselves as this election season begins in earnest. Simple questions.

Where are they going? What is it exactly they hope to accomplish once they get there? When (in alphabetical order for the front-running five) President Giuliani/Huckabee/McCain/Romney or Thompson leaves office to be followed by Chelsea Clinton, what will his being there have accomplished to advance the conservative cause? Is there, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a "there" there at the end of his term? If so, what, exactly, is it?

While it's important in having this kind of conversation to have an understanding of where conservatives stood, say, 43 years ago this month as Lyndon Johnson prepared to be sworn in after his landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, it is clearly more important to be looking ahead.

What should America look like after the next conservative president prepares to leave office?

Karl Rove has it right when he says that presidencies should be about big things. One of the more amusing aspects of the campaign thus far is the slow dawning by liberals debating Hillary Clinton's offerings that the Bill Clinton presidency was in fact, as Matt Bai notes in a recent New York Times magazine article, "oddly ephemeral." Ephemeral certainly. But not oddly. All the historical revisionism there is to be had will not erase the fact that after eight years in the White House the record of FDR-style liberal policy achievements in the Clinton-era were almost non-existent. A crime bill, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and so on do not a New Deal make. The one seriously substantive change Clinton won was welfare reform, the ultimate plan being forced on a reluctant Clinton by then Speaker Newt Gingrich and political consultant Dick Morris. Morris, brought in by Hillary after the GOP took control of Congress in 1994, made it plain that if Clinton failed to get welfare done he was in danger of losing his re-election. To the gnashing of liberal teeth, Clinton caved. Added to Hillary's famous health care debacle and his refusal to take the rise of Islamic fascism seriously even after five attacks against the U.S., Clinton cemented his own historical reputation as not much. Ever the tactician, he (and she) chose instead to obsess over mini-tasks, earning him pre-Monica the nickname "Governor of the United States." Decades hence the Clinton presidency and its devotion to politically saleable mini-tasks and tactical politics will have sunk to a level of historic ranking somewhere above Jimmy Carter but below William Howard Taft.

BUT IF THE CLINTON PRESIDENCY serves as a warning to future conservative presidents about the fate of those who refuse to think big, what is the next "big thing" that needs to be accomplished that only a conservative could do? Or perhaps the next three or four "big things"?

Is it winning the war in Iraq -- winning it period, beyond doubt and leaving a stable, vigorous democracy in the middle of the Arab world that is not just Israel? Or the crystal clear vision that ends with America -- and the rest of the world -- victorious over Islamic fascism? What about getting rid of the tax system as now structured? Extending the Bush tax cuts? Cutting the capital gains tax and eliminating the death tax? Adding more conservative justices to the Supreme Court and overturning Roe v. Wade? Passing a constitutional amendment banning abortion? Leaving the decision on abortion to the voters of each state? How about privatizing social security? Building The Fence while encouraging legal immigration? Is it something else?

These are the kind of items that would keep the next conservative presidency busy for two terms, let alone one. The point, however, is to decide -- and then make it happen. What cannot be ignored here -- what will not be ignored -- is the signal importance of the conservative base. While it may well be split five ways during primary season, it is folly indeed for the eventual winner to forget what in retrospect was a significant moment for conservatives during the Bush presidency. That moment was the nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to a key seat on the Supreme Court. A very big thing indeed.

The President and his new nominee had hardly vanished from the nation's early-morning television viewing when opposition to Miers began to surface from various corners of the conservative universe. Her cause was not helped, to say the least, when she received words of praise from Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats. What followed was a serious display of collective conservative political clout as opposition began to mushroom from talk radio, the New Media, activists around the country and finally the Senate itself. The episode, which came and went quickly with Bush finally relenting and nominating the conservative Samuel Alito in Miers place, deserves more prominence than it usually receives as Bush's successor is weighed. Failing to do the conservative Big Thing, Bush found himself in the beginning stages of a battle royal with his own allies. There is a lesson in this.

There can be little doubt that if a GOP successor to Bush is perceived as having defiantly crossed the conservative base by raising taxes ala the first President Bush or nominating anything less than a clear conservative to the Court like the second President Bush, or, as happened in a more recent example, blatantly fighting the base on illegal immigration, that successor would immediately be dealing with a severely damaged presidency. Damage that would be self-inflicted.

But there is something else that needs to be said as 2008 begins, and it revolves around the nonsense of moderation about to be inflicted on Americans from the unlikely staging grounds of the University of Oklahoma.

THERE IS NOTHING WRONG with partisanship. There is not only nothing wrong with division, there is everything to be gained from sharp, line-in-the-sand division over the direction of the country.

Let's be clear about lessons from not only recent modern politics but American and world history as well. In terms of modern politics the upcoming January 7th gathering at the University of Oklahoma of those who favor so-called "bipartisanship" and "national unity" is in fact nothing more or less than a coming together of latter-day American liberals of a paler hue. They want, in the words of one spokesman, a "bipartisan approach." Most significantly, the letter the group sent out says that America is "a house divided."

To which the conservative response should be: excellent. The very phrase a "house divided" comes from a speech by Abraham Lincoln in which Lincoln said that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln was right. Yet were these modern-day Americans shot back in time to Lincoln's day they would presumably be advising him that yes, slavery is sort of unacceptable, but how about working with all those slavery-supporting Democrats and just banning it in, say, five states instead of eleven? Why not settle for letting South Carolina and Alabama secede from the Union but keeping Florida and Texas? What's a little bipartisanship and moderation when it comes to the principle of human liberty?

Lincoln would have none of it.

Slavery was morally wrong. Period. There would be no compromise. Period. There would be, to borrow the words of the nowadays surrender-minded Bruce Springsteen, no retreat, no surrender.

This is, of course, the very antithesis of the philosophy that allowed the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" and the avalanche of congressional earmarks that brought a justifiable defeat to the last Republican Congress. "Bipartisanship" is shorthand for "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." It is the heart of horse-trading for votes. My vote for a military invasion of Iraq in return for extra time on the Senate floor and the resulting TV coverage (something Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson once actually charged to then-Senator Al Gore as the Senate prepared to debate the 1991 Gulf War Resolution). Your vote for my highway in return for my support of your federal court house. There is no "there" there other than making everybody feel good. It is the political version of giving trophies to everybody on the third grade soccer team so nobody feels badly. It is the trumpet of timidity.

It is, today, also something else. No one should be fooled for a heartbeat that this new movement pushing bipartisanship is anything other than a would-be Trojan horse for liberalism. Take a look at some of the names of those involved in this venture as reported by the Washington Post: former McGovern campaign manager and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), former Senator William Cohen (R-ME) who also served Bill Clinton as Secretary of Defense, former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, a self-proclaimed "Rockefeller Republican" and liberal ex-Iowa GOP Congressman Jim Leach. There is, as the famous phrase goes, not a dime's worth of intellectual difference between all of these luminaries.

Former Governor Whitman has also penned It's My Party Too, an ode to liberal Republicanism that says all the too-predictable things liberal and moderate Republicans have been muttering into their Chablis since Nelson Rockefeller lost to Barry Goldwater in the 1964 fight for the GOP nomination. Conservatism is "far right," far right alienates people and it is simply a loser at the polls. Written frequently in 1964, this kind of political thought once had an audience. But with the successes of the Reagan era and the Gingrich-led takeover of Congress in 1994, something moderate Republicans failed to accomplish in forty years of trying, no one can take the argument seriously anymore. The thought that Governor Whitman and her friends would gather to consider nominating New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg for president not because of his principles but because of his money is telling.

LET'S BE VERY CLEAR.

A lot of these people are the folks who felt Reagan's approach to ending the Cold War was wrong. These are the people who believed in endless arms control negotiations rather than outright defeating the evil that was the Soviet Union, elevating process over principle. These are the people representing the mindset that told President Gerald Ford he shouldn't meet with Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn because it would upset the Kremlin -- advice Ford took. These are the folks who applauded George H.W. Bush for breaking his pledge not to raise taxes. They belong on the Republican end to the side that rejected Ronald Reagan's clarion call in 1975 for a party dedicated to "bold colors," instinctively yearning instead for what Reagan called "the pale pastels."

Their working model of American politics has proved a continuous failure of policy. Tax hikes -- just not so much. Welfare -- but not so much. Expand the government -- just not so much. They supported, in short, what Barry Goldwater once called "the dime store New Deal." For Republicans who once listened to them, a string of presidential defeats resulted that ranged from Willkie to Dewey to Ford to Bush I to Dole. Confusing civility with principle they support the tired politics of "getting along" that throughout American history proposed feckless compromise on significant issues ranging from the Civil War to the Cold War. Repeatedly many of these "moderates" in history have demonstrated a troublesome acceptance of restraints on the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness whether it was found in the American South or Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia or Iraq, or, yes, in a woman's womb. In the latter case many believe fervently in denying the American people the choice of a vote on abortion in their respective states, preferring to leave the decision to unelected judges.

One can only marvel at the political facility that takes a Michael Bloomberg from Democrat to Republican to Independent in the space of eight years. Or the denial of self-described "Rockefeller Republican" Christine Todd Whitman that not even Nelson Rockefeller himself could get nominated and elected to anything outside New York -- and even when graced with an appointment to the vice-presidency could not manage a second term nomination. Or the realization that George McGovern's campaign manager has anything at all in common politically with a Republican Senator from Nebraska who once billed himself as a conservative. One suspects it was not for nothing that Chuck Hagel has decided not to risk a re-election fight.

Doubtless all these individuals flocking to Oklahoma are good and decent people. Former Republican Senator John Danforth, reaching for the old chestnut once hurled at Reagan, claims his party is "appealing to a real meanness." Yet Danforth seems uncharacteristically obtuse to the idea he appears prepared to support moderation, a philosophy that has historically equivocated on everything from slavery to communism, and that today sees government pork barreling on monumental scales alongside raising taxes as evidence of bipartisanship. Danforth and his potential allies are getting ready to endorse a view of the world so timid it cannot force itself to stand starkly in favor of the most fundamental of human rights and liberties.

This is not leadership. This is spineless equivocation.

CONSERVATIVES -- AND MODERATES -- WOULD do well to remember the following lines John F. Kennedy once approvingly quoted from William Lloyd Garrison, the New England abolitionist. Garrison said this when addressing the politics of moderation:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

The choice for conservatives in 2008 could not possibly be better expressed. Have an agenda. Know where they're going. Know what the goals are. Make the case. Win -- and get the job done. No retreat. No Surrender. No moderation. No bipartisanship. No more back scratching.

There is far, far too much at stake. For conservatives, only victory is acceptable.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.