Another Perspective

The Task at Hand

Separating conservatism from Republicanism.

By 6.2.06

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Republicans in Washington have run their party's ship onto the rocks and it is sinking rapidly. Conservatives, who should have mutinied long ago, have to assert control now or they will be forced to abandon ship. They cannot let Republicans sink the conservative ideology along with the party's political fortunes.

Americans have lost confidence in Republican governance. A May Washington Post-ABC News poll says it all: 56 percent of the public would rather see Democrats in charge of Congress. It took Democrats half a century to prove that their approach didn't work. Bush and the GOP Congress lost the trust of the American people in just five years (12 if you count from the 1994 Republican "revolution"). That's very quick work.

Americans see the Republican Party's leadership as untrustworthy, which is a reputation it has earned. The challenge for conservatives is to convince American voters that Republican and conservative are not synonyms. Conservatives have to remind the country that the principles Republicans claimed to uphold but abandoned once in office still offer the best approach to governing the country.

Conservatives need an aggressive campaign to hold Republicans accountable for their apostasy and remind America that conservatism's Jeffersonian principles remain an untried and viable alternative to the programs the two main parties are offering.

"The freedom and happiness of man... [are] the sole objects of all legitimate government," Jefferson said. What Republicans have pushed for the past five years is not Jeffersonian conservatism. It is a neoconservatism that has married big-government activism to an ostensibly conservative political agenda. That is not what America needs, nor is it what America voted for when it sent Republicans to Washington in the first place.

When Americans handed Republicans the reins of government, they thought they were getting a conservative regime, one that would be honest, frugal and competent. Instead, they got a big government regime that has been dishonest, profligate and incompetent.

HERE ARE A FEW EXAMPLES of the Republicans' betrayal of those who voted for them:

* Republicans promised never to waste taxpayer dollars, to return control of numerous programs to the states, and never to let domestic politics dictate military decision-making. They did the opposite. Non-defense discretionary spending has grown twice as fast under President Bush as it did under President Clinton. According to research by Heritage Foundation analyst Brian Riedl, under President Bush and the GOP Congress education spending has risen 62 percent, Medicare 54 percent, highways and mass transit 30 percent, community and regional development 137 percent. And, of course, all of that was done with borrowed money.

* Republican tax cuts flooded the treasury with ready cash, and Republicans used that to buy loyalty -- exactly what the people booted Democrats from office for doing. They tried to buy seniors with Medicare Part D, farmers with agriculture subsidies, parents with No Child Left Behind, and small pockets of voters everywhere with local pork barrel projects. They used the U.S. Treasury as a political slush fund, just as they had attacked the Democrats for doing.

* After promising to shrink the federal bureaucracy, Republicans vastly increased the federal role in education, enormously expanded Medicare, and created an entirely new and gigantic federal bureaucracy, which, when needed, functioned exactly as conservatives have always said huge federal bureaucracies will function: poorly.

* After accusing President Clinton of using the military for political gain, Republicans burdened the Pentagon and Homeland Security with numerous unnecessary pork barrel projects and, worst of all, let domestic political concerns prevent them from effectively prosecuting a war. Is there any non-political justification for the President's refusal to commit more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan? Militarily, it makes zero sense to send so few troops to secure so much land. But politically, the more troops sent overseas, the more flag-draped coffins sent home. Bush has put domestic political concerns above national security, which Republicans said they would never do.

On point after point after point, Republicans promised conservative governance and instead delivered something else entirely. Only on taxes have they been true to their word. For those lies, Republicans deserve the ire of the American people. Conservatism, however, does not.

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT CONSERVATIVES remind Americans that the Republican agenda of the Bush years has not been a conservative one. That is a big challenge. The media continue to refer to most Republicans, including Bush, as "conservative." A May 31 AP story is a good example of the myth that the Republican Party is a conservative party. "In a party dominated by conservatives, the last of the Northeast GOP moderates face several daunting election-year trends..." begins the story's second paragraph.

A party dominated by conservatives? Not at all true. But that is the perception, and conservatives must break it. Though it is too late to challenge apostate Republican incumbents in many state primaries, there are some things conservatives can do. First and foremost, they can vent their anger.

They can write letters to the editor (politicians and their aides read these closely), and mail, e-mail, and call their representatives and senators. They can call their local radio talk shows and even copy the Club For Growth's excellent practice of targeting non-conservatives with issue ads in the local media (issue ads, thankfully, are still legal at the moment). They have to let Republican incumbents know in no uncertain terms that if they do not fall in line immediately they will have no support in November.

President Bush's amnesty for illegal aliens appears dead thanks to vocal opposition back home. Americans let their elected representatives know that they would not stand for such foolishness, and Congress got the message.

Conservatives have to do that on every other issue. It is not enough for pundits to write columns and National Review to pen scathing editorials. Grass-roots conservatives who used to make up the GOP's most loyal base have to speak up, now. They have to tell Republicans what they want, not just complain to each other about the jerks who promised to govern conservatively and then didn't.

At the same time, they have to make clear to non-conservatives that they do not stand behind the GOP's recent governance. If Democrats do retake Congress, or even make significant gains, they will proclaim it a victory against conservatism. It would be no such thing. It would be a victory against lying, corruption, incompetence, and a blatant disrespect for the intelligence of the American voter. Conservatives have to separate their own message of responsible, frugal governance from what the Republicans have implemented, and they have to do it now.

THE AVERAGE AMERICAN VOTER must understand that there is another alternative method of governing -- one that he supported only a dozen years ago. It might be too late to salvage the Republican wreckage before November, but as long as the public knows that conservative ideas still represent a promising and viable alternative to the current mess that the Republicans have made in Washington, there is hope for 2008. If the public becomes convinced that conservatism is synonymous with the policies of the past five years, the conservative movement could sink along with the GOP's majority. And that truly would spell bad news for everyone for years to come.

A common refrain on America's college campuses is that no one really knows that communism doesn't work because true communism has never been tried. Of course, communism's true believers will never accept that pogroms, famine and massive state repression lie at the very foundation of the ideology. The question for America is whether it believes that huge budget deficits, clumsy foreign policy and political corruption form the foundation of conservatism.

Conservatives need to show America what those goateed professors with portraits of Trotsky on their walls cannot show: that their program for the country should not be condemned because in truth it has never been tried, and if America wants good, responsible, frugal governance, real conservatism is the only option.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.