Conservatism’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

June 28, 2007

A friend (a pro-life, socially conservative Republican) recently expressed a frustration with some of our ideological brethren:

“When did abortion start dividing people within our own party in this manner that we’re fighting with each other and trying to provoke fights? I see a lot of you are fighting with each other, fellow Republicans, with far more vigor than they go after the Democrats. This is outrageous behavior.”

In short, why are conservatives, whose differences amongst themselves have more to do with tactics than objectives, seemingly intent on devouring one another?

In response, I noted that American conservatism suffers from the lack of an identifiable, consensus leader that can unite us all. Not since Ronald Reagan has conservatism produced a leader of national stature that we could all rally behind – and this lack of leadership since Reagan has been one of the great failings of this generation of conservatives. Leaderless, conservatism has deteriorated back to base instincts: eccentricity, paranoia, and nostalgia (to borrow an observation made by authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their generally positive history of contemporary American conservatism, The Right Nation). Under Reagan, conservatism was forward looking, positive, pro-active, visionary, out-reaching, appealing, unifying, and rational. Conservatism since Reagan has become stuck-on-stupid, negative, reactive, single-issued, inward-looking, strident, off-putting, divisive, and emotive. We keep looking for the next Reagan because conservatism hasn’t been as appealing or as victorious as it was in the Reagan era. Until we have a leader who can turn conservatism around to make it a positive force in American politics, I’m afraid that “appealing to the base” (meaning, as I’m using the term, appealing to the “base nature” of conservatism today) is a recipe for electoral disaster.

I would add that many conservatives have become overly idealistic, and consequently have become unrealistic about the progress of their issues. Many pro-life voters, as an example, reflect this unrealistic perspective on the politics of abortion. I’ve pounded this point home on this and other forums: It’s been 34 years since Roe v. Wade. Over that time we’ve had 18-plus years and counting of pro-life presidents (Reagan, Bush-41, Bush-43), 12 years of Republican majorities in the House, and 16 years of Republican majorities in the Senate. And what do we have to show in terms of substantive progress on the abortion issue for all of that political advantage? The only issue that has passed Congress is the partial-birth abortion ban, but even that had to be affirmed by a recent decision of the Supreme Court. The fate of Roe v. Wade, and pretty much the entire abortion issue, rests with the courts. A president can do very little on the issue, as we’ve seen over the past 34 years. Even the current President Bush, probably the most pro-life of presidents since the Roe decision, has talked about the importance of developing a “culture of life,” because he knows that ultimately the issue will be decided out in the culture, not in Washington. No one, not even each of pro-life candidates for President this go-around who have served in Congress, has sponsored a Pro-Life Amendment to the Constitution. Roe pretty much took the issue out of the hands of the legislative and congressional branches. The best we can expect is a president who will appoint strongly conservative judges to the courts with the hope that legal travesties like the Roe decision will never again be handed down by the Supreme Court, and that Roe will either be chipped-away at around the margins, or will be overturned and the issue returned to the states.

There are some in the pro-life movement who have said it is vitally important that the GOP nominate a candidate for president who is personally pro-life. I ask, “Why?,” again citing 34 years of pro-life activism since Roe, which, if anything, have proven how unrealistic it is to assume that the issue can be progressed simply by electing a pro-life president, or even a pro-life congress. Those who say that the GOP needs to nominate a pro-life candidate are going to have to convince me why it’s important, considering 34 years of the near fecklessness of the pro-life movement.

Getting down to what this all means in the campaign for the nomination….Rudy’s pledge to appoint strict constructionists to the courts is about as good as it’s going to get for the pro-life movement. Even Reagan was spotty on his appointments to the Supreme Court, which means that Rudy’s appointments might actually be better for the pro-life issue than Reagan’s were. And while GW Bush has been strongly pro-life, and the GOP had a majority in the Senate for four years of his Administration, some of Bush’s more solidly conservative judicial nominations never even came to a vote. So, to threaten to sit out the election if “pro-choice” Rudy Giuliani is nominated, or to hold the party, the nation, and every other issue of importance in the election hostage to the single issue of abortion, is unrealistic, naive, and just wrong-headed.

Greg Alterton


One Response to “Conservatism’s Self-Inflicted Wounds”

  1. Calvin Says:

    “There are some in the pro-life movement who have said it is vitally important that the GOP nominate a candidate for president who is personally pro-life. I ask, ‘Why?,'”

    Because we want our President to be a decent man. Rudy is not.

    It’s as simple as that.

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