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The GOP Neo-Conservative Dilemma

Why ex-Democrats aren't helping the conservative cause.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 23, 2001

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The GOP Neo-Conservative Dilemma_James Leroy Wilson-Why ex-Democrats aren't helping the conservative cause. One of the absurdities of the two-party system is that citizens are persuaded that they have to vote for a candidate with which they disagree on substantial issues. Democrats and Republicans are both coalition parties. Democrats are supposed to be the liberal party, Republicans the conservative. So when conservatives vote for the Republican presidential candidate, and he wins, we are frequently left hoping that he will break some of his promises.

It's happening again. National Review endorsed George W. Bush, but once he got into office, his faith-based social engineering, proposals to expand the Department of Education, and hard line on the War on Drugs have all been - rightly - criticized by the conservative magazine.

Under Ronald Reagan things were easier. The goals were clear-cut: stronger defense and lower taxes. (Reagan traded away the third - cutting domestic spending - in order to get the other two.) But Reagan's electoral success, while a blessing for Republicans in many ways, has been a curse as well, a curse seen in President Bush's national vision.

The curse is neo-conservatism. In 1980, neo-conservatives joined the Republican Party, looked around, and decided to stay. I heard Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and leading neo-conservative intellectual, joke that a neo-conservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter. Neo-conservatives are intellectuals and politicians who can be described as JFK (or RFK) Democrats. Intellectual expressions can be found in journals and magazines like Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and First Things. Although the so-called evangelical right might be known for emphases like school prayer, abortion, and homosexual rights, many of them are ex-New Deal Democrats who should be linked with neo-conservatives. National political figures like Jack Kemp and William Bennett are neo-conservative. Characteristics include:
-a hatred of communism and active U.S. leadership in the cause of worldwide democracy and human rights.
-a strong commitment to "traditional values" and government promotion of family-friendly policies in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
-energetic use of the national government in solving social problems, but with a pragmatic conviction that market-based solutions can help, such as subsidizing "choice" through vouchers, can play a role a positive role.
-faith in the promise of America as a land of opportunity for all.

These all sound good, and appeal to basic moral sentiments. That's why neo-conservatism has one huge advantage over traditional conservatism. The general portrayal is that neo-conservative "intentions" are good, whereas traditional conservatives are only conservatives because they are bigoted, ignorant, or rich. (Think Archie Bunker.) The reality is that conservatives are proponents of the principles of the Constitutional order, and hold the Second, Ninth and Tenth Amendments in our Bill of Rights as dear as the First.

The core problem is that America has lost its consensus on social values that exalt involved participation in nuclear two-parent families, churches, and civic associations. In a country with such a consensus, the two dominant parties should be nationalist and federalist. Neo-conservatives are nationalist; conservatives are federalist, which means restraining the federal government to powers enumerated in the Constitution. There would be a party of JFK and Pat Moynihan and a party of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. Neo-conservatives would be Democrats.

But because the consensus of social values is gone, we are left with two parties. One, the liberal, Democratic Party, holds that the only things that matter are individuals, victimized groups, and the federal government that provides their needs and protects their liberties through intelligent, well-intentioned, unelected bureaucrats and judges. The other, the Republican Party, is a coalition of conservatives, neo-conservatives, and old-guard big-government budget hawks, who together support a nominee who must cater to these three ideological camps. That's what Bush is trying to do.

But it cannot be done with any intellectual integrity. The conservative understands what the neo-conservative refuses to acknowledge: that the federal government is incapable of making individuals or communities better, only to keep them secure and free; that it's a contradiction to seek to achieve conservative social ideals through the federal government; that while regulating or prohibiting the importation of drugs and the interstate drug trade is legitimate, the police-state tactics of the War on Drugs is unconstitutional; that liberal policies fail because they are unconstitutional, and neo-conservative reforms of liberal programs (school choice, faith-based programs) won't and can't work because they, too, will make more and more people dependent on federal largesse.

The President would do well to abandon proposals of neo-conservatives. Their patriotism is admirable and their moral commitments are strong. But while they are pragmatic, they lack a sense of restraint that is essential for protecting our freedoms and the Constitution. The federal government must be rolled back. Bush should start listening to the real conservatives.

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