Why Conservatives Balk at GOP
By William Frey, M.D.
October 26, 2006
Editor’s Note: George W. Bush frequently states that the U.S. government’s highest duty is to protect the safety of Americans. But many traditional conservatives — as well as many other Americans — disagree with Bush’s priority. They believe that the first responsibility of any President is to defend the Constitution and its guarantees of individual liberty.
In this guest essay, William Frey, a founder of “Republicans for Humility,” explains why he and other conservative Republicans are upset with the direction of the Bush administration and the GOP-controlled Congress:
Why are Republican conservatives calling for an end to One Party GOP Rule?
Why are many now discussing the virtues of divided government?
On what basis do they believe One Party Rule has dishonored conservative values?
The seven prominent Republican conservatives who contributed to the Washington Monthly remarkable feature article, “Time for Us to Go: Conservatives on Why the GOP Should Lose in 2006,” did not dwell on contrived wedge issues promoted by Republican marketing consultants.
They focused, instead, on the neglected limited government ideals on which the conservative movement was founded:
- individual freedom,
- fiscal responsibility,
- constitutional restraints on unchecked executive power,
- prudent and principled foreign policy.
Why do these conservatives believe today’s Republican Party has betrayed these values?
How has it come about that today’s authoritarian, big government GOP has maintained the language of traditional conservatism even while mutating into a governing party whose policies produce the opposite?
Principled conservatives now widely recognize that the authoritarian, fear mongering, Big Brother, big government ideology peddled by GOP politicians and pseudo-populist radio demagogues is anything but conservative.
How has today’s GOP come to embrace such an ideology?
To a large measure, GOP success has relied on, not only the nominal retention, but the conspicuous veneration of the slogans and symbols of the traditional small-government conservatism the Republican Party has, in reality, abandoned.
The approach of GOP strategists to cultural conservatives has been similarly disingenuous: Despite complaints from conservative Christians that the GOP cynically resurrects highly visible and symbolic wedge issues on a 2 year cycle rhythmically synchronized with the campaign cycle, the GOP has, by choosing symbolism over substance on cultural issues, avoided offending corporate elites who do not share the religious and social convictions of the GOP’s foot soldiers from the religious right.
But in contrast to their duplicitous treatment of small government conservatives, of libertarians, and of conservative Christians, the GOP has been consistently faithful to one group: For corporate lobbyists, today’s GOP has been ever-willing to compromise both fiscal and free enterprise principles.
Conservative Bruce Bartlett documents how the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, which he describes as perhaps “the worst piece of legislation ever enacted”, disproportionately benefits drug companies and corporations relieved of contractual obligations, rather than seniors. Remarkably, GOP stipulations specifically prohibited the Secretary of HHS from negotiating lower drug prices.
While profligately increasing the cost to taxpayers, GOP Congressmen have, at the behest of drug companies, repeatedly fought against re-importation of Canadian drugs – free market solution that would lower prescription drug prices not only for seniors , but for all Americans, without burden to taxpayers, a concept supported by candidate George W. Bush.
Principled conservatives are not fooled by such substitution of Republican corporate welfare for genuine competitive enterprise.
Veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie, author of “Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush & Other Big Government Conservatives Hijacked the Conservative Cause” bluntly states,
“For years, congressional Republicans have sold themselves to conservatives as the continuation of the Reagan revolution. We were told that they would take on the Washington special interests — that they would, in essence, tear down K Street and sow the earth with salt to make sure nothing ever grew there again.
“But over time, most of them turned into the sort of unprincipled power brokers they had ousted in 1994. They lost interest in furthering conservative ideas, and they turned their attention to getting their share of the pork. Conservatives did not spend decades going door to door, staffing phone banks and compiling lists of like-minded voters so Republican congressmen could have highways named after them and so there could be an affirmative-action program for Republican lobbyists.”
Principled conservatives recognize that the economic strength of American free enterprise comes from an environment conducive to entrepreneurial innovation and a thriving middle class, not in GOP favoritism of stagnant and corrupt corporate and financial elites at the expense of the middle class.
But today’s GOP now poses to America a threat more fundamental than economic misadventures.
Principled conservatives recognize that authoritarian, big government “conservatism”, even when irreverently wrapped in our flag and mimicking the language of faith, is alien to America and subversive to our values.
For generations, America has stood as a beacon of liberty, and our constitution a monument to the Rule of Law.
But we now witness a governing Republican Party which has adopted a theory of presidential power – the “unitary executive” theory – that nullifies Congressional, judicial and constitutional checks on presidential power.
Almost beyond belief, Republicans historically committed to due process and to constitutional restraints on federal and presidential power, now:
- refuse to confront an administration which has claimed the right to hold an American citizen, apprehended domestically, indefinitely without charges
- malign defenders of habeas corpus as terrorist sympathizers
- reject the historical American commitment to promote the acceptance by all nations of basic standards of humane treatment of detainees
- oppose the unequivocal renunciation of torture, rendition, and secret prisons
But unlike today’s pseudo-conservative GOP, true conservatives believe that America is not too weak to defend herself while maintaining American ideals.
Unlike today’s fear mongering GOP, principled conservatives believe Americans will surmount fear, and will not allow terrorists to define and change America.
Unlike the radio “conservatives” who would polarize America and demonize all but their most sheepish followers as “Democrats, liberals, or RINO’s”, principled conservatives now recognize that the core values which the authoritarian GOP has abandoned (individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, the rule of law, prudent foreign policy) are more important than partisan victory.
Fortunately, these values, though essential to true conservatives, are not exclusive to conservatives.
Our nation’s founders did not even consider such values to be “conservative” at all, but characterized such a philosophy centered on liberty as, of all things, “liberal”.
But whatever name is applied to these quintessentially American values, it is clear that today’s authoritarian GOP has forsaken them.
To the consternation of these Big Government Republicans, the ideals of individual liberty protected by the rule of law, and prudent fiscal and foreign policy, are once again serving as a uniting force — an area where common ground is being found by thoughtful conservatives, moderates, and liberals of good will.
Today’s Republican politicians have not only repudiated conservative principles of constitutional restraints on federal and executive power, but now support policies diametrically opposed to historical Republican positions.
Such GOP reversals on issues of fundamental constitutional principles abound. On each of these issues, the current GOP position is disconnected from the convictions of virtually all Republicans on such issues as recently as 1 decade ago:
- nullification of law by the abuse of signing statements
- presidential assertions that no Congressional authorization is needed to go to war with Iran
- presidential lawlessness regarding FISA warrants
- unilateral abrogation of treaties such as the Geneva conventions
And in each case, if true conservatives who honor the rule of law are to find Congressional allies in their fight against unrestrained presidential power, it is no longer true that those allies will be on the Republican side of the aisle.
When the Orwellian named PATRIOT Act was enacted in 2001, Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey both supported the act AND fought hard to insert a sunset clause, so that the provisions of the act would truly, in fact, be temporary.
Armey’s conservatism was inseparable from his commitment to civil liberties. In his farewell address before he retired as Majority Leader in 2003, Armey passionately warned of those who would promise security in exchange for liberty.
But by the time the great majority of the provisions of the PATRIOT Act were extended – permanently and without sunset – in 2006, conservative civil libertarians such as Dick Armey and Bob Barr had become all but extinct within the GOP.
Similarly, honest fiscal conservatives such as the Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (who dared to oppose the pet pork-barrel projects of fellow GOP politicians) have been driven by the Republican leadership into early retirement, even as the GOP establishment has coddled criminals.
Establishment GOP politicians who have abandoned their fundamental ideals are now aghast that principled conservative Republicans are seeking allies among Democrats.
But the principles that are most dear to principled conservatives – individual liberty protected by the rule of law – transcend partisanship.
While principled liberals and conservatives have substantial differences regarding the interpretation and implementation of these principles, the tragic reality is that a power-drunk big government GOP establishment now threatens the very constitutional restraints that protect our liberties, our democracy, and our free and open society.
William Niskanen’s work clearly demonstrates that fiscal policy is consistently more restrained under divided government than under one party domination.
But it is the actual behavior of Republicans under this era of One Party Rule that has clearly demonstrated the tangible threat to the Rule of Law, to individual liberty, and to our constitutional system.
Unlike today’s win-at-all-costs GOP, many true conservatives believe that only a Democratic congressional victory will restore the balanced, divided, and representative government through which America has long maintained our values.
And only a Democratic victory will allow the reflection within the Republican Party necessary for a reorientation to American democratic values.
Republicans now firmly in control of party machinery, addicted to power, and committed to a toxic authoritarian ideology they falsely call “conservative” will not be dislodged without a Democratic victory.
Today’s GOP has lost its way.
Like me, other conflicted conservatives may benefit from reading “Time for Us to Go: Conservatives on Why the GOP Should Lose in 2006,” in the Washington Monthly.