The Return of the Conservative Conscience

In just thirteen hours, Rand Paul’s recent constitutional marathon established him as one of the best stump speakers in the senate. His easy-going, spontaneous, and cogent extended soliloquy sent a power surge through the somnambulant GOP. The ensuing swell of popular support for Senator Paul set the party—and, en passant, the conservative movement—on their collective ears. And they needed it.

For years, the grass roots have been longing for a plain-spoken advocate of principle. Frankly, there haven’t heard much good news lately in that department. Pat Buchanan has been banned from the majors because he was too honest. Human Events, a mainstay of conservatism since 1944, has just given up the ghost. The other old standby, National Review, has gone steadily downhill since it sided with George W. Bush over Bill Buckley on the Iraq War. Curiously, that sinking flagship now quietly admits that Bush was a failure and that conservatism is “weakened.” By National Review? It does not say.

Nor does it apologize. The truth, it appears, lies too far in the past.

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In fact, in 1960. That’s when the first generation of conservatives heard Barry Goldwater’s challenge to the GOP establishment. The Conscience of a Conservative electrified delegations who took the book with them to the GOP Convention in Chicago. Delegates learned its core message by heart: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom.  My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible.”

Opportunity Knocks, Opportunism Answers
Those were the days. Pat Buchanan once observed that, in the 1960s, there were no conservative opportunists because there were no opportunities for conservatives. But that changed for the next generation, when Ronald Reagan’s election opened Washington’s doors to opportunists. Ambitious self-dealers seeking careers suddenly experienced conservative conversions of convenience. They weren’t alone. Many a genuine conservative roamed the streets looking for government grants and contracts, while only a valiant few pounded the table demanding that we unplug the Establishment Hot Tub.

Reagan Conservatives—Dick Allen called them “Reaganauts”—were not alone. They were nurtured by an older generation of wise men who kept before them the vision of the sacred ground of ordered liberty. My favorites, Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer—both Catholic converts—were among the sages who frequented the capital, bringing with them the glad tidings of the permanent things. And their ideas did have consequences:  the Reagan Doctrine announced at Westminster in June 1982 brought forth the fruit of the collapse of the Berlin Wall nine years later. There, the conservative principle of cause and effect seemed to work.

But other, less salutary, forces were at work. After George H.W. Bush was inaugurated in 1989, his hatchet-man James Baker set out on a mission of ideological cleansing, removing every Reagan appointee he could find and replacing them with Bush loyalists. It was hardly the GOP’s finest hour:  I remember being assigned to staff the nomination of Bush’s second baseman at Yale (who had no other qualifications) to a senior post in the administration. His principles were vacant. His number was legion.

The Conservatism of Contradiction
The third conservative generation—forty years after Conscience—arrived with George W. Bush’s election in 2000. But this generation’s mentors were not conservatism’s intellectual giants, but Jim Baker’s apparatchiks.  Like all careerists, they mouthed principled platitudes. But when they confronted reality, they blinked. They still “felt” conservative, of course: public schools had taught pupils for years to “feel good about themselves.” But they had not been taught to think critically, and they quickly fell into  the pit of cognitive dissonance (Orwell calls it “DoubleThink”).

Principle didn’t rule; the dialectic did. Bush turned on the spending spigot, and “conservatives” obediently lined up for grants. He ignored the Constitution, and they stood up and cheered. He bypassed Congress and went to the United Nations for the moral seal of approval of for his invasion of Iraq—and his merry band of UN-bashers rejoiced at their “victory.” He expanded federal power over education, exploded federal entitlements, and fomented economic collapse, while Karl Rove promised dazed “conservatives” that their turn would come.

It didn’t. And curiously, in 2004 President Bush did not run on his record. Instead, he fomented fear (this Orwellian Two-Minutes Hate from the 2004 GOP Convention says it all). Shorn of principle, by 2006, the movement, and the party, had collapsed.

“And this, and so much more,” Prufrock laments. Sensing the coming deluge, the bewildered third conservative generation moved quickly to cash in. “If it weren’t me,” a newly-minted foreign agent told me, “someone else would be getting that money.”

Now there’s a patriot.

It reminds me of the old saying about inherited wealth: “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Or perhaps Eric Hoffer’s observation that “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

A movement, a business, a racket. One generation each. 

Toward Redemption and Restoration
Two specters haunt the GOP today. The first is betrayal.

A few days ago, full-page ads appeared in several prominent newspapers featuring Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell. My goodness, they all support same-sex marriage! Well, wait a minute: these Republicans would be nobodies without the millions of pro-family, pro-life voters who repeatedly brought the GOP to victory. Their cynical response, to paraphrase Sam Rayburn, is to spit on the heads of them that brung’em.

Conservative response to this treachery has been muted. May I suggest outrage? The GOP Establishment has used and abused pro-life, pro-family Americans for decades. They need our votes but have nothing but thinly-veiled contempt for our principles. We are always at the back of the bus, an unmentionable burden for these charlatans who—by the way—destroyed the GOP and brought us ObamaNation on a silver platter.

Conservatives must repudiate such traitors who come into the “Big Tent,” intent on burning it down.

The second specter is metaphysical. It was best articulated by President George W. Bush at the National Prayer Service three days after the 9-11 attacks. “Americans do not yet have the distance of history,” he said, “but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

This noxious notion lies at the heart of the “Bush Doctrine.” It has been inherited and enhanced by Obama. And the Republican Party must confront it head-on and repudiate it. It absolves hubris and power-lust. It rejects limits—moral, constitutional, and metaphysical. It conjures up an endless parade of Hitlers—Saddam, Osama, Ahmadenijad—and justifies lethal, secret, and unconstitutional means to eliminate them and all others deemed evildoers.

The Bush Doctrine is the father of the poisonous Obama Doctrine that Rand Paul condemned for thirteen hours last week. That explains the contemptuous response from Senators McCain and Graham. They are joined at the hip with the Bush Doctrine. They are bound to its failure like a ball and chain. No wonder they resent the truth-teller.

Obama made Bush’s claim to unlimited executive power his own, and he has now turned it on us. Dazed conservatives are hesitant: What to do? After all, to condemn Obama is to condemn McCain and Graham—and, yes, Bush.

Well, conservatives, this is the time for truth. Do it.

Enough of the “Red Team versus Blue Team” game. Conservatives have to step off the playground, redeem their principles and renounce their cognitive dissonance. They will meet resistance, scorn, even hatred, from the powerful, the profiteers, and the plunderers in the GOP Hot Tub; but conservatives have the key to victory: they know that the only way to empty the Hot Tub is from the outside.

Editor’s note: This column, first posted March 16, is sponsored by the Bellarmine Forum, and distributed by Griffin Internet Syndicate and FGF Books. The image above pictures, from left to right, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater.


  • Christopher Manion

    Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

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