Princeton University last weekend hosted a gathering of conservatives who met at the University’s Woodrow Wilson Center, of all places, to discuss the origins, success and future of the modern conservative movement.
Many of those who attended were there at the beginning, and others joined later, but together they represented a pretty good cross-section of what we like to refer to as “the movement.” Attendees included old conservatives such as former American Conservative Union Chairman M. Stanton Evans; Bill Rusher, who served as National Review’s publisher when conservatives looked to NR for “the word”; Barry Goldwater biographer Lee Edwards; master strategist and scold Paul Weyrich; George Will; Christian conservative leader Richard Land; Jeff Bell; and The American Spectator’s Alfred Regnery, among others who were involved in the Goldwater or pre-Goldwater days.
They were joined by many others who made their mark during the Reagan era or since — men and women attracted to the philosophy articulated by the founders of the movement, or to Reagan’s optimism and leadership, or who found in conservatism a new home after having been driven out or repelled by the morphing of the Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy into a party dominated by the likes of George McGovern and his political heirs. This group included David Brooks, Midge Decter, Michael Barone, Bill Bennett, Frank Gaffney and others. Some of these folks came into the movement calling themselves “neo” conservatives and have since abandoned the hyphen, while others have not.
We were at Princeton so that academics and others could delve into the reasons for our success and perhaps discern where we might be headed. One questioner made clear that his interest was in trying to figure out how he and his “progressive” friends might emulate or copy the “techniques” we had employed to turn a little-noticed bunch of backroom cranks and ideological dreamers into a political movement that seized control of a major political party and split the Democratic coalition that had governed the nation for decades and has managed to dominate the nation’s politics for the past quarter-century.
What they learned is that, while conservatives may spend a good deal of time arguing among themselves, it has been our ideas and not the organizing “techniques” we developed along the way that enabled us to move into the political arena with such success. We had help, of course, as the liberal nostrums we opposed were tried and failed and the party that developed them fragmented.
In politics, however, success often breeds either hubris or forgetfulness. Too often, men and women in power forget how they got to where they are and decide instead that the most important thing in life is that they hold on to the power they’ve accumulated.
Many Republican politicians still call themselves conservatives but have pretty well abandoned the core belief in limited government that held the movement together in earlier days and brought them to power. They’ve decided that, since cutting spending and regulations or limiting government is both hard work and makes enemies, it’s easier simply to redirect government largesse from voter groups that make up the core support of their political opponents to those who vote for them or just up the spending so that everyone gets a bigger and bigger piece of the federal pie. They figure that Democrats succeeded for decades by playing Santa Claus and that they can hold onto power by doing the same.
Thus, they cut taxes while increasing spending because cutting taxes is relatively easy while cutting spending is much harder, and they justify the tax cuts simply because they can and do have a salutary impact on economic growth and activity. This is fine, but they forget that the real reasons conservatives have favored such cuts relate more to our belief that people rather than government ought to make the decisions that affect their lives and that by cutting taxes it is possible to “starve the beast” of big government and force spending cuts.
The current crop of conservative politicians has been too willing to charge more food for the beast and ignore the fact that it is growing by the day. That’s bad enough, but some are suggesting, like a few of those who attended the Princeton conference, that, instead of starving the beast, conservatives ought to embrace it and train it do our bidding.
What they don’t realize is that it can and will turn on them one day, but maybe these new big-government conservatives are the sort that give their children pit bulls for Christmas.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).