Whither Conservatives?

Speech by Brent Bozell at the Virginia Conservative Grassroots Leadership Conference

In a recent piece promoting the idea that conservatives should support a McCain-Bush ticket, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that while 'Bush is the more reliably conservative candidate'the political objective for conservatism is to put an end to Clintonism. That can only be done with victory,' which victory would be achieved with McCain at the top.

Should conservatives follow Mr. Krauthammer's advice? Let us explore our options.

And let me begin by suggesting that if you're a conservative considering voting for Sen. John McCain, you're a fool.

No, it's not what I believe. But it IS what McCain and his political operatives think.

Bill Clinton conducted perhaps the greatest smokescreen presidential campaign in recent history in '92 at it seems that McCain has obviously studied it well. In both word and tone he is running just as disingenuous an effort.

It is instructive to note that on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post the headline told us that McCain was targeting the 'moderate' vote in Virginia while on the front page of this morning's Washington Times the headline tells us McCain is targeting the Reagan vote in our state.

Perception being the reality of politics, like Clinton before him McCain is having a dandy time fooling a whole lot of people into believing a whole lot of things about him that simply are not true.

Clinton understood that the Beast in modern day American politics is Washington. Its personification is, of course, the incumbent president, so Clinton broadsided George Bush at will. But what to do about the fact that the legislative arm of the government was controlled by his like-minded liberal Democratic colleagues?

Bingo: Enter the New Democrat, the Man Who Would Be Different.

If anything, the hostility toward the federal government is increased today, so every Republican candidate has laid claim to the 'outsider' or 'reformer' moniker. For some (Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes primarily) it is/was an appropriate title. For others (George W., Quayle, Alexander) it is/was a debatable point. But for McCain (and to be fair: Liddy Dole and Orrin Hatch) to claim that title is simply preposterous.

'Reformer' McCain has spent almost two decades in Congress and as head of the Senate Commerce Committee controls one of the most powerful arms of the legislative body. If ever there was the idea of the Consummate Insider, John McCain is it.

Of course, you can't just call yourself a 'reformer.' You have to show the public how things will be very different with you at the helm in the Oval Office.

'New Democrat' Clinton was at his amoral best promising all things to all people; 'Reformer' McCain is proving to be a fine student of that art.

On abortion, 'New Democrat' Clinton championed the idea of making it 'safe, legal and rare,' thus aligning himself with the pro-choice rank and file of the Democratic party while simultaneously signaling the pro-lifers that he wouldn't hold to a pro-abortion stridency.

'Reformer' McCain neatly reverses the argument, claiming to rank and file pro-life Republican activists that he is unabashedly in their camp, then finds the opportunity to make clear he won't have 'litmus tests' (once known as principles) where Supreme Court justices are concerned; would overhaul the GOP platform on the subject; would not interfere with his daughter's desire to abort her child, etc. ' all carefully designed to woo the pro-choice crowd.

On fiscal policy, 'New Democrat' Clinton paid homage to just about every Democratic spending initiative possible and played the class warfare game to perfection with relentless attacks on the 'greedy rich,' and plans for more and more social spending while simultaneously proposing tax cuts and denouncing deficit spending.

'Reformer' McCain wraps himself in the Reagan mantle, proclaims himself a fiscal conservative, but offers no program to reduce the size of the bloated federal government. He (eventually) offers a paltry tax cut, and then denounces his opponent's (somewhat less paltry tax cut) as a giveaway for 'the greedy rich.' And he proposes massive new taxes on the tobacco industry.

'New Democrat' Clinton publicly trashed 'special interests,' bashed Bush for 'coddling to communist dictators' in China, and then made it a point to have this very special interest illegally fund his re-election effort.

'Reformer' McCain thunders against the very same campaign finance practices Mr. Keating Five has used to his advantage his entire career while regularly denouncing Washington lobbyists' money bankrolling the Bush campaign, except now they're pouring money into his coffers, and he's cashing their checks in seconds.

If double-talk on policy is the norm, so too is it in political tactics. Clinton regularly bemoans the 'politics of personal destruction' while his operatives proceed to destroy the lives of any and all critics.

McCain continues to promise a positive campaign while his goon squad slanders Bush with all manner of personal attacks, including the wretchedly dishonest accusation of anti-Catholicism.

Pretty awful stuff, this. Does that then make George W. the choice of conservatives?

Many conservatives will recoil at that thought as well. Up until his disastrous showing in New Hampshire, Bush had signaled in no uncertain terms that if elected he would NOT follow a conservative agenda.

For Reagan conservatives the idea of a 'compassionate conservative' is fingernails on the chalkboard of political rhetoric. Like his father's 'kinder gentler' slogan before him, George W. is saying, unequivocally, that he won't be THAT conservative.

And he's backing it up by paying lip service to the philosophy while refusing to endorse a truly conservative agenda.

He tells us he has a vision, which I guess is a step improved from his father's dismissal of 'the vision thing.' But what is that vision?

He too says he's pro-life. But like McCain he refuses to commit to appointing pro-life Supreme Court justices or to unequivocally endorse the Republican pro-life platform? Just how difficult is it for someone truly committed to fighting for the rights of the unborn to do these things?

He tells us in every speech that the federal government is too large, the federal bureaucracy too powerful. Fine. But where are the proposals? How would he tame the monster? Which agencies would he terminate?

Not long ago conservatives bemoaned the fact that candidates regularly pledged to put an end to the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and the like but never acted on their promises. George W. won't even promise.

Tax cuts? With annual government spending in the trillions of dollars, and facing the prospect of significant surpluses to boot, the emasculated GOP leadership on Capitol Hill offered a trivial $750 billion tax cut over ten years, then pulled even that when Clinton meowed his discontent.

George W. offers as his opening bid a total of $438 billion. And when asked to prioritize his agenda for dealing with the surpluses, spending on new programs takes precedence over returning to the taxpayer what is rightfully his.

My friends, we KNOW what a George W. Bush administration would give us. And Reaganomics it ain't.

So should conservatives go with Alan Keyes, the man who has best articulated our philosophy, who certainly would do more for conservatives than his rivals, but whose lack of money and organization gives him as good a shot of winning this election as Darryl Strawberry has for becoming a spokesman for Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign?

Oh, dear. Where are conservatives to go? Our leaders are all taking sides, and with each endorsement comes the cry that THIS candidate, when elected, will best advance Ronald Reagan's vision for America.

More fingernails on the chalkboard.

But do they really believe that? Back in '92, when I headed Pat Buchanan's fundraising efforts I regularly came across conservative leaders who told me that their hearts were with Pat but their money, and their endorsement was with Bush because, you see, Pat could never win.

During the '96 primaries, I came across an old friend I hadn't seen in years, a woman who had spent years doing the Lord's work in the trenches of conservatism. Now a lobbyist, she was on her way to a Dole fundraiser. 'Dole?' I asked in disbelief, to which her answer, with a somewhat embarrassed smile, spoke volumes: 'Well, he IS the only game in town.'

Last year I visited with one of the top funders of the conservative movement to solicit his endorsement of the candidate I was backing, Steve Forbes. Steve, he told me, was a wonderful man and he supported his ideas 100%. 'But there's no question that Bush is going to win,' he said, echoing Washington's conventional wisdom, which conventional wisdom also said there was no way his father could lose in '92 with a 91% approval record.

That thinking, I submit to you ladies and gentlemen, is precisely what the establishment wing of the Republican Party is counting on. It has been, and continues to be their driving impulse that those conservatives ' what Henry Hyde so deliciously called 'the great unwashed' in the eyes of liberal Republicans - have 'nowhere else to go' and will dutifully fall in line when the establishment so ordains.

But if that's true, why was Bush trounced in '92? Why was Dole destroyed in '96? Why did the Keystone Cops of American politics, the Republicans in Congress, lose seats in '96 and come within a whisker of losing their majority in '98?

Why does the Republican Party stand the real chance of losing not one but both chambers in Congress this year? And why do we have that gnawing feeling in the pits of our stomachs that Al Gore, just six months ago the laughing stock of American politics, could very well become the next president of the United States?

The answer is simple. Mr. Krauthammer is wrong in his premise. The political objective of conservatism is NOT to end Clintonism. The political objective of conservatives on the grassroots level always has been, and always will be, to elect candidates they feel will advance the conservative cause.

It is a truth that has withstood the test of time election after election after election. Give conservatives a reason to fight and you get Ronald Wilson Reagan in the White House. But when grassroots conservatives, those who can deliver the victory, are given nothing to fight for and told have nowhere else to go, they stay home.

During the Houston convention of 1992, Paul Weyrich and I held a news conference to make two major announcements. Our first one was that we were endorsing George Bush for president. Our second was that we had just made the most meaningless endorsement in history as there was nothing we could do to help mobilize the conservative base, nothing we could do to save him from defeat since he was refusing to advance a conservative agenda.

So, too will it happen this year if the eventual Republican nominee doesn't change his tune, and change it soon. Add to the trauma the unpredictable, but potentially explosive possibility of a Pat Buchanan third party effort, and real disaster could befall the GOP in November.

Wither conservatives? I cannot tell you who to vote for; I cannot decide what to do myself. But if all we get from our candidates is empty rhetoric with no real commitment to fight for an articulated set of specific proposals, we should recognize, as painful as it is, that we have no pony in this race.

That being the case, let us put our time, our money, our energies in those races that really DO matter to us. Let us work to elect real conservatives at the local, state and federal level who will be the real champions of our cause tomorrow.

It is fortuitous that here in Virginia we have such an opportunity. Let us make it our first priority to elect to the Senate ' George Allen.

Thank you.