REPUBLICANS; Stepping Off the Platform
The Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2003 The Los Angeles Times
President Reagan once explained his political switch during the 1950s
from the Democrats to the Republicans by saying, "I didn't leave the
Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me." In these days of
neoconservative ascendancy among Republicans, traditional conservative
Republicans like me increasingly understand how Reagan felt. But this
time it's the Republicans who are leaving us.
We conservatives have historically been skeptical of ambitious
campaigns abroad aimed at remaking the world. It was the great British
conservative philosopher Edmund Burke who cautioned against imperialism
by saying: "I dread our being too much dreaded." It was President
Dwight D. Eisenhower who argued that "we must not destroy what we are
attempting to defend" and who further noted that "an empire on which
the sun would never set is one in which the rulers never sleep." And it
was John Quincy Adams who warned that if America became "dictatress of
the world" then "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."
Traditional conservatives were pleased during the election campaign of
2000 when candidate George W. Bush spoke of the need for a more humble
approach to U.S. foreign policy and for reducing excessive U.S.
deployments abroad. It therefore came as a shock when the Bush
administration seemed to go out of its way to insult and irritate
longtime friends and allies.
Take, for instance, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, a pact
beloved by many of America's allies, including Britain. Traditional
conservatives generally opposed it because they thought it unfair to
U.S. interests. But it had not been submitted for approval to the U.S.
Senate in the summer of 2001 and was not going to be because there was
no way the Senate would ratify it. Since it was effectively in limbo,
many conservatives wondered why the new administration felt a need to
take the treaty out of hibernation and loudly reject it, thereby
needlessly alienating our allies.
More surprising and of greater concern was the reversal by a small
group of self-styled neoconservatives, in the wake of Sept. 11, of
Reagan's winning Cold War strategy. The U.S. commitment to "no first
strike" and deterrence that brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet
Union was tossed over the side in favor of a doctrine of preventive and
preemptive wars. Out, too, were long-term alliances like NATO, and in
their place came temporary and shifting "coalitions of the willing."
We were told that Saddam Hussein with his weapons of mass destruction
and close ties to Al Qaeda was an imminent threat to the United States
in response to which we had to strike before being struck.
Subsequently, in the absence of any trace of chemical, biological or
nuclear weapons, we have been told the real reason for the invasion was
to change the whole nature of the Middle East by recasting it in an
American democratic capitalist mold.
So now America has a "mission" that neoconservatives have openly called
one of imperialism. This is not what conservatives voted for, nor is it
consistent with America's historical anti-imperialism.
Even more important than foreign policy is what's happening on the home
front. Traditional conservative Republicans have always been for small
government and fiscal responsibility with budgets balanced over time.
They have also always emphasized protection of individual rights and
supported strong state and local governments. These core conservative
values have now been all but rejected.
Take the issue of big government. Although it is often associated with
social programs, big government is more often the result of expansion
of military programs than of anything else. The Pentagon is by far the
biggest part of the U.S. government, and it is growing so fast that its
spending will soon top that of all the world's other military
establishments combined. Conservatives have always been opposed to
rampant bureaucracy, but the new Department of Homeland Security
represents a huge bureaucratic conglomerate only slightly behind the
As for balanced budgets, even the Congressional Budget Office's
projections show that the surpluses of the 1990s have turned into
endless oceans of red ink. The Patriot Act along with new visa
regulations and guidelines for investigative agencies has imposed the
greatest constraints on individual American freedoms since the
internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Then there is the plight of the states and local governments, of which
California is only the most dramatic example. After the federal
interventionism of the Clinton administration, traditional
conservatives expected a Republican administration to reemphasize, at
least to some extent, the rightful powers and authority of state and
local governments. Instead, there has been a plethora of federal
mandates to the already cash-strapped states, all without any federal
funding. Moreover, in areas like educational testing and drug policy,
the overriding of state and local government policies through the
imposition of federal standards and rules has continued and even
The irony here is that it is the supposedly liberal Democrats who are
talking about fiscal responsibility, limited government, individual
rights and caution on grand missions abroad. So more and more
traditional conservatives have been asking the question: Who are really
the liberals, and who are the conservatives? Indeed, it was Maine Sen.
Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican and member of the traditionally
conservative Main Street Coalition, who played a key role in capping
Bush's tax cuts at $350 billion; and a large number of Republicans
revolted against the neoconservative leadership to vote down new
Federal Communications Commission rules allowing further mergers of
large media companies. Perhaps this indicates that traditional
Republicans are making an important discovery about who they are and
where they belong.
There is nothing neo about imperialism. It is just as un-American today
as it was in 1776. And there is nothing conservative about the giant
military-industrial establishment, budget deficits or failing local and
state governments. Far from conservatism, this is radicalism of the
right, and it is unsustainable because it is at odds with fundamental
-- and truly conservative -- American values.