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Conservatism And Its Discontents

January 9, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


Since 1980, the same party has controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House for about 25 percent of the time. Democrats (four years) used their control to wreak serious damage on the republic: tax hikes (Clinton), Obamacare, and the takeover of student loans (Obama) — all of which led to a continual expansion of the powers of the federal government and a reduction in individual freedom.
Republicans used their control in a different fashion during the George W. Bush years (four years four months). On the domestic front, they launched “Big Government Conservatism,” expanding Medicare, intruding more into education, raising the debt ceiling four times; on the foreign front, launching two wars that divide Republicans to this day.
Donald Trump years (two years) enjoyed majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill, at least on paper. However, GOP Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were obstacles to defunding Planned Parenthood, and John McCain kept Obamacare alive with his decisive “no” vote on repeal in August. Meanwhile, come of the strongest opposition to Trump’s efforts to control the border and restore the rule of law lay in the GOP establishment in Congress which, we recall, Donald Trump actually campaigned against in 2016.
Well, now the Democrats have a majority in the House. Chances are good that President Trump’s constitutional appointments to the federal bench will continue to be confirmed by the Republican Senate, but elsewhere conservatives will need all their power to defeat a deluge of radical initiatives coming from the most socialist House of Representatives in our lifetime.

Remembering Who We Are

Let’s cast our memory back to 1960. That’s when the first generation of conservatives heard Barry Goldwater’s challenge to the GOP establishment. His Conscience of a Conservative electrified delegates who took the book with them to the GOP Convention in Chicago. I was there. My father published the book when no major publisher would, and it became a bestseller because it was refreshingly clear, brief, and devoid of cant and palaver.
GOP 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.”
These were and are noble goals. But we should recall that “conservative” was not a popular term back then. 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 true believers.
Alas, they were not alone: When opportunity knocks, opportunists answer. Ambitious self-dealers seeking careers suddenly experienced conservative conversions of convenience. And many a genuine conservative succumbed, knocking on doors and looking for government grants and contracts. Only a valiant few persisted, pounding the table demanding that we unplug the Establishment Hot Tub.
These 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 us 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 talented fixer James Baker IV set out on a mission of ideological cleansing. This ungrateful apparatchik, who would have remained a nobody had Reagan not given him a job, fired every Reagan appointee he could find and replaced them with Bush loyalists. It was hardly the GOP’s finest hour: I remember being assigned to staff the nomination of G.H.W. 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.
One example comes to mind.
On June 11, 2004, those attending the state funeral of President Ronald Reagan were required to arrive two hours early, to pass through security. Once inside, old friends gathered here and there in the aisles, exchanging greetings and a few stories — in fact, it looked like a glorified class reunion.
One group was standing near this writer. In the twelve years since they had worked for the George H.W. Bush administration, they had become the heaviest of DC’s heavy-hitters, lobbyists, and dealmakers.
It happened that the former President Bush, who delivered a stirring eulogy at the funeral, was turning eighty on June 12 — the very next day. So naturally, a major topic of conversation before the funeral among that particular group of his former employees was the big birthday bash the next day in Houston.
Amidst the lively conversation, one chap was strangely silent. Finally, a friend asked him, “Hey, aren’t you going?”
“No, I’m not,” he said memorably. “We made a million bucks on that contract, but they didn’t renew it.”

Why Don’t We Ever Win?

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. 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. “Chris, if it weren’t me,” a newly minted foreign agent told me, “someone else would be getting that money.”
Now there’s a patriot.
Donald Trump led a rebellion — at first inchoate, increasingly coherent, surprisingly effective — which was met with deliberate and malicious chaos, a dependable tactic of the left. But even for Republicans, the Establishment’s bad habits are hard to quit. Reports now abound of departing Republican senators and representatives who are maneuvering for cushy jobs at Washington’s tony lobbying firms. There they will work arm-in-arm with Democrats, of course. Most will start at a million a year, and to earn it (if you can call it that), they’ll work for the highest bidder
They will be loyal only to themselves.
What’s that 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.”
And that’s the 60-year saga of the establishment’s version of conservatism. A useful term, easily hijacked by the usual suspects. A movement, a business, a racket. One generation each.
So who will stand firm to oppose the coming socialist wave? Pray that it’s us.

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Right now the most likely path toward reform in the Church-- intervention of government authority-- could lead to disaster. If only a “morally intrepid few” bishops, here and in Rome, could call for and make public acts of repentance, we might yet avoid that danger.

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