One of the cliches of American politics holds that a political party out of power tends to move to the extreme of the ideological spectrum. Thus, the Republicans moved toward Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan during the Kennedy-Johnson presidencies and the Carter administration, while the Democrats moved toward George McGovern when Richard Nixon was president. But this year, two recent news stories suggest that the cliche has ceased to be true.
Front-page stories in the conservative Washington Times and the less-than conservative New York Times report that despite the movement of GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush to the left in recent weeks, the party’s conservative leaders are sticking with him. As Ralph Z. Hallow of the Washington Times wrote last week, most conservative Republicans “aren’t worried that Bush is going too far, too fast to the center in an effort to attract swing voters for the November elections.”
Similarly, The New York Times’ Richard Berke reported that “prominent conservatives on Capitol Hill and around the country said they were intent on rallying behind the presumptive Republican presidential nominee”; the reason is that “they were ‘hungry’ to win back the White House, even if that might mean sacrificing some bedrock Republican positions.”
As for the “bedrock Republican positions,” they’re already few and far between these days. The Republicans have long since abandoned their own historic economic nationalism for the free trade dogmas of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as their opposition to affirmative action, mass immigration and a national-interests foreign policy. On every one of those issues, the Republicans are now virtually indistinguishable from the Democrats.
But Bush, after swinging to the right to win the nomination in the primaries last winter, has now made friendly noises to homosexual activists and gun control advocates in the party, proposed vast federal programs on low-income housing and education and sought to stroke liberal rival Sen. John McCain. Yet conservatives who object to the direction in which these moves point have either stayed quiet or discovered “pragmatic” reasons for going along with them.
Pragmatic reason No. 1, of course, is that they would like to win for a change. Bill Clinton has beaten them in two presidential elections. Moreover, he and his party actually smacked the Republicans down in the impeachment effort and even won congressional seats in off-year elections. It wasn’t Clinton who had to resign in disgrace but Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, who vanished from the corridors of power.
Yet there’s another way to look at this development, which is that conservatives who openly acknowledge that they don’t much care if their leader adopts non-conservative policies are — well — not really conservatives. And what that means is that conservatism, at least within the Republican Party, is dead as a serious political force.
Of course, it wasn’t dead last winter when Bush beat McCain by moving to the right and rallying his own party against the motley “coalition” McCain tried but failed to construct. Conservatism, therefore, probably isn’t dead as a grass-roots political force. What is dead is any serious commitment to conservative ideology at the expense of political office among the self-proclaimed leaders of the American right within the party.
Most of the “pragmatic” conservatives interviewed or mentioned by Hallow and Berke in their news stories are part of the leadership cadre of the right, not its rank and file. After all, the rank and file doesn’t expect to hold office or gain from doing so; it’s only the leaders who get to do that.
So what seems to have happened is that while conservatism of some sort remains alive as a motivating political force at the grass-roots level — alive enough at least to win the Republican nomination for those who adhere to it — it has effectively vanished from the hearts and minds of the leaders of the “conservative movement” — the leading activists, think tank policy wonks and party elders and strategists. Those are the guys who are so “hungry” for office and power that they’re ready to pitch the grass-roots conservatives to the sharks.
The consequence of the collapse of conservatism among the party and “movement” leaders is that the GOP is not drifting toward the far end of the ideological rainbow but rather has drifted and is drifting — closer to Clinton. How far down into the ranks that drift to the left goes and how hungry for office most Republicans really are is not yet clear, but if Bush is able to win the presidency by ignoring conservative commitments and ideology, then the real conservatives who still quaintly insist on principle over feeding their faces with power and office will have to seek their own satisfaction in some other party.