The Bushwhacked Beltway Right…
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After an entire month in office, President Bush appears to be dangling American conservatives - or at least their self-appointed leaders in the Beltway Right - from his watch chain. This week, The Washington Post   interviewed a number of sagamores of the right and pronounced that they were pleased with the new administration. This weekend, at the conservative movement's annual hog-wallow, the Conservative Political Action Conference, the movement leadership will pound its chest in celebration of its own genius in laying low its adversaries of the Clinton era and enthroning Bush in their place.

What might be noticed by some of those attending CPAC, however, is that it is Vice President Cheney, not the president, who addresses the convention. Bush won't be there because he had a prior engagement - discussing immigration, NAFTA and other matters with Mexico's President Vicente Fox.  If Bush's positions on the issues he talks about with Fox are significantly different from those of Bill Clinton, I leave it to the Beltway eggheads to explain how.

But the Post is correct that most conservatives are happy with the new administration, and for the most part they have reason to be. After all, "movement" conservatism today appears to consist largely in two impulses - an intense dislike (dare one say hatred) of Bill Clinton and opposition to abortion. The latter was the issue that seemed to dominate conservative concerns during the GOP primaries last year and at the Republican convention last summer, just as dislike of Clinton has dominated (dare one say obsessed) the conservative mind for the last eight years.

And Bush has so far more or less slaked conservative passions on these matters. Clinton is gone from office and now rots in the grave of his own reputation. On abortion, Bush has already reversed some Clinton-era policies, appointed a pro-life attorney general and may even appoint some conservative judges and justices.

But even as they gloat over their victory and their new pal in the Oval Office, conservatives ought to recall what he's doing in Mexico, and they ought to remember as well the pledge his new attorney general made to the Senate Judiciary Committee on abortion itself, that "I don't think it is the agenda of the president-elect of the United States to seek to overturn that [Roe vs. Wade], nor would it be my position as attorney general." However much the administration may scratch at abortion, Ashcroft's statement pretty much dispels any illusion that the president seeks to reverse the Supreme Court's legalization of it, which is what most conservatives want.

But despite such shadows, it's perfectly natural for the right to celebrate the Bush renaissance after the long Clinton dark age, though, as the Post noted, there are other reasons why the conservative establishment is so pleased. "The conservative movement itself has changed since Reagan," the story commented, "and particularly since the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of Congress in 1994.

"Then conservatives talked about demolishing the welfare state in a matter of months. Chastened by defeats, they are (now) more realistic in their expectations."

One of their new spokesmen, the Hudson Institute's Marshall Wittmann, says, "Rather than defunding the left, you hear (about) funding the right." Just so.

Conservative critics of scholastic testing like to point out that test scores often improve only because the tests themselves have been "dumbed down" - in other words, that the standards for success have been lowered. The same criticism applies to conservatism itself. What has happened to the American right since the age of Reagan is that it has simply lowered its own standards for victory and, with them, the right's own philosophical and political goals.

Instead of working for the dismantling of the federal leviathan, conservatives now - as Wittmann acknowledges - simply want to grab their own share of the federal swag. Instead of resisting the immigration and economic integration Bush will be plotting with Fox this weekend, conservatives now want to promote it. If all you want from conservatism is to get Bill Clinton out of office, and listen to vapid and meaningless sermons denouncing abortion, the conservatism of the Bush era is your ticket to utopia.

Personally, I suspect the honeymoon won't last much longer. Neither Bush nor most of his Cabinet have any very deep or genuine sympathy for what remains the real conservative agenda, the agenda that most American conservatives continue to embrace. The leaders of the Beltway Right may have plenty of reason to gloat and grin for being in the political limelight once more, but my guess is that it won't be too long before more serious conservative forces at the grass-roots level begin to glimpse the other side of Bush's face.


February 16, 2001

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