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Thursday, January 29, 2004
Adjectiveless conservatism has a future in the Republican Party

No doubt many conservatives who keep an eye on US media may have been somewhat irritated by the tendency of their right-wing to lionise Blair in the run-up to and during the Second Gulf War. "It's alright for you," one felt like saying, "You don't have to live under his tax rates or his social and constitutional vandalism!".

But this sense in which one sees mainly the international face of foreign leaders works both ways, and it has received insufficient coverage here among keen British supporters of Bush's foreign policy how disappointing his domestic agenda has been by comparison. There is no denying the positive effect of his two big tax cuts, but they are the most glowing contents of a pretty mixed bag. His steel tariffs, his very high spending on programmes like Medicare and his new immigration policy are depressing parts of any Republican programme. Each defiles a core conservative principle, be it contempt for kowtowing to special interests at the expense of the wider good, suspicion of expanding government, or respect for the law of the land, and each was a somewhat desperate appeal to a new set of voters among whom some Republicans feel the need to make greater headway. It would be interesting to see any polls that suggest that these appeals will actually have a net positive effect, in the sense of winning over more swing voters than it deters instinctive Republicans. Will being the party to grant illegal immigrants citizenship offset the natural tendency of the poorest migrants to vote for big-spending politicians, or will Republicans passing the measure be turkeys voting for Christmas, foolishly enfranchising millions of Democrats who have no legal right even to be in the country? Will the Medicare proposals actually convert those with a fondness for that sort of thing, or will it serve only to remind them of why they like voting Democrat? We shall see. But in the meantime the country is in a few notable ways being made less American and less free as the President pursues liberal policies of the sort even Bill Clinton was more cautious about.

Jonah Goldberg has a consoling column in the National Review for those who worry about this effect: as a rule, when Bush deviates from conservative values, the Republican Party is not with him, and that shows little sign of changing. Long-term, if Bush is a disappointment like his father, it will only increase the pressure in the party for another Ronald Reagan.

The gravitational forces of the party largely determine the course of policy. The Democratic dogma is instinctually to err on the side of government action. Republican dogma, at least for now, is to err on the side of individual initiative and the market.

Now, if you think George Bush is moving the Republican party - and the federal government - too much in an "I feel your pain" direction, I, um, feel your pain. That might have been worth bringing up during the 2000 GOP primaries when we had a shot at changing the direction of the party. But now, George W. Bush is the guy. He's doing a great job, all in all, on the war on terror. And it sounds like conservative complaints are starting to be heard.

But I'd like to point something else out. Bill Clinton moved his party decidedly to the right on policy, and the only successful candidates running for that party's nomination are running far to Clinton's left. The same thing could very well happen with the GOP. If George W. Bush ends his eight years in office seeming more like a liberal Republican than a conservative one (still very possible), Republicans might look for a Goldwater or a Reagan next time, just as they did after Eisenhower and Nixon, respectively. In other words, George W. Bush may be changing policy, but he may not be changing the party that much. I don't run into a lot of people who call themselves compassionate conservatives, except as a joke.

Goldberg's piece should also be read for its introduction. His puncturing of the pretensions of a certain sort of independent who sees all those happy enough to support a particular party as mindless drones, utterly unable to think for themselves, is most necessary and deserved.

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