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Now in Power, Conservatives Free to Differ

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page A07

With their Republican allies in control of the federal government, conservative intellectuals, activists and philanthropists battled this past week over popular culture, over President Bush's expansive foreign policies, and even over the legitimacy of God and faith in the formulation of social policy.

At a symposium last Wednesday sponsored by the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, 20 leading figures on the political right ranging from traditionalists to libertarians debated the successes and failures of the conservative movement and its future now that it has consolidated power.


Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, challenged some conservatives' calls for expanded federal regulation of personal behavior and media, reflecting a split in the ranks of the right. (Ian Wagreich -- Roll Call)


The debate participants include some of the foremost intellectual figures in American conservatism, men and women whose ideas have helped fuel the GOP's rise to power. Now their focus is on where the conservative movement needs to go, whether it focuses on making government smaller and less intrusive or making it more active in fostering morality.

In written essays and in discussions, participants explored the continuing fissures within conservatism. They fell into two factions, one arguing that the state has an interest in managing the behavior and moral conduct of individuals, the other contending that individuals should be free to manage their own lives as long as they do not harm others.

Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, argued that "one of the things that most concerns people is the sexualization of culture," and that "in the culture wars, they are burning down our houses." She cited a recent experience of stopping at a traffic light as the car next to her played "an incredibly vile rap song. I couldn't avoid hearing simulated sexual intercourse."

Leon Kass, Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that "it will be no great victory" to win new individual freedoms "if the uses of those freedoms are debased, if families decay, if the general moral vision diminishes."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, took issue with those who would seek to use the power of government to curb what many others on the panel saw as a debasement of personal behavior and of the content of movies, television and music.

Instead, he argued, government should avoid regulating individual behavior as long as they are not "stealing their wallets or burning their houses down."

Chavez also addressed the role of religion in American life: "Most conservatives, it is safe to say, also believe that morality is difficult, if not impossible, without religion -- that without God, everything is permitted."

Chavez and other supporters of a faith-centered morality were challenged on several fronts. Heather MacDonald, of the Manhattan Institute, argued that "it is possible to arrive at an expectation of a decent society where individuals treat each other with respect without starting from a deity. I believe it is possible to think in terms of certain nonreligious ideas of the Golden Rule of treating others how you would have yourself treated without necessarily pointing to a biblical vision."

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that "too often, at least in religiously conservative communities . . . there seems to be a concern that we must first of all get the whole culture converted to our theology before you can work for public good." Such a conversion is "not going to happen," he said, so that the question becomes: "How do you find a public grammar, a public language in order to work with people who actually agree with you on the policy but don't agree with you on the theology?"

The symposium also addressed the moral dimensions of poverty. Robert Woodson Sr., founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, challenged the gathering:

"Let's suppose that the nation totally embraced the conservative vision. How would it affect, in practical ways, the plight of the least of God's children?"

Liberals, Woodson said, look on poor people as "victims," while conservatives look on them as "aliens. . . . In order for people to participate in an economy, they require information, they require training, and conservatives seem to be less enthusiastic about coming close to poor people."

Pierre "Pete" du Pont, a member of the board of the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, said school choice and vouchers are conservative policies that address Woodson's question. "If you gave them the opportunity to go to a school of their choice and opened the market up to creating those schools, there's a practical thing that you could do that would help the lower-income and the disadvantaged people in the country, and it would be individualism as opposed to the collectivism of the education system."

Norquist contended that by eliminating liberal interventionist policies, conservatives will help poor people:

"The government has come in and said, since you're not responsible, we're going to take over control of your life," he said. "Everywhere the government has gotten involved helping the least among us . . . they've done tremendous damage to them. The state has an awful lot of blood on its hands, and most of it's poor people."

A second vexing issue for conservatives -- Bush's activist and interventionist foreign policy -- was raised in the written essays but not in the public discussion. Scott McConnell, executive editor of the American Conservative, attacked Bush's "wildly ambitious foreign policy vision . . . which holds that America can only be secure in a democratic world and so we must challenge much of the world, even threaten to invade it. Conservative foundations ought to be at the forefront of challenging these ideas and fighting against them."

James Piereson, executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, suggested that Bush has already addressed and dealt with the issues raised by McConnell. "These questions are being answered as we speak by a conservative president who has advanced precisely such an active and energetic agenda -- and one breathtakingly so in foreign affairs," he said.


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