By L. Brent Bozell
Sunday, March 9, 2008
The conservative talk-show community? Don't mind them -- they're irrelevant.
This message from John McCain surrogates and other members of the political class is filling the airwaves and op-ed pages. In the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes recently wrote that McCain needn't worry that conservatives are uncomfortable with his candidacy, because "while they love to grumble and grouse, conservatives tend to be loyal Republicans who wind up voting for their party's candidate."
In the same pages, novelist Mark Helprin, a former adviser to Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign, savaged conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin for daring to speak out against McCain. "Rather than playing recklessly with electoral politics by sabotaging their own party," he wrote, "each of these compulsive talkers might be a tad less self-righteous, look to the long run, discipline himself, suck it up, and be a man."
I know the conservative movement. I've been in the trenches fighting for an alphabet soup of conservative causes for 30 years. I've raised hundreds of millions of dollars for it. And I earnestly hope that McCain isn't listening to the advice he's getting from these folks. Their thinking betrays a fundamental misreading of the conservative pulse in America today.
Conservative leaders, particularly those in talk radio, cannot and will not be silent. They will not betray their principles and their audiences. Tens of millions of activists turn to them for guidance. These activists could be, and need to be, McCain's ground troops, but unless and until conservatives believe him -- and believe in him -- they will not work for his election. McCain may have the Beltway crowd in his corner, but grass-roots conservatives aren't sold.
Yet through his surrogates, McCain is attacking these leaders. This is beyond folly. It is political suicide.
For 20 years, the moderate establishment of the Republican Party has told conservatives to sit down, shut up and do as we're told. History shows that sometimes we bite the bullet. But not always. I absolutely guarantee that this year we cannot be taken for granted. This is a movement fed up with betrayals, and they've come one after the other.
Think back to 1988. Plenty of qualified conservatives -- Pete du Pont, Rep. Jack Kemp and Sen. Paul Laxalt, Pat Robertson (for evangelicals, anyway) -- were prepared to succeed President Ronald Reagan, but the GOP establishment, along with the professional political class, rallied around Vice President George H.W. Bush, an unthinkable proposition for conservatives just eight years earlier. After a listless campaign start, Bush finally energized the conservative base with his "No new taxes!" pledge at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. We carried him to victory that November.
Within two years, he'd broken his promise and delivered one of the largest tax increases in history. His 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, which pleased conservatives, had been preemptively neutralized by his selection of the liberal David H. Souter in 1990. After brilliantly executing the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he squandered a 91 percent approval rating. He did nothing to advance the conservative cause. He did not cut taxes. He did not rein in federal spending and regulation. He did nothing for social and cultural issues.
By 1992, we who had dined at the table of Ronald Reagan had been banished to the GOP kitchen. As the National Review editorialized at the time, establishment Republicans "took conservative support for granted, reasoning from the dogma of the two-party system that disaffected conservatives had 'nowhere else to go.' " They were wrong. Some of us turned to Pat Buchanan, who disrupted the primary season. Others turned to independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who led the field until he imploded. Still others simply stayed home, and that November, Bush was soundly defeated by Bill Clinton.
Two years later, the "Contract With America" reversed the GOP's fortunes. With a reignited conservative base, Republicans captured both houses of Congress. But in the face of a liberal counterattack led by the national news media -- Time magazine's cover on Dec. 19, 1994, portrayed a snarling Newt Gingrich as Uncle Scrooge, and the cover of Newsweek's year-end double issue depicted a Dr. Seuss-esque cartoon of the House speaker smiling devilishly beside the headline "How the Gingrich Stole Christmas" -- Republican resistance crumbled. The Contract was abandoned, and overnight the Gingrich revolution was finished. We watched Republican "leaders" flee into the tall grass, whence they've never emerged.
In 1996, a new crop of conservative leaders presented themselves as presidential candidates, but again the party establishment would have none of Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Phil Gramm or Dan Quayle. Instead, they pooled their resources behind Dole, who offered nothing to energize the conservative base while the professional class confidently clucked that conservatives had "nowhere else to go." Again we stayed home. There was no enthusiasm for volunteer action. Again the moderate candidate was routed.
How disgruntled was the conservative base? Two years later, the GOP lost five seats in the House, the first time since 1822 that a party not in control of the White House had failed to gain seats in the midterm election of a president's second term.
But after eight years of Clinton's corruption, and facing the prospect of at least four more years with Al Gore at the helm, conservatives threw our support behind George W. Bush in 2000. He initially delivered by leading the charge in cutting taxes, and his political stature further increased when the nation rallied behind its commander in chief after Sept. 11, 2001. He won reelection in 2004 because conservatives stayed with him, delivering millions of volunteers committed to the defeat of Sen. John F. Kerry.
But any hopes that Bush would deliver on a conservative agenda in his second term evaporated almost immediately. We watched with growing fury as he and the GOP leadership promoted one liberal initiative after another. Finally, we openly rebelled, turning on the GOP over the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, amnesty for illegal immigrants and the Republicans' shameless abandonment of fiscal discipline. What was once a powerful alliance between the Republican Party and grass-roots conservatives had become a political bridge to nowhere. With the GOP facing the loss of Congress in 2006, we shrugged in indifference. The movement that had "nowhere else to go" had gone.
And it has not returned.
How important are conservatives to the GOP? This year's Republican primary debate was dominated by one question: Which candidate was most qualified to carry the flag of Ronald Reagan?
Ironically, the man who survived this intramural scrum is the one who arguably least qualifies as a Reagan conservative. He claims to be a champion of freedom but gave us McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform -- which, by limiting free speech during elections, is perhaps the greatest infringement ever on the First Amendment. He claims to be a champion of U.S. sovereignty but offered us the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill that would give millions of illegal immigrants the chance to become citizens; that's amnesty, no matter how much he denies it. He claims to be a champion of the unborn but has waffled in the past, supporting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. This year, he won the endorsement of Republicans for Choice. He claims to be a fiscal conservative who will make the Bush tax cuts permanent, but he also voted against them. These are serious issues.
What should McCain do? Saying he's not Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama will not be enough -- not this time. Repudiating positions that are anathema to conservatism won't be enough, either. The liberal base of the Democratic Party is on fire; he must bring an equal passion to the table with his conservative base. It is time for McCain to be Reagan.
This is what conservatives call on him to do:
McCain must present a strategy to defeat the threat of radical Islam. He needs to call on the United States to rebuild its military infrastructure, so devastated by the Clinton administration. He should secure our borders by a date certain. In every great struggle, the citizenry -- everyone, not just the country's military -- has been challenged to participate. McCain could make this the clarion call for volunteerism, for national service.
If McCain believes in freedom, he should promise to take the yoke off the American taxpayer. He has embraced making the Bush tax cuts permanent. Good. Now he should pledge to end the estate tax and lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. In fact, he should call for an overhaul of the tax system. The flat tax or the fair tax -- either is preferable to the monstrosity that is the Internal Revenue Service.
The federal government is out of control. Conservatives don't want to hear talk about "reining in the growth of government." Those are empty words. McCain needs to call for the elimination of entire sectors of the federal leviathan. He should pledge to turn back to the states that which is their responsibility and which comes under their authority. We want to see how he will deregulate the private sector and how he will once again unleash the economic might of the United States. He should champion private retirement accounts and health savings accounts.
McCain should place the left on notice -- now -- that if elected, he will not tolerate congressional obstructionism of his nominations to the federal judiciary.
Our culture is decaying from within, and most Republicans have been shamefully AWOL on this issue. McCain could begin a national conversation about parents, not the state, taking responsibility for their children and their communities. He should call on the entertainment industry to stop polluting America's youth with its videos and its music and on the Internet. We wait to hear him call for the United States to honor the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage and family, and to return God to the public square.
If McCain offers this kind of vision, Washington elitists will scoff. But he should remember that they also scoffed and dismissed Ronald Reagan, all the way to his election. And his reelection.
Brent Bozell is founder and president of the Media Research Center.