By Dick Polman, Knight Ridder Newspapers
(KRT) - In the beginning, the architects of conservatism proclaimed their antigovernment creed.
Barry Goldwater said in 1964, "I fear Washington and centralized government more than I do Moscow." Ronald Reagan said in 1975, "The basis of conservatism is a desire for less governmental interference, or less centralized authority." And Newt Gingrich vowed in 1994 that a Republican Congress would hasten "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive."
But today, as evidenced by the Republican Congress' intervention in the Terry Schiavo case, it's clear that the traditional conservative credo no longer guides the GOP. The core mission has radically changed during the Bush era. "Small government" and "state's rights" are out; wielding federal power to advance moral issues at the local level is in.
The GOP's federal action over the weekend, which took the case away from the local judge in Florida (a southern Baptist and Republican) who had ruled that Schiavo should be allowed to die in accordance with state law and previous state court rulings, is merely the latest manifestation of the new party credo. And there is currently a vociferous debate, within conservative circles, over whether this historic shift is a victory for morality - or a betrayal of the movement.
The dramatic congressional intervention was clearly unusual, but, given the new governing philosophy, it should not be viewed as a surprise. Working with President Bush (and the religious right, which wields clout in elections), the GOP Congress has assumed an activist role on social values, with millions of dollars earmarked for federal programs that are designed, among other things, to promote traditional marriage and teach sexual abstinence.
But it's the Republican-led response to the Schiavo case, the use of the federal government as an agent of moral values, that is sparking fervent dissent in conservative ranks. The dissenters believe that the ruling GOP has betrayed the traditional conservative respect for local control and the rule of law. (The local judge, aided by outside experts, had ruled in favor of husband Michael Schiavo's desire to let Terry die; but House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said the other day, "I don't care what her husband says.")
Ryan Sager, a conservative commentator, said Tuesday that "the national Republican party has been corrupted by power, and has forgotten what used to be its beliefs," and that the GOP was guilty of "hypocrisy" for flexing federal muscle just like the Democrats whom they had always condemned.
Jim Pinkerton, a conservative thinker and ex-Republican operative, lamented Tuesday that "the social-issue core of the newly energized, southernized, and Christianized Republican party cares a lot more about its faith and its values than about the old verity of small government."
Meanwhile, on a conservative Web site, law professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University argued Tuesday that the GOP action "creates a terrible precedent for ad hoc federal interference" in the numerous life-and-death cases that are typically decided by local courts. (Last weekend, some conservative legal scholars urged the Republicans not to intervene, but they were spurned.)
Marshall Wittmann, a centrist Democratic scholar who previously worked in various conservative venues (as a Christian Coalition lobbyist, a Heritage Foundation think tank fellow, and as an aide to Arizona Sen. John McCain), said Tuesday that the overhaul of conservatism can be traced to several factors:
"Conservatives have become intoxicated with power. It's easy to talk about `limited government' when you're out of power. But now that their appetites have been whetted, now that they have gained control of the leviathan state, they have found it to their liking, so they have tossed principles aside."
Also, he said, the balance of power within the GOP coalition has shifted. The business folks are as strong as ever. But the limited-government conservatives (who eschewed moral issues and stressed balanced budgets) don't wield the same clout that they enjoyed just 10 years ago; essentially, said Wittmann, they have been supplanted by the religious and social conservatives, "the most animated force within the Republican party today" - and a voting bloc that seeks a strong federal role in the promotion of morality.
Their power is self-evident. In the exit polls last November, roughly one-quarter of the electorate was comprised of white evangelicals and born-again Christians; among these voters, 78 percent chose Bush, 21 percent chose John Kerry. In the rest of the electorate, Kerry beat Bush, 56 to 43 percent.
Also, congressional Republicans, mindful that religious conservative voters will wield clout in the 2006 elections, may have seen a way to serve the bloc by jumping into the Schiavo controversy; witness the memo that billed her case as "a great political issue." (In response, some dissenters note that movement architect Barry Goldwater didn't like the religious right; in 1981, Goldwater said, "I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of `conservatism.'")
But defenders of the new conservative credo argue that core principles have not been dumped; they are merely being pursued in a new way. Rich Lowry, a conservative analyst, posted this argument online Tuesday: "If it is disorienting to see Republicans scrambling for federal intervention, at least they are acting on their deepest pro-life convictions ... preserving it is a paramount value."
Some analysts say that Ronald Reagan's small-government credo was a myth, anyway. Jack Pitney, an ex-Republican aide, noted Tuesday, "Reagan was going to reduce the federal government and cut some Cabinet departments. By the time he left office, he'd increased the government, and added a department."
But the Schiavo case is not a political winner; as reported in an ABC poll, 70 percent of Americans saw the GOP's intervention as inappropriate. Even evangelical Protestants, by 50 to 44 percent, opposed the move. GOP chairman Ken Mehlman said Tuesday that the party acted on principle, but Ryan Sager, the conservative dissenter, saw political danger in that principle, and a warning for the post-Reagan party.
He said, in an online posting: "Not a few people - especially boomers with aging parents - are going to see themselves in this (Schiavo) case, and they are going to picture Rep. DeLay in the hospital room with them, standing between them and their loved ones."
© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
From Knight-Ridder Newspapers: