Bush, McCain... and Keyes?

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 6, 2000

The race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination is certainly getting ugly, as its conclusion will largely be determined on Tuesday.

Sen. McCain implies that Gov. Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot for his visit to Bob Jones University (a school once attended by Billy Graham that has heard speeches from numerous elected officials of both parties including President Ronald Reagan). Bush surrogates call Sen. McCain's campaign co-chairman Warren Rudman, the former senator from New Hampshire, “a vicious bigot” for calling evangelical Christians “latter-day Elmer Gantrys.” McCain calls Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” and “forces of evil” for their opposition, and then retracts the latter statement upon supporter Gary Bauer's request.

It has been said that the extent of media-generated controversy in politics is often inversely proportional to the stakes involved, and this is no exception. Both Bush and McCain are one on the issues of multiculturalism, bilingualism, immigration policy and racial preferences - with little, if any, real substantive disagreement with Al Gore or Bill Bradley. Both see free trade less in terms of removing tariffs and barriers than in terms of regulation via complicated agreements and international bureaucracies like the WTO. They both agree that the current size and scope of the federal government is largely acceptable, with McCain admirably favoring a little less pork and largess for the well-heeled and with Bush at least acknowledging that the surplus shouldn't be spent. They agree on abortion both in theory (opposed except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life) and fact (opposed to doing anything about it, with the notable exception of signing the partial-birth abortion ban Bill Clinton has twice vetoed). They both see the US military as policeman of the world, with only moderately more restraint than is currently being exercised.

Bush is simply running as the water-carrier for the corporate contributors to the Republican establishment, while McCain is massaging the media by railing against these interests. This leads occasionally to conservative stands by both men - Bush opposes McCain's statist, unconstitutional campaign-finance measures which would cripple the Republican establishment while McCain is the more consistent opponent of corporate welfare. Bush would reduce marginal tax rates across the board, in a fair and consistent manner, while McCain would pay down the national debt. Both are defensible on conservative grounds, though one may wonder how well either will sell politically amidst a 4 percent annual growth rate. But neither candidate seems particularly motivated by a philosophical commitment to the Founding Fathers' vision of self-government; both, in fact, seem to have made peace with the 20th-century dogma of the autonomous state.

Lagging behind these two men on the periphery of the presidential campaign is former Ambassador Alan Keyes. He is almost an afterthought, certainly in most press coverage. Yet it is Keyes who demonstrates the most complete understanding of the American Republic's founding principles and displays the philosophical consistency which flows therefrom.

Bush justifies his tax-cut proposals by pointing out that federal revenues are the people's money, yet only Keyes would remove the government's preemptive claim to the people's money by abolishing the income tax. McCain says political speech and fundraising must be restricted to prevent people from abusing the system to extract favors from the government; Keyes instead proposes rolling back government to remove much of its favor-giving capacity.

Bush and McCain favor and oppose government action on the basis of what they see as the merits, occasionally judged by the consequences of these actions but usually by their political ramifications. Alan Keyes sees the legitimacy of government as derived from the consent of the governed, for securing the natural rights of the people and conducting policies consistent with those rights. That sounds an awful lot like the Founders.

Keyes' entire presidential campaign is a forcefully eloquent restatement of the American creed, as proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence - which the former Reagan administration official calls “the bridge between the Bible and the Constitution.” By restating the Declaration's self-evident truths Keyes hopes “to maintain and strengthen the moral and institutional foundations of political liberty,” the task of modern American conservatism.

Some say Keyes is a self-promoter who runs for office to improve his speaking fees (which reportedly more than tripled since his ill-fated 1996 bid) and advance his radio talk show (which was broadcast in only five cities before the 1996 campaign, compared to 75 today). Others charge him and his loyal band of his supporters with being delusional, inasmuch as in recent primaries he has drawn only 3 percent to 6 percent of the vote. Super Tuesday victories are likely to elude the Keyes campaign.

Yet Keyes' supporters are mainly Christians and conservatives. The men who hoped to reinvigorate modern American conservatism by founding National Review and participating in other ventures with William F. Buckley, Jr. nearly 50 years ago had no realistic chance of ever winning a national election either. Dwight Eisenhower wrested the Republican Party away from Robert Taft in 1952, Barry Goldwater carried only six states and received just 39 percent of the vote in 1964. Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Irving Babbit and Russell Kirk never aspired to hold the reigns of power: they simply hoped to keep the wisdom of their ancestors - our ancestors - alive and preserve a remnant of civilization. Similarly, the Bible commands Christians to be faithful to the truth and trust God to achieve victory, not themselves or their flawed human champions.

Perhaps this legacy of faithfulness is why Keyes' small band of followers remain true to him despite single-digit standing in the polls and a clear Bush-McCain race. They labor less on behalf of the messenger than the message they know to be true and would like to endorse with their votes, in the hope of keeping it alive.

Doesn't sound like a wasted vote to me.

W. James Antle III has worked for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm for Republican candidates, in which capacity he really did like winning. You can e-mail him at Jimantle@aol.com

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