Slowly going where?

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 27, 2000

Political movements are quite often fraught with division between totalists, who want to accomplish all the movement's goals right now and will settle for nothing less, and incrementalists, who favor a more step-by-step approach. Successful movements require elements of both.

Republican politicians frequently complain that too often "the far right" has unrealistic, totalist expectations of them. Of course the GOP is in sympathy with many of these right-wingers' goals, but politics is the art of the possible. These righties, so the argument goes, fail to appreciate the value of incrementalism.

I'm not opposed to incrementalism - really. I consider myself to be more of an incrementalist myself. I fully understand that it took decades to grow government to its present size, to subvert traditional cultural norms and social institutions and to reap the attendant consequences of these actions. A depression coupled with a world war, followed by the Soviet threat, was required to render the Constitution essentially a dead letter. It likely will take decades to reverse all of this and possibly a major catastrophe to consummate its reversal. I just happen to think that conservative Republicans often go about incrementalism in the wrong way.

Too often, conservative incrementalists confuse a slower implementation of liberal policy goals with an incremental approach to our own objectives. This includes growing government more slowly, coming up with clever "market-based" alternatives to liberal proposals, accepting the programs liberals want but refusing to spend as much money on them as the liberals would, etc. This is not really a conservative incrementalism, but a sort of halting, unintentional liberal incrementalism. If the step by step approach, followed to its logical progression, is likely to conclude with precisely the opposite of what we want, it is not an approach we should be supporting.

Both the lack of seriousness and political consequences of this approach can be illustrated no better than in examining abortion and judical appointments. Republican presidential campaigns typically back away from making opposition to abortion - or more precisely, the conviction that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided - a "litmus test" for judicial appointments. Putting aside for a moment the fact that support for Roe v. Wade means that the Constitution itself isn't going to be a litmus test for one's judicial rulings, it at first seems reasonable to not exclude competent people from the federal bench on the basis of one issue.

Until the following is taken into account: In the administration of any Democrat likely to be nominated by their party to the presidency, including Al Gore, there is little chance that a pro-life jurist will receive a federal judicial appointment and absolutely no chance that a single person who would overturn Roe v. Wade will receive a judgeship. The days of Byron White are over. Barring the uncontrollable circumstance of post-appointment conversion, the only opportunity to place people on the bench who would reverse Roe is during Republican administrations.

Yet Republicans appoint federal judges who both favor and oppose Roe. For example, Ronald Reagan promoted William Renquhist, an anti-Roe Nixon appointee, to chief justice and also put anti-Roe Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. But Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor both voted in 1992 to uphold the essence of Roe. George Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, who opposes Roe, and also David Souter, despite warnings from such estimable conservative activists as Paul Weyrich and Howard Phillips that he was pro-abortion. Conservative objectives include restoring legal protection to the unborn child and removing legal sanction from a culture that kills them at the rate of 1.5 million per year as well as reigning in the judiciary and restoring the rule of law; there is no way the past approach, which George W. Bush pledges to continue, can be reasonably expected to advance any of these.

Democrats put people who favor abortion and the idea that the judiciary should make the law on the court. Republicans don't expect any better from them, which is why only a a handful of them dared oppose openly pro-abortion Supreme Court nominees Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - they knew from Bill Clinton's lower court appointees they would not get anybody who was better on the abortion issue, and could quite conceivably get someone much worse all around. Yet that does not embolden them to select serious constitutionalists when it is their turn to pick the judges.

A jurist's opinion of Roe has ramifications for far more than the crucial abortion issue - it is emblematic of that jurist's position on the role of the judiciary and the rule of law. The Supreme Court's anti-Roe justices, Renqhist, Scalia and Thomas, consistently base their decisions on the written law. The remainder subordinate the written law to their political vision and opinions - with Justices O'Connor and Kennedy differing only from Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter in generally having more sensible opinions. You don't have to agree with a totalist like former Regent University Law School Dean Herb Titus, who believes a conservative president should simply renounce unconstitutional decisions like Roe and proceed in disregard of them (in this case by instructing US attorneys to prosecute abortionists) to realize that this brand of Republican incrementalism isn't ultimately going to take us where most conservatives would like to go.

Conservatives too often pride themselves on making the implementation of the liberal agenda as slow and painful as possible, rather than stopping it cold or reversing it. Indeed, the American right has been more effective at blocking the left than most of its Western European and Canadian counterparts. But the ultimate test of any conservative politics is whether it actually stands a chance of conserving anything.

Anything, that is, besides the gains of the last generation's left.

W. James Antle III has worked for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based politcal consulting firm. You can e-mail him at

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