Bush: Our best bet
By W. James Antle III
The Republican National Convention aggravated the same dichotomy within this writer as the rest of George W. Bush's presidential campaign since he vanquished John McCain a few months ago. My conservative curmudgeonly side hated it; the side of me that likes to win rejoiced in it.
It would be my preference to have a candidate that would say, "Bill Clinton and Al Gore promised to end the era of big government. They didn't. We will." This dream candidate would then proceed to outline an ambitious conservative agenda that involved shutting down 9 of the 14 Cabinet departments, cutting the federal budget in half and moving against the graduated income tax. Instead, Republicans have nominated a man who supports the Department of Education and wants to expand social spending. As Michael Kinsely recently noted in a Washington Post column, Bush has a Democrat-like laundry list of proposals for the federal government to spend money on health care, education and even the building of wheelchair ramps.
William F. Buckley Jr. once described conservatism as "the politics of reality," and the unfortunately reality is that the American people have been successfully wooed by the seductions of the welfare state. While Bill Clinton's appetite for expanding the power and size of the federal leviathan was contained by budget deficits for most of his presidency, Al Gore would govern in a climate of burgeoning surpluses. Gore plans to use these surpluses to grow government well beyond its present size, possibly to the levels of Europe's "Third Way" welfare states. His victory would likely yield a Democratic majority in the House and reduce the Republicans' Senate majority to the point that the GOP's biggest squishes would become pivotal.
Republicans, for all their faults, have put the brake on some of Clinton's worst policies, ranging from his national health plan in 1993 to his draconian gun laws in the wake of the Colombine shootings. The party's leadership, haunted by the ghost of Newt Gingrich and the debacle of impeachment, may be deal-making and dissembling. But its control of Congress gives influence to many principled conservatives within its ranks, ranging from Sens. John Ashcroft and Rick Santorum to Reps. Roscoe Bartlett and Ron Paul.
Bill Clinton may adhere to liberalism's view of government, but he is a man possessed of ambition and thus leavened by pragmatism. Al Gore is a man with a messianic view of government in the throes of radical environmentalism, which is far scarier. He truly seems to believe limitless government can save the world. His election would have far-reaching consequences.
These are the people who bring about raids by government bureaucrats, resulting in the loss of freedom by Elian Gonzales and a loss of life in Waco. They are steeped in hostility toward free-market capitalism even as they profit from their corporate connections, contempt for traditionalists and their values, a loathing of gun ownership and the tendency to demonize those with the "greed" to want to keep what they earn. The people who support Hillary Clinton, and spat at NYPD color guard while calling them Nazis, are the people who support Al Gore.
Gov. Bush is mushy, but free of the above characteristics. If his administration is replete with missed opportunities and dashed hopes for conservatives, it will not be a fanatical crusade for a progressive elite that believes it knows best and wishes to remake America in its image. While his feel-good proposals may be are ill-conceived at best and unconstitutional at worst, they are much less dangerous than Gore's.
Nor has Bush thrown in the towel on everything. His proposal to reduce taxes may be small potatoes by my lights, but it is probably the most ambitious tax-cut proposal that can pass in the present political climate. By lowering marginal rates, Bush's tax cut would expand investment incentives and spur economic growth. He is the first Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater to challenge the status quo on Social Security, with a partial privatization proposal that has the potential to revolutionize politics as Americans derive more retirement income from the free market than the welfare state. His missile defense program would contribute to a more secure America.
Unconscionable Clinton vetoes will become law: The lifting of the marriage penalty, the rollback of the tax system's bias against savings, the partial-birth abortion ban. The specter of a Supreme Court dominated by the likes of Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and lower courts comprised chiefly of judges to their left will be averted. A Bush presidency may not restore the Constitution, but it will put a few more judges like Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on the bench. It is at least a plausible opportunity for such jurists to become a majority of the Supreme Court.
The case for Bush would be easier to make if there weren't purer, more principled conservative alternatives. Pat Buchanan is right that on issues from bilingual education to Kosovo, Bush and Gore are "carbon copies." But even Buchanan would have to grant that four years of Gore would be very different from four years under Bush just as he was willing to work for Richard Nixon despite his even greater offenses against conservative and constitutional principle, and was willing to endorse George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole over Bill Clinton.
Buchanan presides over a fractured and ineffective Reform Party that may prove to be more of a detriment to his presidential run than a vehicle for it. Venal aides to party fonder Ross Perot, acting with or without his knowledge, are doing everything possible to prevent the Reform Party from uniting around its likely nominee. They have succeeded thus far in chasing everyone from the party but themselves by making their lives a living hell, and are in the process of doing the same to Buchanan and his supporters. They may even be able to tie up the $12.6 million of federal funds the party's nominee is supposed to receive in court through the November elections. Buchanan will not be able to launch an effective presidential bid.
Howard Phillips is a deeply principled conservative activist running on what largely would constitute my dream platform: Rescinding the income tax and the Federal Reserve, dramatically slashing federal spending, asserting American interests in the Panama Canal while wisely opposing US involvement in foreign wars that are none of our business. He is laboring to bring constitutionalism back to the public debate and build a party he hope will replace the Republicans if (in his view when) they completely abandon conservatism. Admirable though this is, his tiny party and poorly financed campaign can do nothing to stop Gore in this election cycle. The great must not be the enemy of the pretty good, when faced with the specter of the truly awful.
Conservatives should eschew the powerful temptation to support the Buchanans, Phillips and Harry Brownes in this election cycle and focus on preventing Democratic consolidation of power in Washington. Bush can win and should be given a chance. It is not a violation of conservative principles to settle for an imperfect candidate to avoid another candidate from having the opportunity to do great harm, especially when that candidate opposing is Al Gore, a staunch opponent of nearly everything sincere conservatives believe in.
Bush is much like the Republican Party he leads: Frustrating, maddening, often on the wrong side, yet also vastly preferable to the alternative, at times quite right on the issues and capable of accomplishing a great deal. Like the larger GOP, Bush can at once be seen as a symbol of what's wrong with politics today and a reminder of what is still right. He merits our support, though not uncritically and not unconditionally. For if Bush falters, the conservative third parties will still be there in 2004 and the arguments of Buchanan, Phillips and Browne will be far stronger.
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