For almost two decades, first President Ronald Reagan and then the congressional “Class of 1994” slashed at the socialist bureaucracy of the New Deal and Great Society. Taxes were cut and welfare was reformed. The culture of malaise was turned back by “Morning in America.”
But thirteen years after the “Contract with America,” many ask where have all the leaders gone?
They didn’t disappear magically. It was a gradual process. Some were removed physically by the Clinton impeachment trial. Others were sidetracked psychologically by the war.
The 1998 Clinton impeachment trial also claimed two Republican speakers of the House: Newt Gingrich and then (before taking office) his chosen successor Bob Livingston. Gingrich stepped aside after GOP congressional seats slipped in the 1998 elections. Both he and Livingston had extramarital affairs. No matter how loudly one protested that Clinton’s impeachment was about perjury and not sex, in the political environment of the time an affair was enough to run them both out of office.
Others from the Party of Ideas departed Congress for careers in broadcast media — jobs where new ideas are more easily welcomed, but less meaningful when expressed.
Conservatives little noted the ways their movement was being transformed by the impeachment process. It was more than blowback on wayward congressmen. GOP presidential candidate Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is in some ways the creation of or reaction to Bill Clinton. The most direct example would be the ascent of Lt. Governor Huckabee to the Governor’s mansion after Clinton protégé Governor Jim Guy Tucker headed off to prison on corruption charges.
Huckabee’s religiosity is an electoral reaction to Clinton’s flagrancy. But in a Republican primary season marked by constant criticism of candidates’ conservative credentials, one of Huck’s toughest campaign hits was also Clinton-related. In 1999 Huckabee chose to release rapist Wayne Dumond from an Arkansas prison. The release came after a ten-year campaign by Huckabee’s close friend, Fayetteville Baptist minister and talk show host Jay Cole.
Dumond’s victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton and her parents were Clinton Arkansas insiders. Among the wilder conspiracy theories of the Clinton years was the claim, in June 1996, that Dumond was both framed and castrated by Clinton cronies. After hearing stories like that, one might want to see a minister — or elect one. After years of Clinton perversion and corruption, many of Huckabee’s 1000-plus pardons came on the recommendation of Arkansas ministers.
The Dumond story was repeated in the New York Post in March 2000. The Village Voice ran with the story in March 2001. But Dumond was not framed. In 2000, the newly freed Dumond raped and murdered 23-year-old Parkville, MO, resident Carol Sue Shields.
Six months after the Village Voice article came the 9/11 attacks. America launched the global war on terror. American troops were taking the fight to the Islamist head-choppers in Afghanistan, and then later Iraq. It was hard to resist calls for massive spending on homeland security — much of which was pork for local first responders. Even as the federal dollars flowed, border security continued to suffer. It became difficult to marshal the attention of the body politic for the unfinished business of school vouchers, social security reform, heath care savings accounts, or establishing a color-blind society.
Iraq and Afghanistan are the first wars in which expensive — but accurate — smart bombs are the norm. Al-Qaeda’s constant violations of international law — and Iran and Syria’s steady supply of ever more sophisticated IEDs — forced a re-think of tactics. Humvees were armor plated, body armor was upgraded, and new vehicles were introduced.
As war costs soared, it became easier to slip in a million here or a million there for the home district. President Bush slipped in a lot more than that when he added “Part D” prescription benefits for Medicare. It didn’t do Republicans a bit of good on election day.
The Reagan coalition stands on three legs: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and national defense. Ronald Reagan and then the Class of 1994 kept them evenly balanced. Impeachment shifted the stool in favor of social conservatism. The war on terror — or more accurately, the Democrats’ treachery — has shifted the stool in favor of national defense. Fiscal conservatism has suffered.
By 2004 conservatives knew John “Winter Soldier” Kerry had to be stopped by any means necessary. The “fiscal” side of the conservative coalition continued to fade as if part of some master plan. After Osama bin Laden effectively endorsed Kerry on election eve, it was difficult to think of anything else. As America approaches the 2008 elections, bin Laden, joined by Castro, has already voiced his enthusiasm for Clinton and Obama.
John McCain’s strength lies in national defense. In many ways his candidacy is as much a reaction to the Democrats surrender-mongering as Huckabee’s was to Clinton’s peccadilloes.
Thanks to the success of the “surge,” and the national security weakness of the two remaining Democratic presidential contenders, there can be a Republican presidential victory this fall. If conservatives were having this conversation a year ago instead of finding fault and pointing fingers, there could also have been the possibility of GOP gains in the House and Senate.
Criticism has been conservative voters’ reaction to the entire GOP presidential field. But criticism is not leadership. Neither is defense against criticism. Reagan had his shortcomings, as did Gingrich — but Reagan made America proud again after the Democrats gave us defeat in Vietnam and they both turned America away from the socialist course Democrats had charted since 1932.
Republicans pay a price for failure to attend to the entire coalition. In the absence of balanced, three-legged conservative leadership, immigration issues were carefully manipulated by Democrats to exploit the imbalance. To be successful, conservatives must stay on the full message and define their own movement rather than allowing their reaction to Democrats to define it.
That job is not finished. Every election presents an opportunity for conservative candidates to refocus the conservative movement on the vision of America’s exceptional greatness — past, present, and future. It is time for Republican candidates — presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial — to once again find that voice.
Andrew Walden is Editor of the Hawai`i Free Press in Hilo, HI and may be reached at [email protected]