Editors Note: According to many political analysts, George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 because his party had the superior values.” I’ve been wondering lately what these values are, aside from hating sex and loving the rich. With the indictments of Tom Delay and Scooter Libby, the resignation of corrupt Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), the outing of Valerie Plame, the investigations of Bill Frist and the myriad problems that are likely to result from GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea, I think we’re finally getting an idea what right-wing values involve. And, if the polls are to be believed, even the ever-gullible American people may be beginning to realize their president isn’t the straight-shooter they once thought he was.


What Do Conservatives Believe?

 

Harriet Miers’ abortive Supreme Court run in 2005 provided an unusual scenario — that rare moment when conservatives broke Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.” During that dustup, even the GOP’s far-right majority seemed a bit confused philosophically.

But disharmony has been around since as early as 1988, when the Bush I campaign coined the slogan “kinder, gentler” to differentiate itself from the Reagan administration. Some Reaganites complained that this implied a lack of these qualities on the right, while other Republicans wondered aloud what “kind” and “gentle” had to do with conservatism in the first place.

Twelve years later, the Bush II campaign dreamed up the oxymoron “compassionate conservatism.” Liberals were understandably skeptical; however, in some areas, the Bush administration has actually exhibited more compassion than many traditional right-wingers would like to see. For example, W has pledged billions to combat AIDS in Africa, whereas Reagan was famously averse to even saying the word aloud during a raging domestic epidemic.

Columnist George Will has observed that conservatism is about competence, not compassion, but competence has now become part of the problem. Conservatives have always believed that government can’t do things right, and the Bush administration has endeavored to prove it, even mucking up those things Americans expect Republicans to be good at, such as securing our borders, dealing with natural disasters and winning wars.

Conservatives once favored limiting government, but Mr. Bush has extended its scope in every direction. Many of the Republicans who objected when President Clinton began policing the Balkans are now evangelical about exporting democracy to Iraq. Meanwhile, conservative sage William F. Buckley has expressed some dismay at the neocons’ passion for nation building, which Bush explicitly campaigned against in 2000.

During the 1980s, Reagan campaigned on eliminating the Dept. of Education. In contrast, Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative has vastly expanded federal involvement in local classrooms. Even that staunchest of red states, Utah, has complained that Washington is overstepping its authority.

When Clinton proclaimed the “era of big government” over, conservatives scoffed. They didn’t believe the messenger, but during the Bush Era, they’ve completely lost faith in the message. With expanding bureaucracies and burgeoning budgets, Mr. Bush has created the biggest government in American history. He’s become the FDR for the new millennium.

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatism has gone the way of the Betamax. During the Reagan years, GOP deficit hawks at least pretended that his enormous debts were caused by “big-spending liberals.” Now, without a Democratic Congress to blame, Mr. Bush’s huge deficits merely arouse his enthusiasm for future revenue reductions, including bloating the national debt by eliminating the estate tax for multimillionaires.

But conservatives have most conspicuously forsaken their traditional values in the area of libertarianism. Firmly in the pocket of the Religious Right, they’ve become fanatical about the intrusive “family values” — particularly state intervention in reproduction and hostility toward homosexuals — that play so well in the Red States. This includes using the FDA to limit access to Plan B morning-after contraceptives, an action that will simultaneously increase unwanted pregnancies and delight right-wing Christians.

Socially conservative Republicans have also abandoned their historical support for federalism. Apparently believing that Californians shouldn’t be making medical decisions without guidance from Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked the Sacramento legislature’s legalization of medical marijuana with a missionary’s fervor.

Ashcroft’s successor, Alberto Gonzalez, has targeted doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. Despite fierce opposition from the meddlers in the Bush Justice Dept., this initiative has twice been approved by Oregon’s voters. Here, one might have hoped conservatives would have opted for a libertarian position, since this topic doesn’t engage their reflexive Puritanism regarding sex and drugs.

And with the state interfering in so many aspects of our lives, you’d think people who claim to want government off our backs would oppose increased federal involvement in end-of-life decisions. However, as the Terri Schiavo case demonstrated, fundamentalist anti-libertarians believe that knowing the mind of God gives them the right to play God and to deny that right to the rest of us. This, combined with their desire to dictate the start of life by limiting contraception and forcing women to have children they don’t want, has turned Republicans into cradle-to-grave busybodies.

So, realistically, what do modern conservatives stand for, beyond the traditional Republican support for big business and the wealthy, and slavish kowtowing to the Religious Right? In practice, it’s exploiting the power they’ve worked so hard to acquire.

As a Baptist, in my youth, I was taught that sect’s five fundamental tenets. After being persecuted by the dominant, state-aligned Christian denominations in Europe, Baptists adopted the separation of church and state as one of its foundational precepts. Nowadays, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the country’s largest and most-solidly Republican constituencies, barely pays lip service to this doctrine. In the South, where it’s become overwhelmingly powerful, the SBC is one of the region’s most-intrusive and overbearing institutions.

Believing the ends justify the means, many organizations disregard their core principles in order to gain power. Like the Baptists, conservatives seem to have jettisoned many of their values once that power was attained. Even in this new millennium, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


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