Sunday, October 16, 2005

Whiney “Conservatives”

William Kristol says that conservatives are being “criminalized.”

The most effective conservative legislator of–oh–the last century or so, Congressman Tom DeLay, was indicted last month for allegedly violating Texas campaign finance laws, and has vacated his position as House majority leader. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, is under investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for his sale of stock in the medical company his family started.

White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby have been under investigation by a special federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, for more than two years. When appointed in 2003 by the Bush Justice Department, Fitzgerald’s mandate was to find out if the leaking to reporters of the identity of a CIA employee, Valerie Plame, was a violation of a 1982 statute known as the Philip Agee law, and if so, who violated it. It now seems clear that Rove and Libby are the main targets of the prosecutor, and that both are in imminent danger of indictment.

What do these four men have in common, other than their status as prosecutorial targets? Since 2001, they have been among the most prominent promoters of the conservative agenda of the Bush administration. For over four years, they have helped two strong conservatives, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, successfully advance an agenda for change in America. To the extent these four are sidelined, there is a real chance that the Bush-Cheney administration will become less successful.


Why are conservative Republicans, who control the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time in living memory, so vulnerable to the phenomenon of criminalization? Is it simple payback for the impeachment of Bill Clinton? Or is it a reflection of some deep malady at the heart of American politics? If criminalization is seen to loom ahead for every conservative who begins successfully to act out his or her beliefs in government or politics, is the project of conservative reform sustainable?

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, or a solid answer even to one of these questions. But it’s a reasonable bet that the fall of 2005 will be remembered as a time when it became clear that a comprehensive strategy of criminalization had been implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives who seek to govern as conservatives. And it is clear that thinking through a response to this challenge is a task conservatives can no longer postpone.

In the first place, I don’t accept the premise that the people Mr. Kristol lists are conservatives; certainly not in the mold of the conservatives of the last century that I remember such as Robert Taft or Barry Goldwater, or even, in some ways, Ronald Reagan. The late Senator Goldwater, certainly one of the most emblematic conservatives of modern history, would have disavowed the budget-busting and war-mongering of the present administration, and he would have looked on the alliance with the Christian Coalition with deep suspicion. (One of his most noteworthy quotes was when Jerry Falwell said that Christians should be “deeply concerned” over the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981, Goldwater replied that Christians should “kick Jerry Falwell in the ass.”) The definition of “conservative” back then was for states’ rights, fiscal responsibility, smaller and more efficient government, individual liberties, and a strong and well-managed military. So far, Mr. Kristol’s idols have failed to deliver on all of those counts.

To whimper about “criminalization” belies another bedrock conservative belief: personal responsibility. You do what you believe is right (pun intended) and take your lumps fairly or not and shoulder on. To whine about being demonized is a cop-out on the scale of Hillary Clinton complaining about the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” (In her case it may have been true, but her pointing it out was a cop-out that earned nothing but scorn from the right and dismay from her supporters.) All of the problems that the Republicans face today are self-inflicted wounds, and to complain about being busted for them is reminiscent of Homer Simpson: “Honestly, Marge! I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known I’d get caught!”