Republicans, I suspect, are going to be drubbed this election year, but not because they gave the country more conservatism than it needed. A major reason is that they betrayed conservatism and let themselves be outwitted by their endlessly mistaken liberal opponents.
The left is arguing differently, maintaining that the right’s ideas were inadequate for this (or any other) era and that a heavy dose of these ideas persuaded significant portions of the Republican coalition to seek rescue in liberal truths.
The conservative ideas were and are good ones, though, and helped propel Republicans to control of Congress in the 1994 elections. I went to Washington as a journalist the next year, and vividly recall the GOP enthusiasm for austerity and bringing the country to a more robust reliance on the states and self instead of on a paternalistic, overly interventionist, fumbling, bloated central government.
But, to use the passive voice that politicians revert to when they get caught letting their ambitions override their ideals, mistakes were made. The list is long, but not the least of them was spending like there was no tomorrow. The Bush administration would additionally and successfully push for big-government measures and forget certain vital constitutional prohibitions, as in jailing Americans without due process.
The failings — and there were many — were often as inexcusable as they were politically devastating, but not always so grievous as they were made to sound by Democratic propaganda and a compliant press. President Bush lied us into war, we were told, only he didn’t — the claims he made about weapons of mass destruction were made earlier by President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, by liberal senators during debate on the war resolution and by the best intelligence agencies in the world.
We were repeatedly informed that President Bush’s tax cuts were "for the rich" and had eviscerated revenues, when, in fact, it was the middle class that profited most. Revenues have mostly been above historical averages.
Even before the current downturn and after the last recession (which began while Clinton was president), the Democrats and many reporters told us how badly the economy was performing, though inflation remained next to nonexistent, growth was healthy and unemployment at historic lows.
It was said the middle class was shrinking, but it wasn’t; the middle class was getting richer by the day. It was said income was stagnant, but it wasn’t; per capita income was rising as most people progressed steadily in their circumstances.
The Democrats’ chief domestic purpose today is to give us a health insurance entitlement even as they neglect restructuring a Medicare entitlement that could sink us, and even though there are solutions to health insurance issues that would cost little. The party would edge us ever closer to the kind of welfare state an economically threatened Europe is now seeking to flee. The presumptive Democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama, spouts naive nonsense in the place of sound strategy for dealing with radical Islam, and could easily bring deadly disaster on our heads.
The overriding conservative principle is the maintenance of liberty in a constitutionally ordered democracy. Its achievement in any meaningful sense is only possible by seriously limiting a government that would substitute its coercive authority for our free will, our consciences, our individuality, all the things that ultimately make us human. An inseparable part of that liberty is a free-market economic system, without which opportunity, entrepreneurial innovation and prosperity are caged, and with which the left has a lasting quarrel.
If Democratic power increases as much as now appears likely, the party will almost surely go much further than the Republicans in waltzing away from liberty, the chief political foundation of our strength and energy. Their own excesses may bring the Democrats to political ruin as well, though perhaps not until vast damage has been done.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)