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Right’s Wrong Turn

Mickey Edwards is a former member of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. He is also a former national chairman of the American Conservative Union and was a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. He now teaches at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

Forty years ago this November, Lyndon B. Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater in the Arizona senator’s bid for the presidency. But far from conceding defeat, Goldwater’s supporters saw the election as a mandate to build a reinvigorated national conservative movement aimed at changing America’s course.

How well that mission succeeded is a matter of considerable debate within the conservative political community today.

There is no question that the machinery put in place during Goldwater’s campaign endured, and that over time conservatives began to win elections. Ronald Reagan, who rose to national political prominence promoting Goldwater on network television, was helped into office by a later generation of that machine, and his presidency kicked off a quarter-century in which Republicans won four of six presidential elections.

Even after Democrat Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, conservatives continued to gain ground. Republicans -- conservatives, for the most part -- took control of both houses of Congress, and most states elected Republican governors. And the conservatives’ power extended beyond the boundary of the GOP. The word “liberal” became “the L-word,” a descriptor that candidates of both parties wished to avoid. Clinton moved aggressively rightward, proclaiming “an end to welfare as we know it,” bombing Iraq and frustrating Republicans by borrowing many of their ideas.

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On the electoral level, there is no doubt that Goldwater’s defeat has been avenged. Conservatives have come out on top and liberals are on the run. But to what end?

Clearly there are many ways in which today’s elected conservatives differ markedly from their liberal colleagues. They are more inclined to spend on national defense and less inclined to spend on domestic social programs. They support a more aggressive defense policy and back President Bush’s concept of preventive military operations in some cases. On issues such as these, it is clear that the election of conservatives has made a significant difference on many national policy decisions.

But on other matters, there are disturbing signs that conservatism has lost its way in the years since Goldwater argued that the most important question to ask of any public policy proposal was whether it maximized freedom.

Many of the Goldwater supporters who built the movement could best be described not as conservatives but as constitutionalists. Because of their focus on individual liberty, they could have been called liberals if the term had not already been captured by the political left.

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That emphasis on individual rights no longer seems to be the principal focus of conservatives. When voters in Oregon, for example, opted to permit physicians to help terminally ill patients speed their own deaths, conservatives in Congress rushed to pass a federal law that would supersede the state decision -- a shocking embrace of increased federal power -- and thus to insist, by federal order, that dying citizens must simply endure the agony of their final days. This was, indeed, a different sense of what American conservatism was all about.

A number of the political battles of the fledgling days of the conservative movement revolved around decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The “enemy” in those battles was “judicial activism,” judges who viewed the Constitution merely as a set of guidelines, the spirit of which was to be applied to contemporary situations.

On the other side -- the conservative side -- were the so-called strict constructionists, whose position was that the Constitution was made up not of guidelines but of rules, and that those rules established the acceptable limits of federal authority. It is perhaps an exaggeration, but not much of one, to assert that conservatives held the Founding Fathers (always capitalized) in an esteem that approached reverence. It was not the “spirit” of the Constitution, which was subject to considerable interpretation, but the actual wording of the Constitution that conservatives saw as controlling.

It is important to note that there has never been an occasion on which conservatives proposed to reconsider that perspective, or a time when that perspective was rejected. If one were to teach modern conservative political theory, as I have been doing for some years, one would have no cause to revise the course reading list to include either significant literature or public pronouncements in which conservatives embraced the left’s propensity for treating the Constitution as a set of flexible guideposts.

And yet, with little public debate about the fundamental question -- what is the role to be assigned to the Constitution in considering issues of public policy? -- modern conservatives have come increasingly to treat the Constitution as something far less than America’s founders intended.

The most recent, and most egregious, example of this changed perspective is found in the willingness of many conservatives, the president among them, to amend the Constitution to prohibit marriage between people of the same sex. This is not to argue in favor of such marriages; it is simply inappropriate for the Constitution to set rules for the granting of marriage licenses.

And that is not the only example of conservative attempts to undermine the Constitution. A group of Republican legislators is revisiting the possibility of a constitutional prohibition against the burning of the American flag. Such an act is widely and properly disapproved. But the Constitution’s purpose is to guarantee individual rights, not to foreclose them.

Thankfully, many prominent conservatives have joined in opposing a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, and some have opposed the flag-burning amendment. But a disturbingly large number supports both amendments.

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Some supporters of the same-sex marriage prohibition argue that whether or not gays and lesbians are permitted to marry is, in fact, a question so fundamental to the nature of our society that it is properly within the scope of constitutional delineation. Yet the Constitution’s authors took up precisely such an issue when they considered whether the document should establish rules for religious worship. They ultimately refused to designate a particular religion or sect for approval or promotion, which left the door open for the flourishing of many religions or for none at all. These Founding Fathers for whom conservatives profess such esteem concluded that it was the purpose of the Constitution to establish rules for the interaction between state and citizen and not to try to shape what might strike them as an ideal society.

It is a distinction too easy to forget. When Judge Robert H. Bork, ostensibly a conservative, was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, he criticized activist judges for creating rights not granted by the Constitution. Amazingly, many conservatives supported Bork’s nomination. In Goldwater’s time, not a few would have risen to challenge the judge and point out to him that it is not the Constitution that grants rights but rather that all rights belong to, and remain with, the people unless specifically ceded to the federal government.

Over the years, “strict construction” has lost its meaning for conservatives, who have apparently forgotten the essential focus of the Constitution they once worshipped.

During the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, this newly cavalier attitude toward the Constitution took several forms, including support for a line-item veto, which would effectively transfer the power over spending decisions from the people’s representatives to the executive -- a first-level assault on the separation of powers and a departure from long-standing conservative resistance to the centralization of power in a strong chief executive. (It is in keeping with this relaxed attitude toward the Constitution that the current administration has announced plans to resurrect the campaign for a presidential line-item veto.)

The modern conservative movement is now 40 years old. It has succeeded in gaining the influence it sought and in making far-reaching changes in both foreign and domestic policy. Sadly, however, it has set aside some of its most basic principles along the way. Once, conservatives were the people advocating as much distance as possible between the citizen and the state, ever resistant to federal intrusions.


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