Same Old Party: Tranquility in the Ranks

By York, Byron | World Affairs, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Same Old Party: Tranquility in the Ranks


York, Byron, World Affairs


Less than 48 hours after John McCain conceded defeat in the presidential election, a group of conservative activists gathered for a post-mortem at the Stanley, Virginia, weekend home of Brent Bozell III. The meeting had been planned well before the election, but the participants kept it quiet, to avoid the appearance they were "measuring the coffin for McCain," as one of them later put it. Still the group, organized by Bozell, founder of the conservative press watchdog Media Research Center and a nephew of William E Buckley, wanted to get to work quickly after the Republican Party's across-the-board loss.

There were social conservatives (Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council); economic conservatives (Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform); pioneer conservatives (Morton Blackwell, of multiple Republican campaigns and conservative organizations) ; literary conservatives (R. Emmett Tyrrell, of The American Spectator); and direct-mail conservatives (Richard Viguerie). But there was no one who could primarily be called a neoconservative. This wasn't entirely an accident; looking toward the future after an electoral battering, at least a few of the attendees were not eager to make a place for those whose conservative credentials they have often questioned and who in particular they regard as most closely associated with the war in Iraq.

"Among some people in the meeting there was the belief that the neocons to a great degree are responsible for the disastrous state of affairs within the Republican Party, by advocating big-government conservatism, which is a contradiction in terms, and by advocating unnecessary nation-building, which split the conservative movement in two," Bozell told me recently. "It wasn't universal that the neocons needed to be confronted ... but they weren't exactly on everyone's Christmas list."

If you're looking for tension between the conservative world and its neoconservative wing, there it is. But it would hardly be accurate to say neoconservatives were a major topic at the get-together in Virginia. As Tony Perkins told me, the discussion "was more focused on repairing the divisions between fiscal and social conservatives, with the understanding that foreign policy issues would be addressed as we proceeded." In other words, foreign policy wasn't first, or second, or even third, on the list of concerns for the future of the movement. Nor is it at the top of the list among conservatives as a whole.

Indeed, for all the political problems that the war in Iraq caused for Republican candidates around the country, if you ask virtually any group of rank-and-file conservatives what has gone wrong with the Republican Party, a majority will point first to out-of-control government spending. Some will say the GOP has abandoned its core, Reaganite values. Some will rue the party's failure to connect with young and minority voters, and some will say Republicans need to find better ways to address health care, or education. But very few, if any, will mention Iraq, or the Bush Doctrine, or the war on terror in general--the issues most closely associated with neoconservatives.

This must be a frustrating development for all the commentators who, in the wake of November 4, predicted civil war inside the conservative world and predicted further that neoconservatives and traditional conservatives were so different, and perhaps so fundamentally incompatible, that when the glue that held them together--9/11, the unity of purpose that gave rise to the War on Terror, and a Republican presidency--weakened they would be torn apart. But the period of post-Bush reflection and re-evaluation has already begun. And the split between the larger conservative movement and the neoconservatives, while sometimes gossiped about in groups such as the one Bozell convened, has not yet appeared. While virtually anything is possible, it seems unlikely that any serious rift will open up without a deep re-examination of the war. …

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