The Return of the Conservative Conscience

In just thirteen hours, Rand Paul’s recent constitutional marathon established him as one of the best stump speakers in the senate. His easy-going, spontaneous, and cogent extended soliloquy sent a power surge through the somnambulant GOP. The ensuing swell of popular support for Senator Paul set the party—and, en passant, the conservative movement—on their collective ears. And they needed it.

For years, the grass roots have been longing for a plain-spoken advocate of principle. Frankly, there haven’t heard much good news lately in that department. Pat Buchanan has been banned from the majors because he was too honest. Human Events, a mainstay of conservatism since 1944, has just given up the ghost. The other old standby, National Review, has gone steadily downhill since it sided with George W. Bush over Bill Buckley on the Iraq War. Curiously, that sinking flagship now quietly admits that Bush was a failure and that conservatism is “weakened.” By National Review? It does not say.

Nor does it apologize. The truth, it appears, lies too far in the past.

In fact, in 1960. That’s when the first generation of conservatives heard Barry Goldwater’s challenge to the GOP establishment. The Conscience of a Conservative electrified delegations who took the book with them to the GOP Convention in Chicago. Delegates learned its core message by heart: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom.  My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible.”

Opportunity Knocks, Opportunism Answers
Those were the days. Pat Buchanan once observed that, in the 1960s, there were no conservative opportunists because there were no opportunities for conservatives. But that changed for the next generation, when Ronald Reagan’s election opened Washington’s doors to opportunists. Ambitious self-dealers seeking careers suddenly experienced conservative conversions of convenience. They weren’t alone. Many a genuine conservative roamed the streets looking for government grants and contracts, while only a valiant few pounded the table demanding that we unplug the Establishment Hot Tub.

Reagan Conservatives—Dick Allen called them “Reaganauts”—were not alone. They were nurtured by an older generation of wise men who kept before them the vision of the sacred ground of ordered liberty. My favorites, Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer—both Catholic converts—were among the sages who frequented the capital, bringing with them the glad tidings of the permanent things. And their ideas did have consequences:  the Reagan Doctrine announced at Westminster in June 1982 brought forth the fruit of the collapse of the Berlin Wall nine years later. There, the conservative principle of cause and effect seemed to work.

But other, less salutary, forces were at work. After George H.W. Bush was inaugurated in 1989, his hatchet-man James Baker set out on a mission of ideological cleansing, removing every Reagan appointee he could find and replacing them with Bush loyalists. It was hardly the GOP’s finest hour:  I remember being assigned to staff the nomination of Bush’s second baseman at Yale (who had no other qualifications) to a senior post in the administration. His principles were vacant. His number was legion.

The Conservatism of Contradiction
The third conservative generation—forty years after Conscience—arrived with George W. Bush’s election in 2000. But this generation’s mentors were not conservatism’s intellectual giants, but Jim Baker’s apparatchiks.  Like all careerists, they mouthed principled platitudes. But when they confronted reality, they blinked. They still “felt” conservative, of course: public schools had taught pupils for years to “feel good about themselves.” But they had not been taught to think critically, and they quickly fell into  the pit of cognitive dissonance (Orwell calls it “DoubleThink”).

Principle didn’t rule; the dialectic did. Bush turned on the spending spigot, and “conservatives” obediently lined up for grants. He ignored the Constitution, and they stood up and cheered. He bypassed Congress and went to the United Nations for the moral seal of approval of for his invasion of Iraq—and his merry band of UN-bashers rejoiced at their “victory.” He expanded federal power over education, exploded federal entitlements, and fomented economic collapse, while Karl Rove promised dazed “conservatives” that their turn would come.

It didn’t. And curiously, in 2004 President Bush did not run on his record. Instead, he fomented fear (this Orwellian Two-Minutes Hate from the 2004 GOP Convention says it all). Shorn of principle, by 2006, the movement, and the party, had collapsed.

“And this, and so much more,” Prufrock laments. Sensing the coming deluge, the bewildered third conservative generation moved quickly to cash in. “If it weren’t me,” a newly-minted foreign agent told me, “someone else would be getting that money.”

Now there’s a patriot.

It reminds me of the old saying about inherited wealth: “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Or perhaps Eric Hoffer’s observation that “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

A movement, a business, a racket. One generation each. 

Toward Redemption and Restoration
Two specters haunt the GOP today. The first is betrayal.

A few days ago, full-page ads appeared in several prominent newspapers featuring Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell. My goodness, they all support same-sex marriage! Well, wait a minute: these Republicans would be nobodies without the millions of pro-family, pro-life voters who repeatedly brought the GOP to victory. Their cynical response, to paraphrase Sam Rayburn, is to spit on the heads of them that brung’em.

Conservative response to this treachery has been muted. May I suggest outrage? The GOP Establishment has used and abused pro-life, pro-family Americans for decades. They need our votes but have nothing but thinly-veiled contempt for our principles. We are always at the back of the bus, an unmentionable burden for these charlatans who—by the way—destroyed the GOP and brought us ObamaNation on a silver platter.

Conservatives must repudiate such traitors who come into the “Big Tent,” intent on burning it down.

The second specter is metaphysical. It was best articulated by President George W. Bush at the National Prayer Service three days after the 9-11 attacks. “Americans do not yet have the distance of history,” he said, “but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

This noxious notion lies at the heart of the “Bush Doctrine.” It has been inherited and enhanced by Obama. And the Republican Party must confront it head-on and repudiate it. It absolves hubris and power-lust. It rejects limits—moral, constitutional, and metaphysical. It conjures up an endless parade of Hitlers—Saddam, Osama, Ahmadenijad—and justifies lethal, secret, and unconstitutional means to eliminate them and all others deemed evildoers.

The Bush Doctrine is the father of the poisonous Obama Doctrine that Rand Paul condemned for thirteen hours last week. That explains the contemptuous response from Senators McCain and Graham. They are joined at the hip with the Bush Doctrine. They are bound to its failure like a ball and chain. No wonder they resent the truth-teller.

Obama made Bush’s claim to unlimited executive power his own, and he has now turned it on us. Dazed conservatives are hesitant: What to do? After all, to condemn Obama is to condemn McCain and Graham—and, yes, Bush.

Well, conservatives, this is the time for truth. Do it.

Enough of the “Red Team versus Blue Team” game. Conservatives have to step off the playground, redeem their principles and renounce their cognitive dissonance. They will meet resistance, scorn, even hatred, from the powerful, the profiteers, and the plunderers in the GOP Hot Tub; but conservatives have the key to victory: they know that the only way to empty the Hot Tub is from the outside.

Editor’s note: This column, first posted March 16, is sponsored by the Bellarmine Forum, and distributed by Griffin Internet Syndicate and FGF Books. The image above pictures, from left to right, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater.

Christopher Manion


Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

  • lifeknight

    The Truth will set you free! As a former local Republican Executive Committee member, I heartily agree with the deflation of the ‘big tent” philosophy. If we are to remain in the Republican Party as pro-lifers, then we need to have God’s principles upheld. When the election for the local Chairman was held 15 years ago, a few of us (8 to be exact) put forth a prolife candidate to oppose the pro-abort that was running. We did not win, but we were able to obtain 24 votes. It threw the race into a run-off between the pro-abort and the luke warm opposition candidate. Finally, we had a seat at the table—for about an hour—until Mr. Lukewarm won with our support.

    I am all for a third party that is totally prolife. Eventually we will out vote the others!

  • Alecto

    Muted response? Good God, Manion, we the peasants have wandered the desert of outrage since the Patriot Act passed. It isn’t emotionally possible to feel more outrage. It has devolved into abject hatred towards the Republican party and its sponsors. Clearly, you weren’t at the anti-Obamacare rallies on March 20-21, 2010, were you? There was plenty of outrage present, if not representation from the Bush wing of the party. When the TEA party handed Republicans colossal victories later that year, the betrayal began in earnest with the election of a liar and a turncoat to Speaker of the House, then the continued funding of Obamacare. It doesn’t take a commission or any report to understand that when you betray your base of conservatives, they won’t show up to vote in 2012.

    Now Republicans have gleefully joined the Democrats in portraying the TEA party as a movement comprised of loons, racists, bigots and heartless meanies. The “evolution” of even Rand Paul into a pro-amnesty traitor demonstrates the power of the virus infecting all of Washington, D.C. The virus propagated by the Republican and Democratic parties must be wiped out by any and all means necessary for the Republic to live. I cannot deceive myself that Rand Paul’s disingenuous amnesty position is anything other than an attempt to gain financial backers for a 2016 presidential run. I wonder if Paul understands how many potential voters he’s lost? Idiot.

    I received a 2014 campaign solicitation from my 30+ year phony Catholic Representative now concerned about the spending, Constitutional issues and more. Republicans are clearly sensing the shift from the base. They did not learn from the poor election turnout in 2012 that they have failed conservatives. My state and federal Republican representation has betrayed me for the last time. I will never again support this party of liars and backstabbing, opportunistic traitors. There is almost nothing I wouldn’t do to destroy the Republican party. That includes sitting out a midterm election for the first time in my adult life. Americans need to feel the full destructive power of the Democrats. It is the only thing that will foment the inevitable revolution. Can you feel that?

  • Paul Tran

    Bush formenting economic collapse ??? I thought the cause of the Credit Crunch was due to the subprime bubble bursting ? And to this end, wasn’t it Clinton, between 96-98, who started it by doing away with the last of the Glass-Steagle Act which was originally put in place to prevent another Depression of the 30’s ?

    As for the Iraq War, intel on WMD was trumped up by Germany – a supposed close ally – in the first place was it not ? The Germans interogated 2 Iraqi “defectors”, without releasing them to be questioned by the US, and all we had was their faulty intel to go on. It doesn’t help also when the UK gov’t , another supposed close ally, spiced up the intel to boost the case for war.

    Regarding the events of 9-11, what else could Bush do or anyone else in his position after such a cataclysmic moment ? The US went to war after Pearl Harbor when an unprovoked attack on the US happened, so why should 9-11 be different ? Moreover there was a 3-month period from the aftermath of 9-11 till the invasion of Afghanistan whereby the Taliban refused handing over Osama Bin Laden as the Bush administration had demanded. To ignore the threats of Al-Qaeda after 9-11- the same way as Bill Clinton had done after the 2 US embassy bombings in Africa & the suicide bombing of the USS Cole – would have been suicide.

    • As we all now know, there was no reason to invade Iraq, and we have caused an enormous amount of damage by doing so.

      • Mark

        Right on, dude!

      • Gigahoo

        The real damage was caused by releasing Sadam’sdefeated army into the general population, not by the war as such.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        If the Bush administration was serious in its “War on Terror,” why did it not demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations and back that up with appropriate retaliation, if necessary? Hezbollah was involved in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and in the attacks on the US embassies in Africa in 1998. Why was it so lukewarm in its support for Israel, America’s staunchest ally against international terrorism?

    • givelifeachance2

      Bush’s HUD pushed zero down payment mortgages out its door. The collapse was definitely collaborated by Bush and the Dems

  • Dan M.

    Here’s my response to the Republican Party, whom I now have abandoned:

  • Jerry

    Sure took you guys a long time to figure out you are being used! The Republican “establishment” used the old trick of con men: first pick your pocket(get the votes) followed up by the person who comes along to make you feel better by telling you it won’t happen the next time-and they been successful since “Bush 1.”

  • Jeff

    Rand Paul is a posturing drama queen. He was grand standing for attention. Eric Holder sent him a very brief message addressing his “concern” and which apparently satisfied him:
    “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil? The answer to that is no.”

  • For all that I agree with the overall assessment posed here, I see a particular difficulty:
    To date, I have not heard of even one candidate who can be trusted to insistently speak in favor of life from conception to natural death, who also has any economic sense, and who will stubbornly defend the family in any functional way.

    In other words, I’m hard pressed to explain who I CAN vote for with confidence.

    I know the Democrats actively promote abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and so forth. And big government.

    Well, we had a chance to consider one candidate that might reduce government, conveys genuine pro-life views, and understands economics to some fair degree. He’s known as Rick Santorum.
    ..And the GOP and the Conservative movement more or less squashed his candidacy like a bug last year.

    I’ve been effectively without a serious voice in politics for most of my life for want of a politician who actually has both political skills, genuine knowledge of economics, and a serious interest in proposing morals.

    Small wonder that the GOP and the nation both have major problems today.

  • Tom ATK

    Ok, interesting and well written,. Thank you for posing the manifesto. As center person, I have a question regarding:

    “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”

    To me, that explains a lot. That explains why unqualified flunkies like Michael D. Brown was put as head of FEMA, and Paul Bremer as the disastrous governor of Iraq. This also explains why the GOP gave a massive give away to Big Pharma in the form of non biding contracts for Medicare drugs. This part of the manifesto is exactly why corruption occurred. Why? Because according to the manifesto, corruption and theft were given a green little, and were even good, moral, as long at it reduced the size of government.

    So now that people learned that institutionalize conservative manifesto inspired corruption, as policy, does not work, how about making sure that the few things that conservatives want in government are run transparently (by the people for the people?).

    After years of socialism, Swedes have come to that conclusion, and they use in a pragmatic ways, private or public run agencies to run their sized down programs (still large by US standards), what ever works, as long as money is not wasted and things are accountable.

    But are you are advocating returning to manifesto blessed corruption, is that correct, as long as some conservative anarchy, nirvana is achieved, like in Honduras or Guatemala? Are those your models? Banana republics?

    As a center person, I value conservative point of view, but how about resorting some common sense.

    In regards to Pro Life, there is no reason what so ever not to engage the so called left. Its time that the pro life movement be unhitched from the right, as a vehicle to deliver votes and often little more.