Standard dictionary synonyms for “conservative”—cautious, constant, controlled, conventional, middle-of-the-road, not extreme, sober, stable, traditional—are a poor fit for the many public figures who claim to be conservatives but are in fact radicals or opportunists.
Newt Gingrich is a prominent example. Look at what he said on Feb. 29:
The New York Times this morning said, “Obama’s budget plan sweeps away Reagan’s ideas. Let me say, first of all, that is what the New York Times of course devoutly hopes for and would rival the resurrection of the Soviet empire and other things that they’ve missed.”
Is it even remotely conceivable that Obama’s or any other president’s budget plan could “rival the resurrection” of an empire led by a mass-murderer responsible for tens of millions of deaths? What evidence does Gingrich have for an allegation that the Times misses the Soviet empire? None, zero. The allegation was a slander but unsurprising. No way it could possibly be considered “cautious, controlled, conventional, middle-of-the-road, not extreme, sober, stable, traditional.”
On becoming Speaker of the House in January 1995, Gingrich presided over the near-total collapse of the core constitutional function of congressional oversight, particularly of agencies charged with regulating industries that were or could become primary sources of immense campaign contributions to Republicans. The pharmaceutical and tobacco industries were prime examples, which explains why Gingrich went to the nonsensical extreme of calling the Food and Drug
Administration the “leading job killer in America.”
Then-Commissioner David Kessler wanted to regulate tobacco, which causes the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans annually. For trying to lower this appalling toll, he was denounced by Gingrich as as “a thug” and “a bully.” Gingrich, often mentioned as a possible GOP presidential nominee in 2012, should have been looking into a mirror when he said that. But what of the Republicans who embrace Gingrich or remain silent about his thuggish bullying? Their claim to being conservative–or not thuggish–was little better than his.
As does every president, George W. Bush did solemnly take the oath to serve as President and, to the best of his ability, “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Going to war under false pretenses, as Bush did in Iraq, assaulted the
Constitution and was therefore radical. His doctrine of pre-emptive war, nowhere to be found in the Constitution, was radical. So were his administration’s violations of international law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to permit torture and abuse of prisoners. So were his assaults on the rights of American citizens and on separation of church and state (even Ralph Reed, while executive director of the Christian Coalition, called separation of church and state “complete” and “inviolable”). So was its obsessive secrecy. And so was his first
Attorney General, John Ashcroft, in openly urging defiance of law, specifically, the Freedom of Information Act.
There is another, and, unfortunately, a widely ignored, case for seeing many self-described conservatives as radicals. The argument rests on the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. In seeking “to form a more perfect Union,” the Founding Fathers declared there, one of the fundamental goals of “We the people of the United States” was to “promote the general welfare.” To promote the general welfare is to be faithful to our basic charter and thus by definition
conservative. To promote the private welfare at the expense of the public welfare is, by the same logic, radical.
To cut taxes drastically for the top 1 percent of the population while drastically widening the inequality gap, by doing nearly nothing for the financially stagnant middle class and the tens of millions of Americans living in poverty–all of this advanced the private welfare of the few at the expense of the general welfare and was, consequently, radical. So, to cite another example, was letting the oil and gas industry secretly set White House energy policy.
The refusal of Bush and his top officials to take responsibility for prisoner torture and abuse is fake conservatism, acceptance of responsibility for one’s acts being a core conservative principle. A true conservative does not transform a huge budget surplus into a staggering deficit to be bequeathed to our children and grandchildren. Or cut taxes in wartime. Or nurture corporate welfare, which costs the taxpayers about $125 billion a year, for the benefit of Enron and
Halliburton, among others. Or name as regulators lobbyists who had
spent years fighting against the very safety, health and environmental
regulations they would swear to enforce.