Liberty at a loss

RENO, Nev. — Several hundred conservative activists met over the weekend in Orange County, Calif., and Reno, Nev., to discuss issues, the GOP and the political role they hope to play in 2008 and beyond. Anyone who attended either meeting would come away convinced that while the conservative movement is alive and well in the West, its foot soldiers are as confused and disoriented as many of the movement’s leaders.

The California gathering, chaired by Michael Reagan, featured numerous California conservative politicos, pundits and writers who are even more disappointed with the governor they helped elect than their national counterparts are with President Bush and GOP congressional leaders. Those who came together in Reno were both a bit more libertarian and even more disgruntled.

Members of both groups say they share the values articulated in the past by conservative leaders like Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, but when you listen to them closely and to their reactions to some of those invited to speak to them on today’s issues and challenges, you have to wonder. Many of them, in fact, seem quite capable of holding contradictory views on a wide variety of issues without realizing that they do so.

For example, at the more libertarian meeting in Reno, the organizers put together a panel discussion that was essentially a debate on immigration policy at which those panelists who favored any immigration at all were lucky to escape with their scalps. These libertarians, in a conference-supported straw poll, voted for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) over Mitt Romney and Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), the two GOP contenders who actually attended, but seemed as obsessed as the Bush Justice Department with internal threats to our national security from Muslims and Mexicans.

At both conferences, there were more than a few attendees who favor the presidential candidacy of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) either out of a fear that he may be the only contender who can handle Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or because “he won’t take any guff from terrorists and their sympathizers,” as one put it. And in Reno, Hunter’s protectionist policies seemed as popular among free-market libertarians as they might be in a union hall. 

If you find all this confusing, you aren’t alone. Several of the same activists discussing the need to abandon a GOP they believe has abandoned them argued within minutes that conservatives have to support Rudy for president because only he can save the nation from Hillary … and they do so with a straight face.

As I flew back from these conferences, I spent some time thinking about these apparent contradictions and managed to convince myself that the problem stems in part from the fact that once one becomes an activist and obsessed with the issues of the day it is far too easy to forget the basic issues that led to that involvement as one keys off political allies and opponents with tactical rather than strategic agendas.

Indeed, many activists today are for or against things not because they have thought them through but because someone they admire says they should be. This is nothing new, but with the growth of political niche-marketing via radio, cable and the Internet, it can make for a rather strange brew. I have, for example, met countless conservatives who take a position largely because Sean Hannity or National Review or Bill Kristol have urged them to do so, and my liberal friends are just as prone to assume that anything their champions suggest must be right.

Opinion leaders are, of course, important, and I take some comfort in the fact that I believe the opinion leaders of the right are more apt to be correct on the issues than their liberal counterparts, but no one should follow anyone blindly. There was never a political leader more revered on the right than Ronald Reagan, but when he at one point favored a tax increase that his supporters in Congress and his party thought wrong, they didn’t hesitate to stand up to his White House and suggest that, hero or not, he was wrong.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen all that much anymore, but it should. Back in 1964, the late Barry Goldwater, who most of us consider the political founder of the modern conservative movement, stood up to his party’s leaders and wrote in his “Conscience of a Conservative” that it was conservatives’ obligation to judge for themselves whether a particular policy deserved support based on their answer to one relatively simple question: “Does it maximize liberty?”

One wonders how many conservatives ask that question today.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at