Right back to Reaganism

Last weekend more than 8,500 conservatives assembled at Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. It was the largest such conference to date, and at least half of those in attendance were under 30 years old.

It’s fair to say that many who covered the gathering were a bit taken aback by the mood of the assembly at a time when liberals were busily consigning the conservative movement to the scrap heap of history. Either the attendees hadn’t gotten the message or those who have posted the obituary notices are a tad premature; we will know in the next few years. Advocates of two starkly different visions of America’s future will battle this out in Congress, in print, over the airwaves and, ultimately, in voting booths in 2010 and 2012.

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush argued that the world changed as the World Trade Center fell and that, as a result, America must protect itself in ways that a week earlier would have been rejected for constitutional reasons. The fear generated by the terrorist attacks encouraged those charged with protecting us to seek more and more power to enable them to accomplish their mission as they envisioned it.

In the midst of the debate, a couple of high-ranking Justice Department officials came over to “talk sense” into the late Paul Weyrich, who, like too few of his conservative peers, was troubled by what was going on in the name of “protecting” us. After the meeting Paul called me and said that his visitors acknowledged that the powers being sought were extraordinary and could be easily abused in the wrong hands. “But remember,” they told him, “we’re the good guys and we can be trusted.”

Paul said his visitors were at a loss when he asked what might happen if and when such power fell into the hands of “the bad guys.” I said, “People entrusted with too much power inevitably become the bad guys,” and he agreed.

Today, a new president and his allies are arguing that the current recession has left us in a new world that will require a rethinking of who ought to have the power to manage our economic affairs. The fear generated by dire predictions has stampeded Congress today in much the way it did then, with results that will prove just as troubling once people realize what the new administration is trying to do.

President Obama and his buddies, like George W. Bush and his friends, consider themselves “the good guys” and they seek power over our lives and income for the best of reasons. They want to protect us all from a falling economy and are as convinced as anyone can be that they can make wiser decisions than individual Americans in order to accomplish their mission. They don’t want to simply “stimulate” a sluggish economy, but to take control of what Lenin once called the “commanding heights” of the economy, so that they can make the decisions they don’t believe we can be trusted to make wisely.

Rush Limbaugh told the CPAC attendees on Saturday that while we all hope the economy will recover quickly, we should hope at the same time that President Obama’s plan to fundamentally change the nature of our free market economy will fail. The free market has enabled generations of Americans to make this nation the freest and most prosperous in human history. Rush was absolutely right.

I met with a number of House conservatives before the first “stimulus” vote and told them that they should not oppose the president’s policies for simple partisan reasons; if they believed his so-called “stimulus” plan would work, they ought to support it. I cautioned them, however, that to accept the belief that his solutions will work would require them to admit at least to themselves that everything they have professed to believe has been wrong.

If the conservative belief in individual freedom and free markets means anything, I told them, you ought to oppose what Obama is up to with all your heart and hope that he fails so that America can succeed.

In 1975, an earlier generation of CPAC attendees heard Ronald Reagan urge conservatives to reject the statist solutions of Jimmy Carter because they were wrong-headed and dangerous, and to go forward under a banner of “bold colors rather than of pale pastels.” Reagan urged us not just to hope policies we know to be unworkable and dangerous fail, but to fight to make sure they do.

It was the right approach in 1975, and it’s the right one now.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.