Battle for the Soul of Conservatism

There is a battle for the soul of conservatism.  Conservatives are being drawn separate ways in today’s political world and the division risks changing one of the fundamentals of a movement grown by early torchbearers such as William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan and others who made modern conservatism the political force it is today.

Much has been made of the difference between President Trump and so-called ‘establishment’ Republicans—President Trump representing the nationalist, somewhat isolationist wing compared to the more traditional and expansive US policy.

Donald Trump was elected as a reaction to an out of control politically correct rampage by an Administration where the Secretary of State said that global warming was the greatest threat to national security while ISIS terrorist attacks struck worldwide.   Where making sure there were ‘gender neutral’ bathrooms was more important than fighting readiness on Navy ships.

But the fight for the soul of the conservative movement isn’t about whether we should follow a “US first’ policy or should be more internationalist, or whether to take a more hard line on immigration or some other policy point.  The real battle for the soul of conservatism boils down to one thing:  whether conservatives have decided that power is worth any cost?

 Conservatism has had as one of its hallmarks over the years, even more so if you are talking about the evangelical Christian constituency within conservatism, that the goal was about electing people who would not only vote in certain ways but who were reflective of a set of values that would form the basis for their decisions.  Said more simply, it was about electing people to office who generally reflected positive character traits.  Admittedly, this is a high level, general comment, and there would be a number of exceptions if we looked hard enough, and politics is a fairly dirty business, as they say.  However, at a high level, conservatives have believed that ‘character matters’.

But that isn’t a ‘given’ any more.  In the last couple of months, there are high profile examples of the choice facing conservatives that has again put choices on the table that raise basic questions.

Looking back a couple of decades at debates within the country on this exact topic, we see that conservatives were in some ways ahead of the times.  When Bill Clinton was impeached, it was in part because conservatives felt that it was wrong for a powerful man to have a sexual relationship with an unpaid intern that worked for him.  Given recent news events, it’s ironic now that there seems to be a blinding realization that type of behavior is wrong.  Of course, Clinton was also impeached because he lied under oath and conservatives felt that the chief law enforcement officer in the country should not lie under oath. Yet, Clinton was not removed from office because many, and most importantly most Senators, argued that personal character doesn’t matter and the only important thing is what policy a person pursues while in office.  Personal behavior has nothing to do with the qualification for public office, they said.  And a sexual relation with a subordinate or lying under oath did not disqualify a person from public office.

But should that be the case?  Should we separate how someone votes on policy and their character and are the two things totally unrelated?   Conservatives, especially evangelical Christian conservatives, have argued ‘no’ and that a person’s personal character will reflect on how the reach decisions.

Yet, recent events are testing that belief system even among Christian conservatives.  Just in the last couple of months, there are two vivid examples of the choices for those who view themselves as conservatives.  How it plays out will have implications that will reverberate in the future.

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former advisor and current head of Breitbart News, has endorsed former US Rep. Michael Grimm in a race to get back his old seat in Congress.  Grimm announced he is running against a fellow Republican who holds the seat that Grimm formerly held on Staten Island.  The thing that makes that noteworthy is that Grimm lost his seat in Congress because he plead guilty to a felony and just recently was released from federal prison where we was serving time for felony tax fraud.  Grimm was originally charged with twenty (count ‘em, twenty) counts of fraud, tax evasion and perjury.  He agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges to avoid going to trial on all of them. Here is a felon, a person who has been out of prison less than a year, who wouldn’t be able to vote for himself in many states, but who has been endorsed for the US Congress by a high profile, self-described conservative.

And, of course, the most visible recent case is that of Roy Moore, the candidate for US Senate in Alabama, who is running to fill the seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions became Attorney General.  After winning the Republican primary, several accusations have surfaced of Moore ‘dating’ underage girls when he was much older, including as a 30-something District Attorney in Gadsden.

Let us hasten to say that someone is innocent until proven guilty and Moore has denied the allegations.  Yet, in this case, an objective observer has a hard time not believing that a lot of the accusations have basis in truth.  Even, Richard Shelby, the other Senator from Alabama (and arguably the most conservative person in the Senate) has said he could never vote for Moore.

Moore’s denials have been confusing.  He denied knowing a number of his accusers, yet at least one of them produced a note from Moore to her when she was in high school.   Moore himself, in his autobiography, says that he first noticed his wife (who is fourteen years his junior) when he saw her in a high school program he attended.  While that doesn’t mean they dated then, of course, it does lend credence to the fact that he noticed young, underage girls.   And there are the accusations that he was ‘banned’ from a local mall because of his behavior toward young girls.  In fairness, the mall has issued a statement that they do not have records that go back that far and so can’t confirm or deny Moore being banned, but they also acknowledged that they knew of him and that he frequented the mall.  Several mall employees have come out and shared stories about Moore and his reputation.  The accounts are believable enough that Sen. Lindsay Graham of SC, when asked about Moore’s candidacy, told reporters “I’ve got a general rule, if you can’t be in a mall, you shouldn’t be in the Senate.”

Yet, despite all of this, Steve Bannon endorsed Moore as soon as he announced he was running.  The President later endorsed Moore and ordered the Republican National Committee to give his campaign money, as has the GOP Senate campaign committee.

Conservatives have traditionally felt that the whole person running for office should be considered.  Conservatives have often said that character matters and have been highly critical of examples like the very liberal Alcee Hastings in Florida, who was impeached and removed from office as a federal judge but then elected to Congress.  Yet conservatives now are facing the same questions, in very stark terms.

In these two examples, the specific question is ‘Would it be better to elect a moderate Democrat or a man who is likely a pedophile?’ and in the case of the Congressional seat in Staten Island, ‘Should we elect a man who was already once removed from the office he is seeking because he committed a felony and who just got out of prison over someone—from the same party—who may not be quite as conservative?”

Steve Bannon and others like him have said ‘yes’–as long as someone votes the right way, it doesn’t matter what else he or she does.  Other conservatives like long time conservative columnist and former advisor to Ronald Reagan, George Will, have emphatically said ‘no’.   And, in Will’s case he even left the Republican Party partially over the question.

The next election cycle will likely determine the future of conservatism.  And regardless of any short term electoral outcome, it will also determine the long-term future of the Republican Party.  May Republicans and conservatives choose wisely.

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