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Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 1999/19 Tishrei, 5760

David Limbaugh

David Limbaugh
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Reagan: Big-tent conservatism -- CAN SOMEONE EXPLAIN to me why it is that if "conservative" is such a dirty word, most Republican presidential hopefuls, their respective supporters and certain third parties are vying for exclusive rights to the title?

For years, the tag of liberalism alone was enough to sink otherwise viable Democratic presidential candidates. This was probably Bill Clinton's primary motive in repackaging himself as a centrist New Democrat with the blessing of Al From's Democratic Leadership Council.

In turn, liberals have sought forever to define conservatism as a mean-spirited and racist political philosophy devoid of humanity and compassion. Their favorite technique has been to hone in on a particularly unpopular Republican leader and try to make him emblematic of the entire conservative movement. So, if Newt Gingrich, Ken Starr and Tom Delay are mean, then so is conservatism itself.

Considering this background, isn't it amazing that so many of the Republican presidential candidates are claiming to be the authentic conservative -- the most like Ronald Reagan? Go down the list: Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes all consider themselves Reagan conservatives. Even Pat Buchanan, despite his obvious differences with Reagan on trade, immigration, and to a lesser extent, foreign intervention, proudly identifies himself with the Gipper. And George W. Bush, regardless of his "compassionate-conservatism" slogan, is not running away from the conservative label. His handlers make a point of publicizing the fact that Dubya has rejected his father's economic advisers in favor of Ronald Reagan's.

Elizabeth Dole and John McCain are the exceptions. Either they are ashamed of conservatism or they don't believe it sells. Dole is attempting to trade on her gender and McCain is trying to distinguish himself by being a maverick and the "anti-Republican" Republican.

Certain third parties also claim to be the repositories of true conservatism. Libertarians believe they are more consistently conservative than any other party because they advocate the least possible government (short of anarchy) across the board, including the social issues. The Constitution Party boasts of a strong conservative platform. Even the Reform Party claims (self-deceptively) to be fiscally conservative.

There are two important points to be gleaned from this infighting among those who consider themselves conservatives. One is positive and the other is an alarm signal.

First, the emotional vigor with which each faction asserts its superior claim to conservatism is a very encouraging development, insofar as it signals that the voices of limited government are abundant and robust. It means that for all the left's efforts to make "conservative" a pejorative word, they have failed resoundingly.

But the flip side of this coin is that the fervor igniting some of these different right wing groups is characterized by an attitude of exclusivity and judgmentality. As much as many believe themselves to be the ideological heirs-apparent to Reagan, they fail to grasp an essential point that Reagan implicitly understood: Conservatism and its benefits are not the exclusive entitlement of anyone.

A political philosophy whose fundamental tenets include that people unburdened by the constraints of government will prosper and "a rising tide lifts all boats" cannot long flourish when its main proponents themselves project a narrow chauvinism and smug haughtiness.

The last thing conservatives need to be doing is to cop an attitude, especially with respect to each other.

It is perfectly appropriate for conservative candidates and their supporters to advocate their positions with as much purity and enthusiasm as they can muster. But it's crossing the line when they adopt a scorched-earth policy towards their fellow conservatives, just because they don't agree on every single issue.

Conservatives of all stripes need to learn from Democrats and Reagan (a former Democrat) that with politics and government you will not be able to get your way 100 percent of the time. But that doesn't mean you take your ball and go home at the expense of your country.

Spirited advocacy is the healthiest exercise in politics, but at the end of the day, a consensus is necessary to govern. The trick is to develop the consensus without sacrificing principle.

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan was able to walk that fine line. He was neither a quitter nor an exclusivist. He believed in and preached an ideologically driven and principled big-tent -- but a big-tent, nevertheless. It is critical that conservatives do not lose that part of his winning formula.

JWR contributor David Limbaugh is an attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a political analyst and commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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