Hard Right

Extreme conservatives' stealthy coup

Right before our eyes, American conservatism is becoming something very different from what it once was. Yet this transformation is happening by stealth because moderates are too afraid to acknowledge what all their senses tell them.

Last week's Supreme Court oral arguments on health care were the most dramatic example of how radical Tea Partyism has displaced mainstream conservative thinking. It's not just that the law's individual mandate was, until very recently, a conservative idea. Even conservative legal analysts were insisting it was impossible to imagine the court declaring the health-care mandate unconstitutional, given its past decisions.

So imagine the shock when conservative justices repeatedly spouted views closely resembling the tweets and talking points issued by organizations of the sort funded by the Koch brothers. Don't take it from me. Charles Fried, solicitor general for Ronald Reagan, told the Washington Post's Ezra Klein that it was absurd for conservatives to pretend that the mandate created a market in health care. "The whole thing is just a canard that's been invented by the Tea Party,” Fried said, "and I was astonished to hear it coming out of the mouths of the people on that bench." 

Staunchly conservative circuit court Judges Jeffrey Sutton and Laurence Silberman must have been equally astonished, since both argued that overturning the law would amount to judicial overreach. Yet moderate opinion bends over backward to act as if this is an intellectually close question.

Similarly, House passage of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, with its steep cuts in the tax rates on the wealthy and sweeping reductions in programs for the poor, is an enormous step rightward from the budget policies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Faced with growing deficits, Reagan and Bush both supported substantial tax increases.

A small hint of how this push to the right moves moderates away from moderation came in an effort last week to use an amendment on the House floor to force a vote on the deficit-reduction proposals offered by the commission headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton. 

You only learned in paragraphs buried deep in the news stories that the House was not even asked to consider the actual commission plan. To cobble together bipartisan support, sponsors of the ersatz Simpson-Bowles amendment kept all of the commission's spending cuts but slashed the amount it prescribed for tax increases by half. See how relentless pressure from the right turns self-styled moderates into conservatives? If there's a cave-in, it's always to starboard. 

Note how many deficit hawks regularly trash President Obama for not endorsing Simpson-Bowles while they continue to praise Ryan -- even though Ryan voted to kill the initiative when he was a member of the commission. Here again is the double-standard that benefits conservatives, proving that, contrary to establishment opinion, Obama was absolutely right not to embrace the Simpson-Bowles framework. If he had, a moderately conservative proposal would suddenly have defined the "left wing" of the debate, just because Obama endorsed it. 

This is nuts. Yet mainstream journalism and mainstream moderates play right along.

A brief look at history suggests how far to the right both the Republican Party and contemporary conservatism have moved. Today's conservatives almost never invoke one of our most successful Republican presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gave us, among other things, federally guaranteed student loans and championed the interstate highway system. 

Even more revealing is what Robert A. Taft, the leader of the conservative forces who opposed Eisenhower's nomination in 1952, had to say about government's role in American life. "If the free enterprise system does not do its best to prevent hardship and poverty," the Ohio Republican senator said in a 1945 speech, "it will find itself superseded by a less progressive system which does." He urged Congress to "undertake to put a floor under essential things, to give all a minimum standard of decent living, and to all children a fair opportunity to get a start in life."

Who can doubt that today's right would declare his day's Mr. Republican and Mr. Conservative a socialist redistributionist?

If our nation's voters want to move government policy far to the right, they are entirely free to do so. But those who regard themselves as centrist have a moral obligation to make clear what the stakes are in the current debate. If supposed moderates refuse to call out the new conservatism for the radical creed it has become, their timidity will make them complicit in an intellectual coup they could have prevented.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group


About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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The "brief" look at history is laughable. Read the Conscience of a Conservative and you will find all you need to know.

It's foolish to trust a quack when reviewing your medical history. Ditto the Post physician who pretends to diagnose your "ills." The author hs only contempt for very brand of conservatism, admit it and move on. At least he's desperate. Ron Paul probably chills him to the bone.

Physician, heal thyself.

What I fear is the attitude among guys I hang out with who seem to unanimously hate Obama, Democrats, all environmentalists, and the very notion of government itself. There exists no middle ground, no area for discussion and compromise, no possibility even that the common good can ever be achieved. Instead it is all about welfare fraud, people responsible for their own sicknesses, able-bodied posing as disabled, and the possibility that any taxes will be raised whether or not theirs would be. I am afraid the November election within the privacy of the voting booth may become a blood-bath for our society and all the unfortunate folk who depend on various government programs and protections for survival. We are already seeing the closure of schools, parks, and public facilities without hardly a peep in opposition. There is wide spread cheering for anit-unionism and layoffs of public employees. We have seen huge cuts in programs in housing, unemployment aid, food supplies, and medical coverages which have even been applauded by he far right as wasteful and unnecessary. Where will the line be drawn? When will reasonable people sit down together to solve problems and support each other through the malaise of this depression? Finally I am afraid that if the Republicans win big, we will soon be back at war again in the Middle East and even Asia.

Ah, E.J.  I believe you are dancing quit admirably around a collection of very old truths stemming largely from our well established willingness to separate a word not merely from its usefulness but from its generally accepted meaning.  On such occassions useful debate, much less useful discussion is really, really challenging.  Hope don't give up.

I am old enough to remember observing Buckley and Chomsky go after each other's opinions.  As much as anything what made it so exceptional was they both had spent the enormous time and energy required to understand a complex issue before they spoke.  It was not they merely valued words they recognized the useful power words could bring to aid in the solution of a complex challenge.  Myself, I most always believed Chomsky's notions clung closer to useful reality.  But that's not the important point.  It is rather they both took too much responsiblity for their remarks to repeat unchallenged unreasoned words fed to them from others.

Buckley's stature grew in my eyes when I watched him seated at a discussion next to a monk dressed in traditional attire.  Ole' William was largely quiet.  It seemed there were times when he clearly knew he was outmanned.  Clever fellow.

"Conscience of a Conservative"


That's an oxymoron, isn’t it?


“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." (John Kenneth Galbraith)

I do hope my following remarks are not perceived as unkind or self-righteous.  Those of us who at no time believe ourselves impervious much less immortal rightly believe there will be more than a few times in our lives when we will in fact, not theory, require the services of a physician.  I cannot help but wonder if the great mind and soul who originiated the grand and eloquent phrase "Physician Heal Thyself" aimed it the physician providing that service.  And, if so, how well it was received.  Myself, I never met a physician who would aim it at another physician without understandable trepidation.

Put another way, lawyers, doctors and priest are of no use whatever until we need one.  And then we cannot thank them enough.

I believe today's conservatism, if it can be identified with the Republican Party, is not yet definable, as, with the GOP, it seems to be in transition, with many elements vying for predominance. Whether there will be a "hard right" turn for the GOP and conservatism has yet to be determined.


Like so many who cling to the belief we can fairly count ourselves among the "grown ups" I sincerely hope you are correct.  I cannot convince myself a democracy is served well by embracing whole a single political party. There is the need to separate reality from ideals.  Perhaps it would help us lessen our confusion if we no longer called a move toward any form of extremism a move to the "right" but rather what is so clearly is, galloping off a cliff yelling "follow me!".

It is nuts.  Corporations are persons and money is speech and the wants of the wealthiest come before the basic needs of the poor.  And for Ryan, who is Catholic, apparently Grover comes before God and the prominent message in both the Old and New Testaments -- The love of money (greed) is the root of all evil -- has no application today.  Say it ain't so, Paul. 

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