As the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsberg was being whistled through the Senate, a morose friend called, "Can you believe it? The vote was 96-3!"
"Who were the other two?" I asked.
We laughed. For we did not need to be told where Jesse Helms stood on elevating to the Supreme Court an ACLU activist like Judge Ginsberg.
If one were to name the two elected leaders of the last third of the 20th century who best represented the conservative creed in national politics, they would be Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms. It is a defining difference between a traditional conservative and a neocon that the former would name Helms as the best senator of the era, while the latter would name "Scoop" Jackson or Pat Moynihan.
Which raises a question. While the Republican Party today controls the White House and Congress, how stands conservatism, using Reagan-Helms as the gold standard?
On tax cuts, a strong national defense and the nomination of federal judges who believe America is a republic where the people rule through elected representatives, not a judicial dictatorship, George W. Bush meets the gold standard.
But on spending, Bush and Congress do not even meet the Clinton standard. They qualify as Great Society Conservatives. The Republican Revolution of 1994 turned out like that vaunted Vanguard we launched after Sputnik that got four feet off the ground.
Anti-communism and resistance to the "evil empire" once united the Right. But that unifying cause died with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
On foreign policy, conservatives are no longer a house united. While all but six GOP House members voted to authorize President Bush to take us to war in Iraq, and 75 percent of Republicans still believe in the war, among conservative and libertarian writers, there was no such plurality, and some are having second thoughts. There is no conservative consensus on foreign policy today.
The neoconservative position, to make promoting democracy the altarpiece of our foreign policy, to increase U.S. forces in Iraq, and to extend the war to Iran and Syria to win it, appears no longer to be Bush policy. And despite the president’s resolve to stay the course, his generals continue to talk of substantial withdrawals by spring.
On foreign aid — given the increases for Africa, the Middle East and the Millennium Challenge — the president and Congress seem squarely in the liberal internationalist tradition. They believe in it.
On social issues, the GOP remains a pro-life party, but less volubly than it once was, with House and Senate Republicans moving to back embryonic stem-cell research. Rather than battleground issues on which the GOP likes to fight, these are wedge issues on which the GOP likes to campaign in October to rally the Red Staters. And the base is beginning to get the message. They are the girls of summer who are dumped when the boys go back to school.
On sovereignty, the White House has maintained its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and International Criminal Court but continues to accept the dictations of a World Trade Organization, to which the Gingrich-Dole internationalists subordinated U.S. sovereignty in ’94.
But on two issues, besides the war, the Bush Republicans are starting to lose their conservative base as well as the country.
House Republicans voted 7-1 for CAFTA, but enthusiasm for that trade deal was nonexistent, and Bush had to twist arms in his own party to win. Weekly stories of factory closings, jobs being outsourced, and foreign workers coming in to take American jobs at Third-World wages are killing the old faith in free trade.
The Business Roundtable and its house organ, the Wall Street Journal, have lost the country, which is why Democrats voted 14-1 against CAFTA. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing on globalization.
But it is on America’s bleeding border that the GOP faces a crisis. If President Bush is unwilling to protect this border where 1 to 2 million attempt to break in yearly, and half a million succeed, this issue could sink the party in 2006. Mass immigration is eating up tax dollars — in health, education, welfare, and prison, police and court costs — bankrupting states and imperiling our security.
Where do conservatives stand? Almost all are demanding that Bush do more to stop the Mexican invasion.
Thus on free trade, immigration and the war, all major issues, conservatism is a house divided. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the leading candidates to succeed Bush, stand with him on all three, but the country stands against all three, on all three issues. The last best hope of the GOP in 2008 is — as always — the Democrats.