A Christmas Message for Conservatives

“Democrats get people jobs. Republicans take people’s résumés.”

The provocative observation was made by a friend who is now completing his second year in search of a job in Washington. A conservative activist since a teenager, he cut his political eyeteeth in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns, held positions in both the executive and legislative branches of government and in the private sector. An unfortunate turn of events cost him his last job. He has not worked since.

After the elections last month, my friend was joined by scores of others who worked on the staffs of conservative Republican lawmakers who won’t be back when Congress reconvenes in January. The newly unemployed started pounding the proverbial pavement for work—within the Bush Administration, in lobbying and public relations firms, in trade associations and “think tanks.” I began to hear the same mantra: the people they considered political soulmates take their résumés, say they will “pass them around,” and ultimately never return calls of the job-seeker who sought their help.

The lament of conservatives in Washington need of job assistance is not a new one and should not be applied to conservative leaders across the board. Some do take the time and try to help those in need. But far more often than not, the real heavy lifting on behalf of job-seekers in need comes from the left: labor unions, liberal think-thanks (most recently, the new and well-funded Center for American Progress founded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta), and lobbying firms with Democratic associates, whose ranks are beginning to mushroom since November 8. When Democrats lost control of both Houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, staffers turned to groups like these and, for the most part, they managed to survive. The result was a veritable “government in exile” for congressional Democrats when and if they recaptured power on Capitol Hill. When they did, they had the ideas and staffers for them to hit the ground running.

This could be an explanation for why liberal Democratic causes never die. Whether it’s raising the minimum wage, pursuit of greater government regulation of tobacco, or the concept of “paid volunteers” that became Americorps, these ideas may retreat for a while when Democrats lose Congress or the White House. But they never die and they inevitably re-emerge. Can anyone say that about former conservative “causes célèbre,” such as abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts or turning over wholesale government programs to the states? Could their relegation to the dustbin of history have something to do with the fact that so many of those who worked on those issues when Republicans ran Congress are gone?

Why the cavalier attitude among conservatives toward those of their own in need? Several who have observed the contemporary conservative movement—Coalitions for America head Paul Weyrich or veteran columnist-commentator Cal Thomas—have referred to a preference among many established conservatives toward the social whirl of Washington. Invitations to the right receptions and seats at the right dinner parties. When one is enamored with “the circuit,” it seems, one finds knowing people in need of work a nuisance.

Another reason for this apparent “Don’t bother me when in need attitude” among conservatives could be a perverse interpretation of the Ayn Randian glorification of the individual. If one believes that individuality is sacrosanct, then it follows that the individual can and should make it on his or her own. Therefore, one in a position of influence concludes, “I should leave them alone—and they should leave them alone.”

Such a conclusion denies the history of modern conservatism and powerful movements in general. None were ever launched nor their goals achieved by a leader acting solo. Rather, the Sharon Statement finalized at William F. Buckley’s home in 1961 that launched the conservative Young Americans for Freedom youth group had numerous signers; the early “Draft Goldwater” movement blossomed with thousands of volunteers; the Panama Canal Treaty battle, the near-successful Reagan for President campaign in 1976 and its successful successor movement four years later, the birth and growth of conservative political action committees in the 1970s, the think tanks—all included multitudes of eager activists who sought out and recruited others in a “people to people” movement. From their home in Piety Hill, Mich., the late conservative thinker Russell Kirk and wife Annette were tireless in assisting eager young conservatives wanting work in Washington. No one could do it or did do it alone.

Strong political movements succeed, in the words of Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, “not by subtraction and division but by addition and multiplication.”

Republican administrations have been notorious for leaving their wounded on the battlefield. One hears now from candidates who carried the GOP banner last month and lost how little hope they have that the Bush Administration will give them a position that may resurrect their careers. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, for example, lost a bid for the Senate in his state but was considered one of the GOP’s brightest stars of ’06. The chairmanship of the Republican National Committee was clearly dangled in front on him—if nowhere else, among the RNC members themselves and in the press—and Steele said he would take it. But no offer was forthcoming.

Talking to a defeated Republican House member recently, I suggested that the soon-to-be former lawmaker might be the President’s choice for UN ambassadorship after John Bolton’s resignation

“That makes sense,” replied the member. “But do you really think the administration has thought it out in those terms?”

It wasn’t always this way. Having tasted painful defeat himself, Richard Nixon had a soft spot for losing candidates when he was President. Former Hartford, Conn., Mayor Ann Uccello, who made a race for Congress in a heavily Democratic district at Nixon’s request and lost in 1970, was given a key post in the Department of Transportation. John Chafee, defeated for re-election as governor of Rhode Island, was tapped as secretary of the Navy. And the loser of his second bid for the Senate from Texas was given the plum assignment that saved him for political oblivion: UN ambassador. His name was George H.W. Bush.

And the rest is history.

Still another defeated candidate of the Nixon era, Wisconsin State Sen. Jerris Leonard, was named to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department shortly after he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1968. He went on to become a highly successful attorney in Washington. One thing that Leonard’s wide circle of friends recalled at his funeral was that, without exception, he always made time and effort to mentor and assist young conservatives coming to Washington.

All right, conservatives. This Christmas, that’s a noble example to follow. Take 24 hours—just one day—and adopt one of our own who is in search of work. Listen, talk, guide, and see what you can do or if there is anyone in your rolodex who can help. Think of an event such as the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference and give the conservative in need a complimentary ticket and meal. If you can’t think of some way of assisting him, then try to let him circulate among others who might.

And remember: the job-seeker you reach out to and help may one day be there to help you.