I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bush followers are not conservatives

Al Gore is scheduled to speak today at noon alongside long-time conservative Bob Barr in protest of the Bush Administration’s lawless NSA eavesdropping program. Such a joint appearance not only highlights the real opportunity to turn this scandal into one that transcends the liberal-conservative battles, but also demonstrates just how far removed this Administration is from anything remotely resembling principles of conservatism -- or, for that matter, any principles which call for some restraint on Federal Government power.

It has long been clear that there is nothing remotely "conservative" about this Administration, at least in the sense that conservative ideology has stood for a restrained Federal Government which was to be distrusted. There has been a long line of decidedly un-conservative actions by this Administration -- from exploding discretionary domestic spending to record deficits to an emergency convening of the Federal Government to intervene in one woman’s end-of-life decisions to attempts to federalize, even constitutionalize, marriage laws – all of which could not be any more alien to what has been meant by "conservatism" for the past 40 years.

The NSA scandal ought to make it impossible for any intellectually honest conservatives to continue to support this Administration. It is a scandal in which the Administration has trampled on two bedrock conservative principles -- an unintrusive Federal Government and adherence to the rule of law. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, one of the few mainstream journalists who has both recognized and articulated that the NSA scandal constitutes a genuine crisis in our government, explained in his column this week:

But "Snoopgate" is already creating new fissures on the right. The NSA story is an acid test of whether one is a traditional Barry Goldwater conservative, who believes in limited government, or a modern Richard Nixon conservative, who believes in authority.

This is exactly right. Under the Bush Administration, the term "conservative" long ago ceased to signify a political ideology and has instead become a personality cult. As Alter says, the conservatism of Bush followers is first and foremost about a belief in authority – the authority of George Bush. Literally, what now determines whether one is a "conservative" is the fealty one demonstrates to George Bush, the Leader and Commander-in-Chief.

Adherence to any particular political principle has become irrelevant. Whatever George Bush does or says becomes the definition of "conservatism," even if what he is doing and saying has nothing to do with, or is even antithetical to, precepts of actual conservatism. One is a "conservative" in exact proportion to the extent of one’s loyalty to Bush.

Although Bush followers long maintained the fiction that they were "conservatives," they are, at long last, giving up the pretense. Bush lover Fred Barnes has a new Book of Reverence entitled "Rebel-in-Chief," which Andrew Sullivan, having reviewed the book for the Sunday Times, has labeled a "fellatial biography" that "makes Powerline read like the Daily Kos." If the classicly glorifying cover is any indication, Sullivan’s description is accurate:

Bush followers who are discussing the book are openly celebrating the fact that George Bush has dispensed with any notions of a restrained Federal Government and has, instead, converted the Federal Government into an instrument for imposing a "conservative" vision on America. Here is Christopher Wilcox in the New York Sun drooling with admiration for both Barnes' book as well as its subject:

One of Mr. Barnes's most important points is how unhappy many conservatives are with Mr. Bush's big-spending ways. This certainly has been reported elsewhere, but Mr. Barnes goes further, claiming that Mr. Bush is deliberately transforming the conservative movement from its small-government orientation to a more activist approach.

What does it even mean to say that Bush is "transforming the conservative movement from its small-government orientation to a more activist approach." What is left of "the conservative movement" if one guts from it its "small-government orientation"? Isn’t that somewhat like transforming the peace movement away from its opposition to war or the environmental movement away from its opposition to pollution?

In reviewing Barnes’ paean, the Bush worship club that calls itself "Blogs for Bush" makes equally clear that conservatism needs only George Bush, not any of that obsolete abstract stuff about small government. Explaining to us with great understatement that the Commander-in-Chief is "liked and admired by a very staunch set of supporters," Blogs for Bush tells us, with no trace of irony:

Don't get me wrong, I'm a conservative and believe that conservatism is the only proper way to govern, but like President Bush I see no reason to tilt at windmills. To fight to terminate the Department of Education is to merely give the liberal/left opposition the opportunity to campaign against you as "anti-education" - much better to just pour some conservative wine in the old, liberal bottles...use the bloated budget of the Department of Education to advance conservative education reform.

So when Democrats had primary control of the Federal Government, conservatives spent the entire time loudly demanding that the size and reach of the Federal Government be severely curtailed. But that was all just for show. When the same conservatives acquired full-scale control of the Federal Government, they decided that restraining the Federal Government was just "tilting at windmills." No need to bother oneself with that now. So they decided instead to dispense with all of those silly small government pipe dreams and, to fill the gap, they are embracing and expanding the power of the Federal Government in order to implement their "activist" conservative vision on America.

That the Bush Administration is engaged in such an un-conservative project is not news to anyone who has been paying even minimal attention. But it is news that they are admitting it. And Bush opponents ought to be exploiting this very real and growing tension in order to demonstrate that there is nothing remotely partisan or ideological about the NSA law-breaking scandal.

Real conservatives – meanings ones who have objectives and beliefs other than the glorification of George Bush – ought to be most offended by Bush’s law-breaking. One can defend Bush’s secret, lawless eavesdropping on American citizens only if one has a virtually blind faith in the Bush Administration, and yet the core instinct of conservatism has long been expressed by this sentiment:

It is a mistake to think of the Bush Administration as "conservative." There is nothing remotely conservative about it. It resembles far more strongly a cult of personality which glorifies the authority of the leader and which desires no limits on his power. But regardless of what one thinks of what has long been referred to as "conservatism," there is a fundamental tension between that ideology and the beliefs of Bush followers.

Al Gore’s appearance with Bob Barr is reflective of that tension and uses it quite powerfully to make the point that the NSA scandal is not the by-product of the standard liberal-conservative split. Bush's invasive, illegal eavesdropping promotes neither liberal nor conservative values. To the contrary, it squarely contradicts both, and promotes nothing other than the Bush Movement.

In terms of ensuring that there are real consequences to Bush’s law-breaking, it would be highly constructive for there to be a lot more events like this Gore-Barr speech. There is no reason to continue to ignore these long-simmering divisions which are waiting to explode.

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