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FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with David Keene on NOW with Bill Moyers, January 23, 2004

MOYERS: Joining me now to talk more about the conservative agenda is David Keene. He's the chairman of the American Conservative Union, the largest grassroots conservative organization in the country.

He also writes a regular column for THE HILL, a newspaper that covers Congress, and he's a lobbyist in Washington. Welcome to NOW.

KEENE: It's a pleasure to be with you.

MOYERS: David, I've known you for over 20 years now. I've seen you become a major figure in the conservative movement that now governs Washington. And I'm confused. What's happened to the conservative belief in a small and limited government?

KEENE: It's intact, Bill. Most conservatives believe today as they did in the past that the primary reason for their involvement in politics is to make certain that government keeps its hands off them, keeps its hands out of their pockets. The problem that we have is that with the Republican Party in control of the Congress and in the White House, that there's a tendency to do the same thing that the Democrats did when they were in power.

MOYERS: When I watched the State of the Union message earlier this week I thought Lyndon Johnson had come back disguised as George W. Bush. I mean, this man really believes in using the government and to spend money to expand the powers of government.

KEENE: Well, I think to be fair to Bush, he's of split mind on all this, Bill. He, like a lot of Presidents, once they get in decide that it's their government and they ought to do this, that and the other thing. And they forget about the costs that are involved. On the other hand, when you press him, and even in the State of the Union, he says we need to do something about spending.

The question is will he do it? And what conservatives have been trying to do is remind the President and the Congress that the basic tenets of the philosophy that got them into office require reining in government, not unleashing it. We're not here to act like Lyndon Johnson. We're here to act more like Ronald Reagan.

MOYERS: He wants to send a man to Mars and spend $500 billion on it. He wants to spend $1.5 billion to promote marriage. He wants to spend $200 million to fight obesity. He's creating trillions of dollars in unfunded liability with his new Medicare provision. I mean, when Republicans, as you said, were in the minority they used to ridicule Democrats for that kind of spending. Now they're for it.

KEENE: Well, now we ridicule Republicans for that kind of spending, Bill. No, the fact is that, you know, people are people and politicians are politicians. And if you remember back to the Nixon campaign in 1968, Richard Nixon ran and one of the programs that he condemned most soundly was the Food Stamp Program.

1972 rolled around and he ran ads talking about he'd done more to expand the Food Stamp Program than any other President.

MOYERS: One of your conservative colleagues, Stephen Moore of the Conservatives Club for Growth, says that the Bush state of the union has become a state of dependency and a state of entitlement. And Paul Weyrich, another one of the founders with you of the Conservative Movement, says profligate spending by the Republicans in Congress is twice the rate under Bill Clinton.

KEENE: That's not an opinion, Bill. That's a fact.

MOYERS: That's a fact.

KEENE: Non-defense discretionary spending under Clinton was going up at about 2 1/2 percent. And under Bush it's been going up roughly twice that. And I think that the Republicans, unless they want to lose definition, the definition of their party and what they mean to the base out there that supports them in election after election, have to come to grips with the fact that they are letting that definition be eroded by acts that they would never contemplate were they looking at somebody else doing it.

MOYERS: Paul Weyrich says that if the President doesn't veto the big budget buster passed this week by Republicans, conservative core voters are not going to work for his re-election. They might not even vote, says Weyrich. Can you imagine any circumstance under which you would not vote for George W. Bush's re-election?

KEENE: I can imagine such circumstances. But it'd be very difficult. I think that in spite of any disagreements I have with the President, I think he's doing a pretty good job. There are some things I'd like to change. And, you know, if you're involved in the kind of politics that we're involved in now, your job is make certain that your own team does what it needs to be doing.

About 30 years or so ago, Bill, the sociologist Sam LeBelle, wrote that the real debates in our country historically have not taken place between the parties but within the majority or governing coalition. And I think that's why you've got this kind of debate going on within the Republican Party. That's the important debate.

And the outcome of that debate is going to determine where this country, where the Republican Party, where the conservatives are going to go. I'm involved in that debate. And I think that the philosophy, the standards and the principles that brought us this far are what we ought to stick by.

MOYERS: Do you think deep tax cuts and massive spending like this can co-exist indefinitely?

KEENE: No, I think that tax cuts obviously as we've seen time after time after time do generate economic growth. That's to the good and that does increase government revenues. But you can't, over a long period of time continue to cut taxes and continue to increase spending because it just doesn't work.

And the President and the Republican leadership in Congress has to come to grips with the fact that if we are, in fact, the small government party then we have an obligation to act like the small government party and to do what we can to reduce spending. And I think that there's a lot that can be done if Republican leaders in Congress and the White House have the courage to do it.

MOYERS: What would happen if you asked conservatives at your meeting to pass a resolution calling on President Bush to veto this budget-busting bill that was passed this week?

KEENE: Well, the message from this meeting this week, where we have about 4,000 conservatives from around the country, these are the people that are the President's base, is that, by golly, it's time to do something about government spending. And we are, in fact, demanding that something be done.

As Congressman Mike Pence from Indiana said in the keynote to our convention, "When the ship starts to veer off-course or drift off-course the crew ought to alert the captain that they sense that there's something wrong so that he can make corrections." This crew's been alerting the captain. And I think there's evidence that the captain's beginning to listen. MOYERS: But Dick Cheney, Vice-President Cheney, got standing ovations yesterday when he addressed your meeting. And he never mentioned deficit. I mean, is there…

KEENE: I wouldn't have either if I were him.

MOYERS: Nor would I. But does hypocrisy get a pass?

KEENE: No, that's not a… I mean, you know, if you're a politician and you come to a convention, you talk about the things that you agree with the folks in the audience about. You don't come and talk about the things that you disagree.

Dick Cheney knows full well that we've got a lot of questions and a lot of criticisms about the spending levels that have been tolerated by this administration. But I don't think he came here to talk about our differences. I think he came here to talk about the things that we agree on. And on most things, frankly, Bill, we do agree.

MOYERS: What, in essence, defines a conservative today?

KEENE: I think I'll go back to what Mike Pence said in opening this conference this week. We talked about the conservative desire for a smaller and limited government. A government that doesn't tax people to death, a government that doesn't regulate them to death, a government that doesn't spend money that doesn't exist.

We talked about the fact that conservatives believe in a strong defense, believe in being able to defend our population and in traditional values that conservatives have historically stood for. And Mike put it very effectively. He said, "If you don't believe in those things you can be our friend, you can be our ally. We'll work with you. But you don't have the right to stand up and call yourself a conservative."

MOYERS: But, David, I have to come back to this. George W. Bush is spending non-existent money faster than anybody in modern times. He's expanding the power of the state with not just homeland security and the war of terror abroad but with one extension of domestic agency after another. I mean, do you really consider him a core conservative?

KEENE: We consider Bush to be a conservative who's allowed the ship to drift a little bit off-course. And we're yelling to get it back on-course and I think we will. You know, the jury, in a sense, is out.

When we go back to the beginning of the Bush Administration, the things that conservatives are most upset about and have been most upset about, Bill, were the Education Bill. George Bush started and proposed an education bill that most conservatives liked. By the time it worked its way through Congress, Republicans in Congress and the President had compromised to the extent that when it was signed you had a smiling Teddy Kennedy standing next to the President at the signing because it was more a Democratic bill than a Republican bill.

He allowed the farm program to be expanded greatly beyond where we thought it should be and spent a lot of money that we didn't think needed to be spent. He started out making a pretty good proposal to the Congress on prescription drugs. And ended up with something gargantuan that nobody on the Republican or conservative side had expected at the outset.

The problem here has not been the President's intentions in my view. The problem has been that when it comes to the crunch that this administration has not fought and asked its people on the Hill to fight against the kinds of compromise that can destroy the best of intentions.

I think that what we need to do is get this President — goodness, we'd have to do it with any President, Republican or Democrat, and it's one of the things that conservatives have fought for over the years — get this President to exercise restraint and to exercise courage in going in and fighting the kind of spending that Congress is all too often willing to add on to any bill. And while it's a Republican Congress today, it could be a Democratic Congress tomorrow and it was yesterday. And they all act in the same manner. It's why we've always had a problem with government spending.

MOYERS: I saw in this bill, with its thousands of what they call add-ons, I saw a $50 million item for a fake rainforest in Iowa sponsored by a Republican Senator, a former Republican governor and a former Republican state party chairman. And I thought, "That's not the Conservative Party that Bourke Hickenlooper and others I used to know from Iowa used to tell me about."

KEENE: That's right. And, Bill, let me make something clear. We're not just looking at it as some people do as a balance sheet. Government spending is bad for a lot of reasons. You have the deficit problem and the problem that you're going to put that-- the debt you create onto the backs of future generations.

You have the fact that government spending sucks money out of the private sector and can be an economic drag. But the real reason conservatives have viewed higher taxes and higher spending as a negative that ought to be opposed is that higher taxes deprive working people of the freedom to spend their own money in ways that they want to spend it.

Greater government spending displaces private individual choice. The real goal of conservatism is to expand the sphere of the individual. Individual freedom has been at the heart of our philosophy. And our objection to big government is not just that it doesn't work, though Lord knows it doesn't.

It's not just that it's wasteful, though Lord knows it is. Our objection to big government is that it crowds out the freedom on which innovation and the and people depend for the quality of their life. That's why we object to it. So it's so when we talk about economic considerations I just urge that you remember that our feeling is that there's a lot more to this than simply the economics.

MOYERS: Did you tell that to Dick Cheney yesterday?

KEENE: We didn't discuss that. But we've discussed it in the past.

MOYERS: All right. By the way, I see that Ann Coulter is one of your main speakers. Do you agree with her that liberals are traitors?

KEENE: No, Ann gets a little carried away sometimes, Bill. You're not a traitor. You're just wrong.

MOYERS: Thank you for being on the show David Keene...

KEENE: Okay. Right.

MOYERS: …of the American Conservative Union.

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