What’s a Conservative?
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, some additional perspective on all of this from five people with conservative credentials: Former Republican Congressman Vin Weber of Minnesota, who’s now advising Senator McCain; Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, now a political consultant and advisor to Governor Bush; NewsHour regular David Gergen, a former Nixon, Reagan and Clinton administration official who’s now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Dorothy Rabinowitz; columnist with the Wall Street Journal, and Republican pollster Whit Ayers, who is not affiliated with any of the presidential candidates this year. Welcome all of you.
Vin Weber, who’s the real conservative here?
VIN WEBER: McCain and Bush. The good news, the true news is that both of the Republican candidates, and if it was yesterday you were asking the question, I’d say all three of the Republican candidates, are conservative candidates. There’s not a Rockefeller or a John Anderson in this race.
Now, it’s a more complicated question than that, Margaret, because it is dramatically true and obviously true that the nature of what it means to be a conservative candidate in the year 2000 is quite different than it was, say, in 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president. It happens to be the year I also first ran for Congress. But remember where we are in this presidential race. We’re in the — perhaps the most heated moment of the primary campaign.
The candidates are, including my candidate, including Governor Bush, working hard to find their differences. They’re obscuring really the fact that there’s a much larger unity on the basic economic and social approaches of the Republican party ought to take to government, which are defined, I would broadly say, as conservative.
MARGARET WARNER: Ralph Reed, would you agree with that, that the differences between Bush and McCain on this question of being a conservative really aren’t that great, useful perhaps for the political debate, but they’re pretty close?
RALPH REED: Well, I think if you stick purely, Margaret, to voting records in terms of legislative votes or policies advocated in office, that might be true. But if you look at where — the very divergent and different directions that they want to take the party in the future, I think that’s when you start to see some difference. Let me point to two in specific: In the case of Governor Bush, for example, he takes a more classic Republican argument that is pro growth, pro jobs; that is to say, we need to cut taxes, to encourage entrepreneurship, to keep this growth going and create more jobs. That was part of the supply-side thinking that came into the party in the late ’70s. Vin was a part of that — Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, others. At the same time, of course, he argues we have to modernize entitlements and pay down the debt.
McCain takes more of a deficit hawk type position; that is to say, its irresponsible or it isn’t prudent to send all that money out of Washington unless we do these other things first. Now, again, in terms of voting records, they’ve both advocated tax cuts and so forth, but in terms of where they want to go, that’s a big choice for the party and conservatives to make. The second is on the issue of reform. John McCain wants campaign finance reform to come first because he argues that paves the way for the other reforms. George W. Bush says, “We can take on the special interests now. I can reform now. We don’t have to wait for campaign finance to get it done.”
MARGARET WARNER: Let me come back to Vin Weber for a sec. Would you say, though that both those strains, if we look at economic policy, have been in the party all along, the supply-side and fiscal prudence?
VIN WEBER: The supply side and the deficit hawk side have always co-existed, sometimes with a lot of tension. But the most important point is they have shifted ground in response to circumstances. When I was a freshman congressman and Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president, we did indeed vote for a big, across the board, 25 percent reduction in everybody’s income tax rates, and nobody talked about the deficit, at least on our side.
Why? We had the highest peacetime rate of inflation in America’s history and a rising rate of unemployment and the highest interest rates in recent history. We had a serious fiscal economic crisis. Today we have the best economy in most in most of our lifetimes and the response of all these candidates is appropriately different than it was when we had an economy that we thought was on the verge of putting us back into the Great Depression.
MARGARET WARNER: OK, let me get some other voices in here. David Gergen, how real do you see these distinctions over who’s a conservative?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think what unites the candidates and what I think you can say about the Republican party that unites it basically is that it’s for leaner government, it’s for lean government. There are some within the Republican Party who would like lean active government. There are some within the Republican Party that would like lean inactive government. But there’s no question, as Seymour Martin Lipsett, the sociologist, has said, that the Republican is the most antistatused party in all of the developed countries, far more so than say the conservative party in England. And I think that there is a broad agreement within the party on that.
Beyond that, there are differences. I think Ralph Reed has pointed out the differences that exist between the two candidates very well. It does seem to me that there is — that John McCain has gone to a fiscal prudence that was represented in. It’s an interesting thing. John McCain is talking about some of the kind of things that George Bush Sr. used to talk about and it sounds like the kind of economics that George Bush Sr. supported in 1980 in his first campaign for the presidency. And the son has picked up the Reagan banner. It’s one of the great ironies of this, that George Bush Jr. is talking Reagan economics.
And John McCain is talking the moderate line that existed in the party for so long and that was a predominant line until Ronald Reagan came along. The one other thing that should be understood here, Margaret, is that everybody wants to pick up the banner of Ronald Reagan. He was the unifying force in the party. Now, I think the person who picks that up successfully is going to redefine what Reaganism is, as Vin Weber said, to fit changing times. But there’s no question somebody — the party is looking for a new Ronald Reagan.
MARGARET WARNER: So Whit Ayres, how do you see the distinction? And is it over this question of who’s a conservative?
WHIT AYRES: Well, Margaret, it’s interesting, if we’re talking about Ronald Reagan, he defined conservatism in his 1981 inaugural address — David may have helped write it — as revolving around the values of familiar family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom. Interesting that church wasn’t one of them. And those five values lead to three goals of smaller government, lower taxes and stronger defense. In broad outline, that does a pretty good job of describing conservatism today, although there are clearly some distinctions among them.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you see those distinctions — do you think they’re very real between Bush and McCain?
WHIT AYRES: They are real on the issues on which this election is being defined, on campaign finance reform, on the size of a tax cut. Those are very real issues that have a very different direction for where these two people would take the country. And so in that sense, they’re very real differences.
MARGARET WARNER: Dorothy Rabinowitz, how do you see it?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, I see that both of these candidates are moderates, and both of these candidates are certainly conservative, but I think we have to look at — if we speak of Ronald Reagan, if we look at the candidacy of John McCain, we see that, without the economic program, the heir to the Reagan mantle in terms of his effect, in terms of his — the feelings he is able to conjure among huge portions of the electorate, which is even now perfectly clear, and I think if you look at him silently you can say to yourself, this is the morning in America candidate without the clear economic platform. This is the man that makes Americans think of America in the way they used to, or in the way they wish to.
MARGARET WARNER: And you are speaking of –
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: John McCain.
MARGARET WARNER: McCain?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Yes. This is the impact he’s having and I think you can’t miss it in the feelings that he arouses and in that incontestable history that he has of valor and all of these conjure up a certain other kind of value that used to be identified with conservatives, but which in fact has brought, you know, Americans of all kinds.
I don’t have to tell anybody sitting here how many different kinds of people crossed over, people who were for abortion rights, people who were against abortion rights, people who were liberal, people who were conservative, they all came out in New Hampshire to vote for John McCain. And I don’t think that that was the anomaly of the New Hampshire voter because you see it everywhere.
Right now, for example, if you pick up today’s newspapers, you find out that people are crowding in to register to vote Republican in Boston, keeping everybody up late at night and they have to higher workers. This is a phenomenon. And the phenomenon is something very like — something that one of America’s great flag manufacturers told me.
“Before Ronald Reagan was elected president, flag sales were flat. Shortly thereafter, they began to boom.” This in a very minor way tells you something of what is going on that goes beyond feelings about abortion, social issues and taxes. Though of course all of these are important.
MARGARET WARNER: So Ralph Reed, would you agree with that, that to be the heir to Ronald Reagan is more than issues; it was also Reagan the sort of patriot Reagan, the leader who made everyone feel good about America and that McCain has tapped into that?
RALPH REED: Well, I don’t think it’s confined to John McCain. I think if you talk about the qualities that Reagan had in terms of his leadership style, the infectious optimism, the sense of humor, the sense in which he made people feel good about themselves. He was able to build a bridge through the force of his personality to people who disagreed with him on issues, and brought new people into the party, ethnic Catholics, Hispanics and so forth.
But I think if the Republican Party, Margaret, focuses at its core in 2000 on finding “the heir to Ronald Reagan,” they’re going to be making a mistake. I mean we are, as a party, today standing as far away from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural as Ronald Reagan stood from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. And you know, the world –
MARGARET WARNER: You mean 20 years?
RALPH REED: Yes. A generation. And the truth is that, from Reagan, we can take certain core values, a philosophy, that inclusive optimistic leadership style. But in terms of the challenges we face, the Internet, the post-Cold War world, a global economy, these are all things that are entirely new issues that were not around 20 or 25 years ago. We need to face that.
We need to find a new leader. We need to be forward-looking and not backward-looking. I think that’s what Bill Clinton understood in 1992. He wasn’t trying to be John F. Kennedy, as Gary Hart was, any more than John F. Kennedy was trying to be FDR. So you want to take those core values, but then you want to speak to the needs of a new generation.
MARGARET WARNER: But, David Gergen, but there are still voters who are saying we like core values, we like the issues, anti-abortion or tax cuts. Now with Bauer out of the race, Forbes we’re led to understand about to be out of the race, where do those voters go? Are they without a home?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, Alan Keyes would obviously say, “Come to me.” But I think that’s unlikely to happen. I was actually a little surprised by Ralph Reed’s argument. I thought that was the argument Vin Weber was making, take the values of Reagan and –
VIN WEBER: Ralph and I have been long-time friends.
DAVID GERGEN: OK. Where do they go? I think to go back to Dorothy Rabinowitz’s point, a lot of people are flocking to John McCain at the moment, regardless or whether they’re pro- or anti- on the abortion side because there’s something that their that transcends from their perspective.
Frankly, I’m not sure people want to inject Ross Perot into this argument, but there was that quality about Ross Perot in his inaugural — or his introduction to the American people in 1992, in that first wave, we saw much the same thing, the pro- and anti-abortion issue were lining up behind him. And I think the issue for McCain is can he sustain that, can he keep that momentum up, or does the tide go out as fast as it came in. We’ll have to wait and see.
I don’t think we know the answer to that. But I do think this — that bottom line, I actually believe that John McCain and Governor Bush are quite close together on this abortion issue. I think that they’re — both of them are pro-life. Neither of them is going to conduct, I think, an activist effort on behalf of the pro-life forces, but they will quietly encourage more belief in pro-life over time. I think this is one issue in which they’re closer together, unlike the economic issues.
MARGARET WARNER: So Whit Ayres, in lack looking at polling data, do you find it really matters to many voters who is the real conservative? Or do you see the party kind of creating this third way, and are they responding to the voters in that sense?
WHIT AYRES: Well, I think the fundamental point out of the exit polls in New Hampshire is that what drove Senator McCain’s victory was something quite apart from ideology. It wasn’t conservatism or moderate ideology; it was character, it was a sense that he would tell you the truth, that he wouldn’t lie to you. It was something quite apart from the ideological distinctions.
I do think that the party is adapting well to some of the changes that have occurred in the last 20 years. But the key point about Senator McCain is that it’s not an ideological drive at this point, although I think it will probably become that as the campaign goes along.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. I want to get back — and also to Dorothy Rabinowitz one last time. Vin Weber, do you agree with what Ralph Reed said, that it’s a mistake to be looking for the heir to Ronald Reagan, that the world has fundamentally changed?
VIN WEBER: I think the world has fundamentally changed. I think — I agree with Ralph. If you look back and say we want to do exactly what Ronald Reagan did, which I voted for in 1981, that’s saying you know, we’re not going to recognize that the end of the Cold War, the fundamental changes in the economy, the Internet revolution, any of that.
We do have to be looking forward, but Ronald Reagan did a very important thing. He articulated principles that are enduring and that can be applied, and I would argue both of these candidates are applying them very well in somewhat different ways to the problems of the 21st century.
MARGARET WARNER: And Dorothy Rabinowitz, do you think that good economic times have contributed, as Vin Weber just said and Ralph Reed, also, to this evolution?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Yes, of course they do. But they are not the all-defining aspect of it. Do you remember in television there was something called a “Q” factor, which is that indefinable something that makes someone attractive to people? And I have to think you look at that also in John McCain’s impact. This is not something you can buy. And then there is the aspect of the years we’ve just gone through in the Clinton presidency and the very sharp contrast that a candidate like McCain makes, as of course George W. Bush would also make.
But if I can only tell you briefly that here you live in New York among people who are not Republican voters in the mass and you see the astonishing impact that McCain has on these people, and you ask them, “Why? Why is this?” And they say, “He’s a man. He’s an adult.” And you have to think of this, too. This is not a baby boomer. This is someone — someone once suggested it’s as though we would have a president the way we used to have presidents. And I was very struck by that.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, maybe that’s the new definition of conservatism. Thank you all five very much.