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Activists on right fear waning influence

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Conservative activists fear that they are not exercising as much influence on the Bush White House as they did in previous Republican presidencies.

In a memo to hundreds of fellow conservatives, a former Reagan administration official says traditional views are being edged out by a neoconservative "national greatness" ideology that accepts big government and advocates interventionist foreign policy.

"Today, most conservative pressure ends up as simple cheerleading for the White House," Donald J. Devine, who was President Reagan's director of the Office of Personnel Management, wrote in the memo. "That can be helpful, but there is nothing that pushes politics further to the right, leaving conservatism and the Republican Party to drift."

For nearly half a century, conservatives nudged American politics, Republican ideology and government policy toward modern conservatism's founding principles. Chief among those principles is limited government.

Yet "government keeps growing," says Mr. Devine, now vice chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Journalistic conservatism is silent about this growth of government, which is especially fueled by neoconservative dreams of empire and which threatens the whole project of American liberty."

Veteran conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans agrees. "By far the biggest political disappointment for me -- and I think for many other conservatives -- has been our failure to get a handle on the problem of big government," he says. "This very much interacts with the question of the GOP, which always runs pretty hard on this issue, but has trouble translating its rhetoric into practice."

The close identification between the conservative movement and Republican politics is part of the problem, said former Reagan administration official Floyd Brown.

"The Republican Party is becoming more and more entangled with big government," said Mr. Brown, now executive director of Young America's Foundation. "As that trend continues, the movement needs to stand up and differentiate itself from Republican politics -- not that I am not a supporter of the president's, because I am."

At a recent White House briefing, visiting conservative leaders urged the administration to fight harder for Senate confirmation of judicial nominees, even though some of the nominees were considered moderates who had served in the Clinton administration.

"It is strange that conservatives are pushing us so hard on this when normally you would be opposing us for nominating a judge with a relatively moderate record and who served under Bill Clinton," Mr. Devine quoted White House political adviser Karl Rove as having told the assembled conservatives. "The Democrats have been so relentless that the whole battle has been between the left and the political center."

Mr. Devine said, "Rove put his finger directly on the nub of the matter: Conservatism today is not even on the battlefield."

In the resulting vacuum, Mr. Devine said, so-called "national greatness" conservatism -- first articulated in the Weekly Standard -- "replaced limited government as the ideal and filled the pages of journals on the right. ... As a result, today, Reagan mainstream conservatism lacks a public, intellectual voice."

Mr. Devine doesn't find that voice in Pat Buchanan's new magazine, the American Conservative, or in William Kristol's neoconservative Weekly Standard, because neither places a premium on limited government.

William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, opposes the kind of "Wilsonian interventionism" advocated by leading neoconservatives.

"The kind of Wilsonianism that Bill Kristol advocates, I think, is wrong [because] it over-stretches our power [and] takes insufficient account of the institutional requirements for genuine reform, to simply impose a constitution on Iraq or anybody else," Mr. Buckley recently told Human Events, a conservative weekly.

"If we cannot rise to oppose empire, the movement deserves to fail," Mr. Devine says in his memo. "All we need to do is ... speak up for our principles.

"Philosophically, either [Mr. Buckley] was right that building an American world empire was against conservative principles, or Bill Kristol, Max Boot and Paul Johnson -- with some National Review and Wall Street Journal support -- were correct that a new American colonialism was required to bring peace and democracy to the world," Mr. Devine says. "Even President Bush had said: 'America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish' -- but neoconservatives were still trying to push him there anyway."