Conservatives (myself included) were slow on the uptake with regard to Elian Gonzalez. For the first several months after his arrival in the United States, his case was for most conservatives more a curiosity than a cause celebre. It’s worth spending a little time on why that was so.
The Cold War is over. Therefore, the problem of communism is not at the forefront of conservative thinking, where it had been for 40 years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a strategic threat, the communism of “Evil Empire” days, when the fate of mankind hung on the nuclear balance, is long past. As an ideological force on the globe, the communist vision is dead: It is no longer romantic, and it no longer serves as anybody’s alternative “model” for economic development. For most conservatives, the biggest story out of China as the 20th century ended was not the continuity of communist Chinese repression but Beijing’s abandonment of doctrinaire communism on economic matters; many conservatives have looked to the growth of a middle class in China as the most likely path to political freedom.
So if conservatives have in general been more inward-looking in recent years, that is perhaps because the Cold War ended on terms conservatives found excellent with the physical breakup of the enemy and the global discrediting of his ideology.
For this reason, I think, most conservatives (again, including me) weren’t initially primed to react to the Elian Gonzalez case as a Cold War-style showdown with a communist state. For Cuban-Americans in Miami, the point was obvious, but not necessarily for most others.
Two other factors muddled conservative thinking on the matter. The first was the father-son dimension. Isn’t the family at the heart of all things? How could one deny the legitimacy of a father’s desire to be reunited with his son, especially after the death of the boy’s mother?
The second, less prevalent but nonetheless discernible, was the anti-immigrant sentiment some conservatives harbor. In this case, “reuniting Elian with his father in Cuba” was a particular case of a general proposition, namely, that most everybody landing on these shores ought to be swiftly reunited with their families back in wherever the heck they came from.
Even among those of us inclined not to leap to the idea that reuniting father and son is some sort of categorical imperative, the response initially took the relatively tepid form of arguing that Elian’s fate belonged in the courts, which ought to decide what was “in the best interest of the child,” etc. (One may reliably conclude that this was tepid as a conservative response from the fact that it ended up being Al Gore’s position.)
Largely missing in the early months, at least from native English speakers, was this simple statement: Under no circumstances are we shipping the kid back to a communist dictatorship. More personally and bluntly, and apropos of that ubiquitous “what-if-it-were-your-kid?” hypothetical, which yields a pretty predictable answer from those who have grown so accustomed to life in the United States that they have lost any sense of empathy for those who live elsewhere: If I lived in Cuba, I’d be doing everything in my power to enable my children to live in freedom, even if I got stuck behind. What, by the way, would you do?
By the time most conservatives reached clarity on this point, it was rather late in the day. By then, the airwaves were choked with old-style Castro sympathizers; apparently someone neglected to inform them that they had lost the Cold War. Rush Limbaugh was the most prominent spokesman for the anticommunist case outside the Cuban-American community, and he was rather lonely in that capacity: There were no advocacy ads in the New York Times to remind people about life under Mr. Castro, no formation of the Emergency Committee to Keep Elian Free, not much to lighten the load of Cuban-Americans as spokesmen for the cause.
What there was in the way of dissent tended to personalize the issue around Bill Clinton, as if this were somehow an extension of his scandals, as opposed to the far larger thing it really is: a struggle between contending points of view over what communism was and is and what to do about it. But the partisan politics of the issue are hardly inconsequential. If most conservatives were nonplussed about Elian at the outset, they are so no longer. The pictures from the Saturday morning raid on Lazaro Gonzalez’ house took care of that.
If you were looking for a way to galvanize conservative opinion in this country, to get the Republican base seriously excited about the stakes in the November election, you wouldn’t even dare hope that the incumbent Democratic administration would be so stupid as to send in machine gun-toting federal agents to snatch a six-year-old shipwreck survivor in order to send him back to Cuba.