- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

Wednesday, the day after the “Super Tuesday” primaries, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference opens in Washington.

Many of the 5,000 activists in attendance will not only be perusing the primary election results, which determine whom among the Republican presidential candidates remain viable. They will also be sifting through countless press releases and television sound bites in a continuing effort to sort out which one best fits their own very personalized mental image of the “true” conservative.

One thing is certain: Neither Barry Goldwater, who gave birth to the modern conservative movement, nor Ronald Reagan, the man most of this year’s candidates claim to be most like, would have much of a chance.

A Goldwater candidacy would be a nonstarter. In Goldwater’s mind, what “conservatism” was trying to conserve was the U.S. Constitution, with its firm lines between state and citizen.

Goldwater, like the rest of us, had opinions about most social issues, but he clearly understood the difference between personal reaction and government direction. With his followers influential in shaping Republican platforms, the party called for a constrained presidency and a strengthened Congress, demanded that citizens who lived in the District of Columbia be fully represented in the House of Representatives, and endorsed planned parenthood (in his home state of Arizona, planned parenthood supporters present an annual Barry Goldwater Award).

Had either party limited the right of habeas corpus, conducted wiretaps on American citizens without a warrant, or claimed, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did recently, that it would be acceptable to amend the Constitution to enshrine biblical values, Goldwater would have led a popular uprising in opposition. Had any public figure proposed, as former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has, that we have a part-time Congress (thus expanding the powers of the presidency), Goldwater would have been apoplectic.

Even more surprising is the modern conservative movement’s divergence from the principles of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Thompson (often credited with being “most like” Reagan), Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney have been the most outspoken in denouncing government, sometimes citing Reagan’s quote that “government is not the solution; government is the problem.”

But Reagan, who spent a good part of his life in government, was not, in fact, anti-government. Here — and this will surprise many of this year’s presidential candidates — is what Reagan actually said in that now-famous Inauguration speech:

“In the present crisis,” Reagan said, referring to the state of the nation at the end of the Carter presidency, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time, we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government by, for, and of the people.”

But he continued: “All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us; not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”

Unlike George W. Bush, Reagan did not “look into the eyes” of Mikhail Gorbachev. He looked at the nuclear weapons arsenals in both America and the Soviet Union and dedicated much of his presidency to ridding the world of the nuclear menace, hammering out arms reduction agreements.

Reagan built a stronger American military capability and waged a defensive struggle against Soviet expansion without invading the privacy of his own citizens. He did not, as Mr. Huckabee recently did, warn potential adversaries that he would usher them to the “gates of hell.”

Coming in the final year of Mr. Bush’s disastrous presidency, faced with a lineup of candidates who pledge fealty to conservative principles but seem to have no clue as to what those principles are, the activists at CPAC will have to do more than decide whether Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Rudy Giuliani will have the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in November.

This is not just about beating Democrats, it’s about reclaiming conservatism.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma, is a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and author of the forthcoming book “Reclaiming Conservatism.”

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