The conservative movement has scored historic gains but has yet to achieve several of its basic goals.
That’s the verdict of some of its founding fathers (and one important mother).
“We won the battle against communism, but I guess we’ve largely lost the battle against big government,” says Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, 79, who defied conventional wisdom by leading a women’s crusade that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment in the mid-1970s.
“And we’ve lost lots of our liberties,” says Mrs. Schlafly, a national leader of the conservative movement since 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency as the Republican nominee.
Although Mr. Goldwater was soundly defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, the Arizona Republican’s campaign was a watershed for political conservatism. Mr. Goldwater championed small government, lower taxes and global anticommunism.
Mrs. Schlafly is one in a small coterie of surviving founders who struggled for many years to popularize conservative politics and finally to elect Ronald Reagan as president for two terms beginning in 1980. They agree that Mr. Reagan remains the most admired figure of modern conservatism.
These movement founders also concur with the observation of William Rusher, former publisher of National Review magazine, that one of the most significant achievements has been that the “conservative movement has come to dominate the Republican Party totally.”
The growing conservative trend among Republicans has had an ironic effect on the Democratic Party, Mr. Rusher says, prompting a largely successful effort by liberal Democrats “to wipe out the last vestiges of conservatism” in their party.
At 80, Mr. Rusher, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship, is optimistic about the future of the conservative movement. This sentiment is echoed by Edwin J. Feulner, 62, president of the Heritage Foundation, who says that the conservative movement has achieved many of its original aims — both at home and abroad.
“The biggest achievements have been helping the people of Eastern Europe to become free, cutting taxes, reforming welfare and transforming the military,” says Mr. Feulner, who began his involvement in the movement 33 years ago as a young activist aide to Rep. Philip M. Crane, Illinois Republican.
Despite its successes, some of these leaders are troubled by the failure of the conservative movement to secure one of its major goals: the rolling back of big government entitlement programs.
“What attracted me to conservatism in 1959 was the idea that maybe we could turn back the leviathan government that was taking away our liberties,” says Donald J. Devine, 66, an official in the Reagan administration.
“How little did I know we were living in a system with less federal presence and interference than we have now — 44 years later,” Mr. Devine says.
Other leaders, such as Richard A. Viguerie, 69, recognized for his pioneering direct-mail fund raising for the conservative movement, worry that conservatism has paid a price for its political success.
“Today we have a situation we haven’t faced since the presidency of Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Viguerie says. “When your own people are presumed to be in power, it is much more difficult to build a movement. During the Reagan years, we at least had leaders such as [North Carolina Sen. Jesse] Helms who consciously stuck to the conservative agenda.”
One political reality, Mr. Viguerie says, is that the “conservatives in Congress today are not movement players. They are part of the Republican team assembled by President Bush and [Bush chief strategist] Karl Rove. No matter how much overlap there may be between the two agendas, their first allegiance is to the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement.”
One of the greatest impediments to the success of the movement, some leaders suggest, was the fundamental incompatibility between two of its major goals — scaling back the size and scope of the federal government and waging an aggressive foreign policy to defeat communism around the world.
“In the early years, there were no ‘big government conservatives’ around — at least no one who would admit to being that,” Mr. Viguerie says. “We all believed we were fighting to roll back the welfare state and return to constitutional government.
“The problem was, how do you accomplish that if you’re also fighting communism, which requires increased expenditures and a bigger role for government in the national economy?” Mr. Viguerie asks.
Another problem the conservative movement had was that it emerged in the 1950s primarily as an intellectual force — not a political one.
The movement’s core ideas were established in seminal works like Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” in 1944, Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” in 1953 and Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” in 1962.
“Conservatives were blessed with these thinkers and others,” including National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., says M. Stanton Evans, 69, founding director of the National Journalism Center and an anti-communist stalwart for more than 50 years.
Mr. Buckley made his name with “God and Man at Yale” in 1951 and defended Joseph McCarthy’s search for communist sympathizers in the government. He harshly criticized moderate “Eisenhower Republicanism” in his 1959 best-seller, “Up From Liberalism.”
What this intellectual movement lacked then was power. It was at the 1960 Republican convention that the “ideological glob of intellectuals, writers and protesters transformed itself into a political movement,” recalls American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene.
Mr. Keene, who was national chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s, says a defining moment came at the 1960 convention when Mr. Goldwater withdrew his name from consideration for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. The Arizona senator told his fellow conservatives to “grow up,” concede that they had lost the convention to Vice President Richard M. Nixon, pull together to defeat the Democrats in the 1960 election — and work to take over the Republican Party.
By 1964, conservatives succeeded in capturing the GOP — at least temporarily — when Mr. Goldwater secured the presidential nomination. Mr. Goldwater’s decisive defeat that year taught conservatives another lesson: the need to forge a movement broad enough to achieve electoral success.
Their opening came in the late 1960s, when many middle- and working-class voters reacted against rising crime rates, the excesses of the antiwar movement and the emerging counterculture.
“In the days of Barry Goldwater, moral issues had not risen to the surface,” says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.
Movement leaders say that it wasn’t until millions of Catholics, disaffected Southern Democrats, many of them evangelical Protestants, and crime-weary blue-collar voters were added to the Republican electoral coalition in the 1960s and 1970s that the Republican Party gained enough electoral strength to defeat the national Democrats.
The third-party candidacy of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace fractured the Democratic “Solid South” in 1968, enabling Mr. Nixon to win the White House. In 1972, Mr. Nixon scored a crushing re-election win over George McGovern — though the potential fruits of that victory were lost after the Watergate scandal led to Mr. Nixon’s resignation.
Conservatives were disappointed by Mr. Nixon’s liberal policies — instituting affirmative action in the federal government, imposing wage and price controls, and recognizing communist China. Many conservatives further criticized Mr. Nixon for failing to scale back the “Great Society” social programs created by the Johnson administration.
“Beginning with the 1960s, concern in the conservative movement focused on communism, socialism and fundamental changes in our political system instituted under the aegis of the Democrats’ ‘Great Society,’” says Howard Phillips, 62, who was an anti-Castro activist as a Harvard undergraduate and worked in the Nixon administration.
Eventually, a conservative rebellion developed among congressional Republicans. “Capitol Hill conservatives united in the early 1970s against the Republican administration of Nixon and Gerald Ford,” Mr. Feulner recalled.
What took longer for movement leaders to learn were the dangers of partisan allegiance and political expediency.
“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,” Mr. Evans 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 social agenda
When the Republican Party in the 1970s could not reverse the liberal tide, some conservatives bolted — among them Mr. Phillips, who left the Republican Party in 1974 to become an independent.
Other conservative founders who have remained within the Republican fold concede their cause still has a long way to go — despite the current Republican control of Congress and the White House.
The movement’s greatest failures have been on the social front, says Mr. Falwell, 70, whose Moral Majority movement was crucial to the Reagan victory in 1980, bringing evangelical Christians into a sometimes fractious coalition with economic conservatives.
Mr. Falwell says the combination of social and economic conservatism has produced victories in politics —but not policy.
“The biggest failure of all has been our inability to turn back the homosexual agenda and to end abortion in America,” he says.
The emphasis on social issues like abortion and homosexuality by many conservatives in recent decades highlights the tension between those conservatives who stress personal freedoms and limited government and those who champion moral issues.
The original founders of the conservative movement “did not want to have social issues as part of their portfolio,” says Paul M. Weyrich, 61, a former congressional aide who helped establish the Heritage Foundation before going on to create the Free Congress Foundation.
When he wrote a position paper in the 1970s advocating the incorporation of social issues into the movement’s agenda, Mr. Weyrich says, “Heritage tried to get me cut off by having some of their staff call big donors [to my foundation].”
“But now we have adopted traditional values as part of the conservative view,” says Mr. Weyrich, recognized as a pioneer of the New Right, a young, brash movement that made headlines in the 1970s with populist issues, grass-roots organizing and protest politics.
Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, anticommunism remained the dominant issue for most conservatives. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New Right added social issues — such as abortion, crime, racial quotas, pornography, drugs and homosexual rights — to the conservative agenda.
The rise of social issues within the conservative cause stems in part from the erosion of values that were once taken for granted in American life, Morton C. Blackwell says. As executive director of the national College Republicans in the 1960s, Mr. Blackwell helped trained leaders like Karl Rove and Ralph Reed.
“In the 1950s and ‘60s, the major concerns of the conservative movement were limited government, free enterprise, strong national defense and anticommunism,” says Mr. Blackwell, now 63. “What are now called the social issues were not matters of conservatives’ major political concern because those matters were thought to be settled.”
A series of federal court rulings — banning prayer from public schools while striking down state laws against pornography and abortion — generated the “traditional values” agenda, Mr. Blackwell says.
As a result, in Mr. Weyrich’s view, “even neoconservatives and the [libertarian] Cato Institute now deal with conservative social issues, even though they might not have the same solution that I have.”
Movement leaders say that many of the issues that confronted conservatives in the past will continue to challenge them into the future.
But besides continuing to wage a culture war against the forces of liberalism, there’s a new challenge: the war on terrorism.
“It seems plain that we — or somebody — will have to define and clarify the role of the United States in the world arena, with communism mostly gone but terrorism coming on,” Mr. Evans says. “There’s been a lot of sloganeering and cheerleading on this, but not a great deal of clear thinking.”
Mr. Weyrich says “conservatives used to follow the injunction not to get involved in foreign entanglements.” Now, he says, the “Wilsonian view” that America’s job is “to make the world safe for democracy is definitely the prevailing view in conservative circles today. I’m skeptical of that view. I think ultimately we can’t take on all these assignments.”