Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
Where Does American Conservatism Go from Here?
As the Bush Administration enters its final period, more and more conservatives are expressing dismay about its legacy.
Alan Greenspan, who served as Federal Reserve chairman for 18 years and was the leading Republican economist for the past three decades, levels harsh criticism at President Bush and the Republican Party in his new memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. He argues that Bush abandoned the central conservative principle of fiscal restraint:
My biggest frustration remained the president's unwillingness to wield his veto against out-of-control spending. Not exercising the veto power became a hallmark of the Bush presidency. . . . To my mind, Bush's collaborate-don't-confront approach was a major mistake.
Greenspan accuses the Republicans who presided over the party's majority in the House until 2006 of being too eager to tolerate excessive federal spending in exchange for political opportunity. The Republicans, he says, deserved to lose control of the Senate and House in the 2006 elections. "The Republicans in Congress lost their way," he writes. "They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither."
He singles out J. Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who was House Speaker, and Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who was majority leader until he resigned after being indicted for violating campaign finance laws in his home state. Greenspan writes:
House Speaker Hastert and House majority leader Tom DeLay seemed readily inclined to loosen the federal purse strings any time it might help add a few more seats to the Republican majority.
When Bush and Cheney won the 2000 election, Greenspan declares:
I thought we had a golden opportunity to advance the ideals of effective, fiscally conservative government and free markets. . . . I was soon to see my old friends veer off to unexpected directions. Little value was placed on rigorous economic policy debate or the weighing of long-term consequences.
He notes that the large, anticipated federal budget surpluses that were the basis for Bush's initial $1.35 trillion tax cut "were gone six to nine months after George W. Bush took office..." So Bush's goals "were no longer entirely appropriate. He continued to pursue his presidential campaign promises nevertheless."
Greenspan provides this assessment of the Bush presidency:
I'm just very disappointed. Smaller government, lower spending, lower taxes, less regulation -- they had the resources to do it, they had the knowledge to do it. They had the political majorities to do it, and they didn't. In the end, political control trumped policy, and they achieved neither political control nor policy.
In a column entitled "The Republican Collapse," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks explains how philosophical drift had led to political decline:
The Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke. What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change. . . . Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, "pleasing commencements" but "lamentable conclusions."
Brooks notes that,
The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prized epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan. Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition, and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation's unique network of moral and social restraints.
In recent years, the vice president and the former attorney general have sought to expand executive power as much as possible in the name of protecting Americans from terror. This has also produced a reaction from conservatives who have long feared the power of government and have been committed to the constitutional system of checks and balances and divided authority between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
In October 2003, Jack Goldsmith, a legal scholar with strong conservative credentials, was hired to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advised the president and the attorney general about the legality of presidential actions. As he was briefed on counterterrorism measures the Bush administration had adopted in the wake of September 11, Goldsmith says he was alarmed to discover that many of those policies "rested on severely damaged legal foundations," that the legal opinions that supported these counterterrorism operations were, in his view, "sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the president."
Mr. Goldsmith eventually withdrew several key department opinions -- including two highly controversial "torture memos," dealing with the authority of the executive branch to conduct coercive interrogation -- but only after contentious battles with administration hardliners led by David Addington, then Vice President Cheney's legal adviser and now chief of staff.
In his book The Terror Presidency, Goldsmith recounts how he and his Justice Department colleagues, in consultation with lawyers from the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and the National Security council, reached a consensus in 2003 that the fourth Geneva Convention (which governs the duties of an occupying power and the treatment of civilians) affords protection to all Iraqis, including those who are terrorists. When he delivered this decision to the White House, he recalls, Addington exploded: "The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections. You cannot question his decision."
Mr. Goldsmith, who resigned from the Office of Legal Counsel in June 2004 -- only nine months after assuming the post -- describes a highly insular White House obsessively focused on expanding presidential power and loathe to consult with Congress; a White House that sidelined Congress in its policymaking and pursued a "go-it-alone approach" based on "minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense."
Noting that "the president and the vice president always made clear that a central administration priority was to maintain and expand the president's formal legal powers," Goldsmith says that lawyers soon realized that they "could gain traction for a particular course of action -- usually going it alone -- by arguing that alternative proposals would diminish the president's power."
Mr. Goldsmith is also critical of the manner in which the Bush administration went about side-stepping the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance act, which required the president and government agencies to obtain warrants from a special court before conducting electronic surveillance of people suspected of being terrorists or spies. Although he says he shared many of the administration's concerns on this issue, he "deplored the way the White House went about fixing the problem."
He quotes Mr. Addington saying of the surveillance act in court: "We're one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious court." And he observes that top Bush officials dealt with the act "the way they dealt with other laws they didn't like: they blew through them in secret based on flimsy legal opinions that they guarded closely so no one could question the legal basis for the operations."
Mr. Goldsmith concludes with the observation that unlike Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- two presidents who also presided over the nation at times of crisis -- President Bush has relied only on "the hard power of prerogative," ignoring:
. . . the soft factors of legitimation -- consultation, deliberation, the appearance of deference, and credible expressions of public concern for constitutional and international values -- in his dealing with Congress, the courts, and allies.
As a result, Goldsmith says, even if President Bush's "accomplishments are viewed more charitably by future historians than they are viewed today," they will "likely always be dimmed by our knowledge of his administration's strange and unattractive views of presidential power."
The combination of deficit spending, the growth of executive power, and the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq has left many conservatives completely disillusioned. "I've never seen conservatives so downright fed up," says long-time conservative leader Richard Viguerie.
The Economist notes that:
Mr. Bush has . . . presided over the biggest expansion in government spending since his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, provoking fury on the right. His prescription-drug benefit was the largest expansion of government entitlements in 40 years. He has increased federal education spending by about 60 percent and added some 7,000 pages of new regulations. Pat Toomey, the head of the Club for Growth, says the conservative base feels "disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government."
William F. Buckley, a leading conservative spokesmen and the founding editor of National Review, says that if Mr. Bush were the leader of a parliamentary system, "it would be expected that he would retire or resign." Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan administration economist, accuses him of "betraying the conservative movement."
In The Economist's view:
The Republicans have failed the most important test of any political movement -- wielding power successfully. They have botched a war. They have splurged on spending. And they have alienated a huge section of the population.
As the 2008 presidential campaign gets under way, Republican contenders are in the process of keeping their distance from the Bush presidency. The Washington Post reports:
For all the candidates, the unspoken problem is the same: how to establish a clear break from the legacy of President Bush and his sagging poll numbers without alienating the party faithful. . . . All the candidates have sought to make subtle distinctions with Bush. Thompson and McCain say the U.S. should have mobilized more troops for the invasion of Iraq, while Romney and McCain say the response to Hurricane Katrina should have been handled better -- leaving no doubt that they have some concerns about the Bush presidency, but stopping short of attacking his leadership. They have failed against excessive federal spending and say they would be willing to veto spending bills, in contrast to Bush, who this week vetoed a bill over spending concerns for only the second time in his presidency.
While there is a broad consensus that the party must find a way to move beyond Bush's legacy, according to The Post:
. . . there are widespread divisions within the GOP over the solutions. Some see a priority in the need to address ballooning spending, while others view social issues such as abortion and traditional marriage as paramount in determining the party's course.
Peter Wehner, a former White House official who worked under Karl Rove as director of strategic initiatives, says that:
Conservatism is going through an interesting moment. It's still a center-right country, but conservatism is going through an interesting moment when it's got to consider fresh the issues it's going to put forward and the politics it's going to advance.
He described his party as "at sea" on domestic policy such as health care.
Historian George H. Nash says that, "American conservatism has become middle-aged," and that with middle age has came a midlife crisis. In the book The Future of Conservatism (Edited by Charles W. Dunn, ISI Books), Nash identifies four distinct strands of modern American conservatism. Traditionalists value continuity, order, and hierarchy; libertarians prize personal freedom and social spontaneity; neoconservatives blend the New Deal's idealistic spirit with conservatism's muscular nationalism; and religious conservatives fight relativism, secularism, and immorality.
Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer with National Journal, and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, writes that:
Given their differences, the surprise is that these four heads ever joined atop one political beast. Yet Ronald Reagan, Soviet Communism, and hostility to the excesses of the 1960s brought together a vibrant coalition. Today Reagan and the Soviet Union are gone, and conservatism in power has produced excesses of its own, bringing the movement's cultural contradictions to the fore. Libertarians and traditionalists disagree on the relative importance of liberty and virtue; many neocons care not a fig about abortion, while religious conservatives seem to care about little else.
In Rauch's view:
Unexpectedly, George W. Bush, Reagan's would-be heir, has divided the conservative movement. . . . In his obsession with marginalizing the Democrats, and in his determination to be a "transformational" president, Bush embraced an activism that unmoored the party from its libertarian preference for small government and its traditionalist preference for orderly incrementalism. Libertarians' disenchantment has become obvious; less widely appreciated is that "there is now an apparently unbridgeable divide between traditional conservatives and the Bush administration on major policy matters," writes George E. Carey, a professor of government at Georgetown.
In the area of foreign policy, Bush broke decisively with the more cautious conservatism of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bush's own father. Political scientist Daniel J. Mahoney argues that Bush and the neoconservatives "misplace one-sided emphasis on democracy" -- their "undemocratic monomania":
. . . marks a break with an older conservative tradition which always insisted that Western liberty draws on intellectual and spiritual resources broader and deeper than that of modern democracy. . . . The best conservative thinkers of the last two centuries have been wary of unalloyed democracy.
Social and religious conservatives are also unhappy. Their rise to political power has redirected cultural currents much less than they had hoped, and Bush's Republican Party, the family scholar Allan C. Carlson complains, has sided with big business over families.
Where American conservatism is headed after two terms of an administration which proclaimed itself "conservative" but presided over huge budget deficits, a growth in government power, increased claims of executive authority, and a costly war which the majority of Americans believe was unnecessary -- all policies which are the opposite of what conservatives have always advocated -- is difficult to say.
At the present time, disillusionment among traditional conservatives is growing as is their view that the Republican Party may no longer be viewed as a vehicle through which to advance the program of smaller and limited government, balanced budgets, and a prudent foreign policy. Some are now speaking of launching a third party alternative.
Whatever happens, it is clear that the American political landscape has been dramatically altered as conservatives ponder their -- and the nation's -- future.
Tragedy at Virginia Tech Shows Need for a Careful Review of Privacy Laws
A Virginia state panel has sharply criticized decisions made by Virginia Tech before and after last April's murder of 32 people, saying university officials could have saved lives by notifying students and faculty members earlier that there had been killings on campus. Because university officials misunderstood federal privacy laws as forbidding any exchange of a student's mental health information, the report concludes, they missed numerous indications of the gunman's mental health problems.
The Virginia Tech tragedy makes it clear that our privacy laws must be carefully examined and that changes are in order. When Seung Hui Cho, the shooter, was in high school, Fairfax County, Virginia, school officials determined that he suffered from an anxiety disorder so severe that they put him in special education, and devised a plan to help, but Virginia Tech was never told of the problem. Fairfax officials were forbidden from transmitting this information to Virginia Tech by federal privacy and disability laws that prohibit high schools from sharing with colleges private information such as a student's special education coding or disability. Those laws also prohibit colleges from asking for such information.
At Virginia Tech itself, it became clear that Cho had mental problems. Campus authorities were aware of his troubled mental state17 months before the massacre. More than one professor reported bizarre behavior. Campus security tried to have him committed involuntarily to a mental institution. There were complaints that Cho made unwelcome phone calls and stalked female students. Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason, University states that:
Given the university's experiences with Cho, they should at least have expelled him, and their failure or inability to do so was the direct cause of the massacre.
Beyond this, argues Williams, we must consider a federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). As Virginia Tech's registrar reports:
Third Party Disclosures are prohibited by FERPA without the written consent of the student. Any persons other than the student are defined as Third Party, including parents, spouses, and employers.
College officials are required to secure written permission from the student prior to the release of any academic record information.
That means a mother, father, or spouse who might have intimate historical knowledge of a student's mental, physical, or academic problems, who might be in a position to render assistance in a crisis, is prohibited from being notified of new information. . . . Alternatively, should the family member wish to initiate an inquiry as to whether there have been any reports of mental, physical, or academic problems, they are prohibited from access by FERPA.
Under our present law, the only way Virginia Tech officials could have known about Cho's mental problems would have been from Cho himself. Yet, experts point out, asking for help is almost impossible for someone with his condition, which has been described as selective mutism. Robert Schum, a clinical psychologist and expert in selective mutism says that:
Children with selective mutism don't want to be the center of attention. They don't like to sit on Santa's lap. They don't like their photo taken on picture day. They don't want kids to sing to them at their birthday celebration. They just want to be left alone. So when you put the responsibility on them and ask them to draw attention to themselves by asking for help . . . that's really tough.
Cho's parents, although cooperative with Fairfax school officials, might not have fully understood what was wrong, and that their son needed help in college as well. As recently as the summer before the April shooting, Cho's mother had sought out members of One Mind Church in Woodbridge, Virginia, to purge him of what the pastor there called the "demonic power" possessing him.
Richard Crowley, coordinator of guidance services for Fairfax County, said high schools generally send transcripts to colleges with only a student's courses, grades, and test scores. Even the number of times a student has been suspended is considered an optional piece of information. Moreover, many colleges say they don't want to know because of the potential liability. Barmak Nassirian, with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says that:
In soliciting a student's history of psychiatric treatment or diagnoses by treating physicians, you basically open a Pandora's box. Even if you should decide, for reasons that have nothing to do with medical circumstances, not to accept a student, you most certainly will have a case that will be litigated.
Washington Post columnist Mark Fisher notes that:
I've read the 260 pages filed by the review panel . . . and I understand that the university should have stepped in to help Seung Hui Cho but didn't, and that the state mental health system should have acted more decisively but didn't. . . . In the hundreds of interviews the panel conducted, why didn't they ask all those people whose job it is to care for students one question: how would you have handled Cho if you had let your conscience, not privacy laws, guide you? . . . If the mental health professionals, police and college administrators, had acted as if their own child were involved, there might not have been any need for an investigation.
In Fisher's view:
The culprit here is the culture of privacy that we have allowed to pervade certain areas of life, especially health and education. . . . By walling off mental illness, we prevent the power of light from reaching those who are suffering. Privacy laws leave everyone, from health workers to college administrations, confused and defensive about what they may do and say. They react by doing less than they would if left to their own empathy and common sense. . . . Ultimate responsibility for the shootings rests squarely on Cho. But that does not absolve others of the need to act when something goes very wrong. Parents, as Virginia Governor Tim Kaine said, cannot "just drop your child off on campus." Rather, they must seek out resident advisers and counselors and say "Let me tell you about my precious child." And colleges must exhibit the same care toward young adults that parents, friends, or good bosses do -- no matter how much the law may seek to separate us from our human obligations.
Governor Kaine said it was hard to understand why more was not done about a student who once showed fascination with the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and considered the two students who committed it martyrs. "Look, I'm troubled that a student who had talked about Columbine at an earlier point in his life, that that information was unknown to anybody on the Tech campus."
The Virginia Tech Review Panel concludes that, "The current state of information privacy law and practice is inadequate. The privacy laws need amendment and clarification."
While colleges require students to submit immunization records, all records of emotional problems are sealed. "Perhaps students should be required to submit records of emotional or mental disturbance . . . after they have been admitted, but before they enroll," the report says. "Maybe there should be some form of 'permanent record.'"
In an English paper Virginia Tech did not disclose until The Washington Post revealed its existence, Cho wrote in an English class:
I hate this. I hate all these frauds. I hate my life. . . .This is it. . . . This is when you damn people die with me.
Panel member Roger Depue, a longtime FBI profiler, says, "Just writing fantasies isn't the problem. It's the combination of disturbing writing and all the other danger signs."
There can be no doubt that public safety must trump privacy rights, particularly in a university setting. Cho's dysfunction had been noted and treated by his high school counselors -- but this was never communicated to Virginia Tech. As his problems intensified at college, his parents were never alerted. Cho spoke to employees in the campus counseling center three times in fifteen days in late 2005 and early 2006, but they failed to follow up and treated his case in an indifferent manner.
Virginia Tech Provost Mark G. McNamee said the university will push for changes in the privacy laws: "I think we are moving into a new era, a new national dialogue" about how individual privacy rights are weighed against public safety, McNamee said. "Safety has clearly risen to a higher profile."
It is sad indeed that we need a tragedy of this magnitude to restore a common sense approach to our treatment of troubled and potentially violent students on the nation's college campuses. *
"He who steals from a citizen, ends his days in fetters and chains; but he who steals from the community ends them in purple and gold." --Marcus Porcius Cato