The Washington Post's Dana Milbank has a great piece today about the hostile reaction to former Republican Congressman and Clinton adversary Bob Barr at the Conservative Political Action Committee convention this week.
As of midday yesterday, a silent auction netted $300 for lunch with activist Grover Norquist, $275 for a meal with the Heritage Foundation president and $1,000 for a hunting trip with the American Conservative Union chairman. But lunch with former congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.), with an "estimated value" of $500, had a top bid of only $75 -- even with a signed copy of Barr's book, "The Meaning of Is," thrown in.
No surprise there. The former Clinton impeachment manager is the skunk at CPAC's party this year. He says President Bush is breaking the law by eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without warrants. And fellow conservatives, for the most part, don't want to hear it.
"You've heard of bear baiting? We're going to have, today, Barr baiting," R. Emmet Tyrell, a conservative publisher, announced as he introduced a debate Thursday between Barr and Viet Dinh, one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act.
"Are we losing our lodestar, which is the Bill of Rights?" Barr beseeched the several hundred conservatives at the Omni Shoreham in Woodley Park. "Are we in danger of putting allegiance to party ahead of allegiance to principle?"
Barr answered in the affirmative. "Do we truly remain a society that believes that . . . every president must abide by the law of this country?" he posed. "I, as a conservative, say yes. I hope you as conservatives say yes."
But nobody said anything in the deathly quiet audience. Barr merited only polite applause when he finished, and one man, Richard Sorcinelli, booed him loudly. "I can't believe I'm in a conservative hall listening to him say [Bush] is off course trying to defend the United States," Sorcinelli fumed.
It's not accurate or fair to assert that the reaction of a single wingnut amid a hive of wingnuttery is supports a conclusion that the conferees are deluding themselves about being conservatives, when in reality they're just sheep eager to sacrifice their liberties to authoritarian leaders. But it is easier to make that conclusion when a featured speaker argues that Americans should sacrifice their liberties to George W. Bush, and is cheered:
Dinh, now a Georgetown law professor, urged the CPAC faithful to carve out a Bush exception to their ideological principle of limited government. "The conservative movement has a healthy skepticism of governmental power, but at times, unfortunately, that healthy skepticism needs to yield," Dinh explained, invoking Osama bin Laden.
Dinh brought the crowd to a raucous ovation when he judged: "The threat to Americans' liberty today comes from al Qaeda and its associates and the people who would destroy America and her people, not the brave men and women who work to defend this country!"...
Still, the old [Clinton Impeachment] prosecutor managed to elicit a crucial concession from Dinh: that the administration's case for its program comes down to saying "Trust me."
"None of us can make a conclusive assessment as to the wisdom of that program and its legality," Dinh acknowledged, "without knowing the full operational details. I do trust the president when he asserts that he has reviewed it carefully and therefore is convinced that there is full legal authority."
“I do trust the President...” James Madison must be rolling in his grave. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51:
But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
I'm amused at the frequency with which people argue that various factions of the Republican coalition are true libertarians or traditional conservatives. On the left, there are significant numbers of ideological-driven activists, thinkers and voters who put ideology before partisanship. And many on the left claim as a make of pride their aloofness from parties or in-groups. (Whether they really are separate from in-groups is another story.) But on the right, there are few who put principle above party. Most activists, thinkers and polemicists--as opposed to "average" Republican voters--are partisans seeking to push the party in their desired direction, and some have deeply held policy beliefs on issues like taxes or the relationship between government and family. But few hold deep political or philosophical beliefs about the constitution of government, the relationship between government and society, or the protection or advancement of liberty. With the exception of some nativists—most notably Pat Buchanan—the American right is motivated more by partisanship than principle.
The politics of those on the American Right are not defined by a love of liberty and a revulsion against tyranny, as was the case with most of the Founding Fathers (at least as it concerned white men). There's not much that's a universal principle driving their politics. Their politics are informed and motivated by fears that they personally would fall under the control of, to quote Dinh, “ the people who would destroy America and her people.” For the faux conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Committee convention, principles are very malleable, and largely defined by whether their authoritarians are in power or they are out of power and in fear of those they believe “would destroy America and her people.”
I've long thought Bob Barr was a jerk, but I've also recognized his sincere and laudable consistency on civil liberties. “Whether it's a sitting president when I was an impeachment manager” as Milbank quotes Barr, “or a Republican president who has taken liberties with adherence to the law, to me the standard is the same.” With that belief, along with his general distrust of government involvement in regulating the economy, providing public goods and ameliorating social inequality, Barr can honestly and accurately call himself a conservative. But the hostile people he faced at the Conservative Political Action Committee weren't conservatives, they were, at least in their political beliefs, attitudes and behavior, people with weak characters who willingly submit to authoritarians.