Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Yep, I'm a Mugwump

I've been called a lot of things in my life -- some of which are not fit to be printed in a family newspaper -- but Tuesday evening, for the first time ever, I was called a "mugwump."

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On Tuesday, I attended a reception at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond co-hosted by the Virginia Institute for Public Policy and the Heritage Foundation. The event was designed to promote a new book by Heritage's long-time president, Edwin Feulner, and's Doug Wilson entitled Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today.

Dr. Feulner (once, like me, a Weaver Fellow) made some introductory comments about the book -- which was, of course, for sale and available for autographing by the author -- describing its purpose, its point of view, and its political and policy prescriptions.

This was part of a series of events Feulner has attended to promote the book. He said he has done at least 44 radio interviews and "six or seven" television interviews over the past month, and he has been traveling from state to state addressing small gatherings of conservatives (mostly Heritage Foundation supporters) who, like him, are asking the question: "Why aren't conservatives happy?"

"For conservatives who have been in charge of everything -- the White House and both houses of Congress -- for the past five years," he asked, "why are we disenchanted?" As a conservative, he said, he is worried about a number of issues, such as the "unfunded liability of the welfare state," "runaway federal spending" (including the prescription drug bill, which he described as the "largest new entitlement since LBJ, but one that was signed into law by a self-proclaimed conservative president"), and last year's highway bill with all its earmarks (including the infamous "bridge to nowhere").

Feulner expressed his concern that "too many of my fellow conservatives are becoming disillusioned" and his worry that they may "plan to sit out in November," when the midterm congressional elections take place.

The book he wrote with Wilson, Feulner said, is intended as an antidote. "Our message in the book," he said, "is that citizens must demand conservative policies from our legislators." He asserted that "people power still works" and "we can make a difference."

Feulner then went through the chapter headings of the book and explained how they provide the superstructure for a conservative governing philosophy. Chapter Two is called "Is it the government's business?," which nestles nicely into a question I try to ask every candidate for public office whom I meet: "What is it illegitimate for government to do?" (You'd be surprised -- or perhaps you wouldn't be -- by the number of candidates who are stumped by this question, saying "I've never thought about that.")

Chapter Three asks, "Does it promote self-reliance?" Feulner pointed out that since Ronald Reagan was inaugurated 25 years ago, the "dependency [on government] for the average American has gone up 112 percent" in key areas of food, shelter, and education.

Chapter Four asks, "Is it responsible?" and Feulner pulled out an obscure statistic from the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury to Congress" regarding "unreconciled transactions affecting change of net positions" in the amount of $24.5 billion. Feulner explained that this line item tells us that the government spent $24.5 billion but we don't know who received it, that it's money that is simply lost and unaccounted for.

The next question, asked in Chapter Five, is "Does it make us more prosperous?" Do we need a 9 million word tax code?, Feulner asked, and should we be giving farm subsidies to people like Ted Turner in order to make them not grow crops?

Chapter Six asks, "Does it make us safer?" To illustrate this, Feulner mentioned the millions of dollars wasted by the Pentagon each year in the form of unused, refundable airline tickets for which no refund was requested or demanded.

Finally, in Chapter Seven, Feulner and Wilson ask, "Does it unify us?" Noting that "bilingual education doesn't work," Feulner reported that "80% of Hispanic parents say it is more important for their children to learn American traditions and values and to learn English" than it is for them to learn about the traditions, values, and language of their ancestral homes.

Feulner was polite but unsparing in his criticism of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Noting that President Bush had just endorsed the umpteenth introduction of a line-item veto amendment, Feulner pointed out that the President has threatened to veto bills 133 times during his administration, but has never made good on his threat. He said: "We hope President Bush will start using his veto pen, because sometimes Congress needs adult supervision from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue."

Calling himself a "congenital optimist" despite 42 years of working in Washington, Feulner urged his audience to "stay involved" and to "get your friends and neighbors involved." "The freedom we've inherited," he said, "is the most important thing we have."

Now, I'm sure you're wondering, "what's this 'mugwump' business?"

During the question-and-answer period, which followed an infomercial for the Heritage Foundation's President's Club fundraising scheme, I posed this question:

"What does 'conservative' mean today? There seems to be a lot of confusion," I said. "You've got people like Rod Dreher, who in his book Crunchy Cons takes left-liberal policies and recasts them as conservative values. You've got Senator Rick Santorum explicitly rejecting the Goldwater-Reagan legacy. And then there's the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, which, to quote P. J. O'Rourke, spends money like a drunken sailor, but I don't want to give drunken sailors a bad name."

It was interesting to watch Feulner's ballet of facial expressions as I asked the question. When I mentioned Rod Dreher, he smiled slightly and nodded his head; when I mentioned Rick Santorum, he scrunched up his nose and looked puzzled, like I was saying something he could not comprehend; and when I mentioned the Administration and Congress, he was perfectly expressionless.

His answer was fairly straightforward but didn't fully address my concerns. He said that conservatives share certain "precepts" such as "traditional American values" (an elastic concept if I've ever heard one), free enterprise, limited government, a strong defense ... we've heard that all before. Thoroughly non-controversial.

After the Q&A ended, however, as people rose from the chairs and rushed to the bar, a man turned to me and in a booming voice said: "You! Rick Santorum is the greatest senator Pennsylvania has ever had." He told me I had no right to insult him as I had. (Did I? I just reported Santorum's philosophy.) He suggested that I was one of those Republicans who "voted for the other guy" (Tim Kaine) rather than the party's candidate (Jerry Kilgore) because he was "less than perfect." "I hope you're not from Pennsylvania," he said, "because we don't need your kind there." Informed that I was originally from Wisconsin, he fumed: "That explains it! Wisconsin is such a liberal place. " (You'll soon see why this is relevant.) He was loud and trying to be insulting, obviously angered at what -- for me -- was an off-hand remark. I tried to defuse the situation by thanking him "for being so civil" with me, but he would not be deterred. "You, sir," he exclaimed, "are a mugwump!" That's when I repaired to the bar, because the poor man was embarrassing himself and discomfiting me.

This verbal assault came from James E. Hinish, Jr., a former Capitol Hill staffer who now teaches at Pat Robertson's Regent University. It turns out that Mr. Hinish is something of a mugwump himself, if he meant what I think he meant.

My suspicion is that he was using the term in the sense in which it originated. As explained by "World Wide Words":

[Mugwump] hit the big time in 1884, during the presidential election that set Grover Cleveland against the Republican James G Blaine. Some Republicans refused to support Blaine, changed sides, and the New York Sun labelled them little mugwumps. Almost overnight, the sense of the word changed to turncoat. Later, it came to mean a politician who either could not or would not make up his mind on some important issue, or who refused to take a stand when expected to do so. Hence the old joke that a mugwump is a person sitting on the fence, with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.
I think the reason I've never before been called a "mugwump" is because anyone who knows me, as a writer or as a political activist, knows that I am consistent in my principles and views on public policy. Only someone unfamiliar with my work could think I was a practitioner of mugwumpery.

As for Mr. Hinish, he's edged into the mugwump swamps himself. According to the minutes of the York County (Virginia) Board of Supervisors of November 18, 1998:
Mr. James E. Hinish, Jr., President of the Williamsburg Area Civic and Cultural Center, Inc., made a short presentation to the Board requesting that the County provide a matching grant to the Center in the amount of $5,000 for the purpose of hiring a professional consulting firm to determine the feasibility of a fine arts civic center in the Historic Triangle area. These funds would match each of the $5,000 sums already granted by the State, the City of Williamsburg, and James City County. He stated if the proposal is found to be viable, the Center will then put together a financial plan for construction and support of such a civic center. Mr. Hinish then reviewed the types of functions planned for the center.

Mr. Zaremba asked if there was a potential conflict between Christopher Newport University's proposal and that of the WA3C in terms of mission or draw of people.

Mr. Hinish indicated both organizations are trying to raise money for the arts, and the WA3C wishes CNU well on its major undertaking. The proposal by the WA3C is major, but it is for a more limited purpose in that it is only trying to meet the demands of the current residents. He stated the WA3C facility will primarily be used for the arts and not for educational purposes.
Imagine that -- a self-proclaimed conservative going to the government, hat in hand, to ask that taxpayers' hard-earned money should be taken from them to subsidize a private endeavor he favors! Is that the hallmark of a mugwump?

But wait, there's more.

In a speech at a Philadelphia Society meeting shortly after the 1996 election, Mr. Hinish -- who in his comments to me suggested that Republicans should support Republican candidates, regardless of those candidates' shortcomings in terms of philosophy or policy achievements -- criticized that year's Republican presidential candidate, former Senator Bob Dole:
... in our hearts, we Conservatives knew Dole was not Right. Yet he managed to sow up the nomination early without active conservative support­­­or should I say, he won with lukewarm conservative approval. The truth is: Conservatives did nothing to stop Dole when they could and should have. So why didn't they?

I must add that I spent over 20 years on Capitol Hill as counsel to ten different conservative Members of Congress. During that time I worked alongside Senator Dole and his staff. And I can say without reservation that if Dole ever was a solid conservative, I saw him only as a master wheeler­dealer, a compromiser, and a cynic with a sharp sense of humor. To me, Dole was the epitome of the Washington Insider. With all due respect for his talents as leader and legislator, I firmly believe Bob Dole had stayed in Washington too long­­­he had become part of the problem.

Age was not Dole's defect. He was simply the wrong candidate for the party of Reagan -- ­­­especially when pitted against the slickest politician of our time. Dole had no vision for America, and he could not articulate clearly or forcefully a consistent conservative message. According to the Pew Research Center, Dole was "one of the least appealing major party candidates in almost four decades." How could Bob Dole, known as "the tax collector for the welfare state", convince voters, who were already disillusioned after two presidents had raised taxes after promising not to, that he intended to cut their taxes by 15 percent while balancing the budget? He couldn't. So he wandered from one campaign theme to another, never convincing, always confusing the voters, until at last, when it was too late, he settled upon the glaring character defects of the incumbent. That, at least, caused voters to think twice and the election to tighten somewhat at the end.
I, the mugwump, agree with every word. (Really, who could disagree?) My mild, implied criticism of Senator Santorum was nothing compared to Mr. Hinish's dressing-down of Senator Dole.

But wait, there's more.

Remember Mr. Hinish's unkind comment about Wisconsin as being the liberal hotbed, which explained my mugwump DNA? Here's what he told the Philadelphia Society in that same speech on November 24, 1996:
In case you wonder, my own candidate for the presidency was Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. (Michigan's Governor Engler had become a father of triplets and had his hands too full to run.) Thompson has been a pioneer on welfare reform; his efforts to voucherize Wisconsin's education system are commendable; he has downsized state government and reduced government regulation. He has a proven record of success as a popular conservative governor in a liberal state. Tommy Thompson deserved serious consideration for the Republican nomination, in my opinion­­­and still does, for that matter. So, in the spring of 1995 I invited the governor to speak in Williamsburg to test his skills before a partisan audience of curious local activists­­­and he wowed them! No, Tommy Thompson is no Ronald Reagan, but he delivers the same upbeat, positive, pro­family message that made Reagan so popular and so successful a candidate. Moreover, Thompson is a blue­collar conservative, someone who relates to average voters­­­something the Republican Party desperately needs!

Needless to say, I was disappointed when Governor Thompson called to tell me that he had decided to get out of the race before he ever got in. Knowing he was interested in the nomination, I asked him why. First, he explained he could not raise overnight the tremendous sums of money it would take to get through all those primaries; he would have had to start running four years earlier, which would have prevented him from being an effective governor. Second, he said he received no encouragement whatever from conservative leaders. That disturbing news confirmed my suspicions.
If "liberal" Wisconsin (birthplace of the Republican Party) spawns mugwumps, shouldn't Tommy Thompson have mugwump blood running in his veins? After all, his brother, Ed Thompson, was elected Mayor of Tomah and ran for governor of Wisconsin as -- gasp! -- a Libertarian. Surely mugwump germs are found, like cryptosporidium, in the glacial water we Wisconsinites drink from birth.

After the dust settled, I bought a copy of Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today and took it to Dr. Feulner to ask him to sign it. We made some small talk -- I mentioned that I had recently had lunch with Ernest Lefever, he replied that he had seen Dr. Lefever's commentary piece in Sunday's Washington Times -- and he wrote on the title page of my book:
For Rick,

Friend and colleague in the battle to Get America Right!

Ed Feulner

March 2006
To paraphrase Ellen DeGeneres: Yep, I'm a mugwump.


Anonymous said...

Your encounter captures all of the conflicts and confusions you asked Feulner about in a neat little vignette. If accurately recalled, your remark about Santorum was neutral. You see a lot of the same anger and confusion on the blogs around Virginia. It seems to reflect a kind of buzzword ideology that has come completely adrift from analytical capability. The more I try to engage with it, the more I realize that it's refletive of more than political philosophy. There's a lot of personal frustration tied up in it. So I don't have any better answer than did Feulner to your question, but unlike Mr Hinish, I think it a question that is worth asking and that shouldn't be taken as hostile by any thinking conservative.

James Young said...

Interesting discussion, Rick. Remind me not to piss you off! I agree with the comment above about your question; it was provocative, but not particularly value-laden, and certainly not worthy of the passion with which you were apparently attacked.

Tim said...

If accurately recalled, your remark about Santorum was neutral.

The word "abandoned" is not neutral.

Tom McKenna said...

Libertarianism is not traditional conservatism, which recognizes that core Christian values ought to be reflected in our laws. It's very neat but not very intellectually satisfying to dismiss the "crunchy-con" craze as leftism, and to dismiss Rick Santorum, who adheres to what I've described as traditional conservatism, as someone who reject Reagan and Goldwater. I suspect that you perhaps share in the re-defined conservatism-as-libertarianism to avoid the repercussions of what public statements of moral values might imply about your personal life, Andrew Sullivan-esque. I understand too, that many Republicans now believe that conservatism should reduce to old-style economic liberalism and no more. But you can't possibly be surprised that traditional conservatives take issue with it.

Tom McKenna said...

Sorry... "you share in the idea of a re-defined conservatism..."

Anonymous said...

Tom McKenna writes:

"Libertarianism is not traditional conservatism..."

Here's what Ronald Reagan said, in an interview with Reason magazine in 1975:

"If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

"Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path."

I'd go with Reagan on this one. It's not conservatism being "redefined" as libertarianism, but rather the trads who have superimposed on conservatism their own views that government should be an agent of organized religion, something that is not in keeping with the historical conservatism that arose in the 1940s and '50s and reached its apogee with the election of Ronald Reagan a quarter century ago. That the trads have been politically successful in recent years does not erase the fact that their version of "conservatism" is a deviation from the norm.