Principles before Principals


IT’S NO EXAGGERATION to say that this month could come to stand as a major turning point in the history of American Conservatism.

Not long ago, conservatives could unabashedly claim that they clung to principle, through thick and thin. Through the failings of Goldwater and the shaming of McCarthy to the glories of Reagan and of the junior Bush, they kept conscience. From the dark of the Carter fiasco to the bright “Morning In America,” they stayed true to conviction. Often it was all that they could cling to, as their ideals left them with little solace on Election Day. And when the polls did come out their way, in 1980 and 1994, there was cause for deserved celebration.

So pardon me if I wonder if the moment is fading, given the election of a Republican California governor who has admitted to a pattern of disturbing physical assaults on women and the subsequent revelation that Rush Limbaugh may have broken the law to score drugs.

I’m not afraid to admit that the Rush Limbaugh scandal has left me very disappointed. Like most conservatives too young to remember first-term Reagan (“neo-conservatives” in the literal sense), my first consistent exposure to modern American conservative values came through Rush Limbaugh’s microphone. His message, consistently revolving around the twin stars of optimism and idealism, was a heartening alternative to Democrat malaise. But news coverage of his drug addiction bruised my smile, and his Friday-afternoon confession broke my heart. And the reality that he may have broken the law to achieve his ends is crushing.

But while Rush deserves our prayers and well-wishes for his brutal addictions, he does not deserve excusal for any illegal activities. If he did break the law to get his fix (and that has not yet been proven), then he deserves the punishment set forth under the law. This is undoubtedly a bitter pill for American conservatives to swallow, but it is the proper prescription. The minute that conservatives excuse lawbreaking by Rush, they become that which they have strived against in the ongoing battle of politics.

Conservatives long have made an honest effort to hold fast to moral and political principle despite the failings of their leaders. Indeed, when forced to choose between Principles and Principals, they retained the latter. House conservatives and the political base abandoned President Nixon when his involvement in Watergate became obvious. They sacked Sen. Packwood when his sexual harassment of staffers came to light. They fled Speaker Gingrich when his personal indiscretions came to light; their steadfastness surely encouraged Gingrich’s replacement, Bob Livingstone, to tender his own resignation amidst Presidential Impeachment.

It was this track record that allowed conservatives to retain the moral high ground as the political opposition excused the consistent failings of such leaders as Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson … and as it supports opportunist (and politically vacant) Wesley Clark in the name of “Just Win, Baby” politics. Should conservatives abandon principle for the sake of short-term wins, they lose the high ground – and with it, their path to the City on the Hill.

I would not fret that conservatives run the risk of forsaking their principles for the sake of their Principal, Rush, but for the recent outcome in California. To watch many conservatives flee from a true conservative such as Tom McClintock, despite the unsurprising admission that Schwarzenegger consistently groped and assaulted women on movie sets was disappointing. Couple those allegations with the obvious reality that Arnold, despite his name-dropping of Milton Friedman, provided no evidence of political conservatism, and his popularity among conservatives is shocking. Sure, conservatives could “win” with Arnold … but what did they win?

Conservatives eager to rally behind heroes do not lack worthy torchbearers. They can rally behind Bill Pryor, the boldest, most honest judicial nominee to come through the Senate in a decade, who will likely be filibustered despite his candor, qualifications and demonstrated devotion to Constitutional principles. They can support Rep. Pat Toomey in his quest to unseat “The Worst Republican Senator,” Arlen Specter (R-PA). They can reward Tom McClintock in (hopefully) a future candidacy for the Senate.

Give Rush your prayers, but remember that to best respect his legacy, we must stand firmly for the law. True conservatives stand for principles, not principals.

* * *

A brief response to Mr. Sistos’s letter (see “Letters to the editor” in Opinion):

First, I in no way suggested that Dean Kagan’s mixed declaration of personal thoughts and institutional policy was covert. I only suggested that it was dangerous and inappropriate.

Second, my essay contained no contradiction. I didn’t call Dean Kagan a prostitute. I did point out that she effectively called the University a prostitute.

Adam White is the Editorial Page Editor. His column appears weekly.

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