At last, the conservatives stand up to be counted

Conservatism, the arched eyebrow in a room full of ideas, questions power.

It's taken awhile, a little more than five years to be precise, but we may be witnessing the return of a respected and important political ideology in this town: conservatism. And its apparent ride back onto the political scene comes not a moment too soon.

Last week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Democrats asked a lot of combative questions, as one might expect. But the real news was that some of the senators on the right side of the dais wondered aloud about whether the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program went too far in the way of expanding executive power.

Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called some of the legal justifications the Bush administration used for the program (like its assertion that it didn't need Congress's or the judiciary's OK) "dangerous." Over in the House, Heather Wilson, a Republican from New Mexico, is calling for an investigation.

Why was this significant? Because conservatism, real conservatism with its distrust of government and radical change, has been in short supply in our nation's capital since 2001. Oh, there are Republicans, and they have controlled the political landscape here since then. But there is a difference between Republicanism and conservatism.

Republicans are a party, concerned ultimately, as all parties are, with maintaining and growing power. And the GOP in particular is disciplined about doing whatever it takes to help their president. Conservatism is a political outlook, one that questions what the state is doing and is skeptical of power. It owes nothing to no one - not the president, nor the Congress. And it is crucial as a counterbalance to liberalism in the proper functioning of the government. It is the arched eyebrow in a room full of ideas.

Other than its belief in tax cuts (a cornerstone of the conservative philosophy), the current administration has hardly been conservative. On everything from fiscal responsibility to rebuilding Iraq, the administration is sure of itself despite what the data say. It is skeptical of others, but never of itself or its own policies. Counter facts and contrary opinions are ignored or dismissed. And the administration's wiretapping without seeking warrants is based on the idea that other branches of government can't really challenge the executive branch during a time of war. If that's not a bald political power grab, what is?

Yet many conservatives in Congress and elsewhere have not only looked the other way, they've urged the president on.

Even the National Review, the publication that once helped bring the conservative movement back to the front of American politics, supported the president's move. "[T]he evidence is also abundant that the Administration was scrupulous in limiting the FISA exceptions. They applied only to calls involving al Qaeda suspects or those with terrorist ties," wrote the magazine's editors in December.

Of course, that evidence of scrupulousness came from those running the program. No one else could talk about it. And the terms "al Qaeda suspects" and "those with terrorist ties" seem to be fairly broad definitions. But more to the point, the warrantless wiretapping issue isn't really about the taps themselves.

The administration is proposing what is essentially an unchecked power for the president (not just this president, but all presidents) during the "war on terror." And despite all the comparisons to World War II or World War I or the Revolutionary War - yes, we did hear Attorney General Gonzales cite George Washington as a precedent last week - the "war on terror" is a lot more like the cold war. It is likely to go on for decades, which means any expansion of powers the executive branch claims will not be a temporary measure ended by an armistice. It will be an indefinite expansion, perhaps even permanent. When will the time come when no terrorist wants to target the United States?

And since when have conservatives been eager to give the president extra powers?

They haven't. Back in the 1990s, when a president named Bill Clinton was seeking to have his sexual harassment case put off until he left office, it was the conservatives who rose up and declared that the president is not a king and is not above the law.

Was it all just politics? Sure, and some of this is now. It's a lot easier for Republicans to stand up to a president whose approval rating is hovering around 40 percent than it was when it was over 50 percent - and it's especially easy for those facing tough reelection fights.

But there is a principle at stake here as well, and it only makes sense that the party that distrusts and dislikes federal power assert itself in the argument.

If we're lucky it means the conservatives are ready to make themselves a serious part of the political discussion in Washington again. Who knows, maybe it'll even wake up the liberals.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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