WE SHOULD NOT be surprised that White House staffers and congressional Republicans disagree with each other over issues such as education reform, stem cell research and campaign finance reform. The surprise is only that it took half a year for the new administration to reveal its private tensions in public.
President George W. Bush's huge tax cut passed easily in Congress early in his term, but the president and his aides had to lobby House Republicans personally to get passage of the energy plan and patients' rights bill last week and even had to compromise on some of their favorite provisions.
For now, the Republicans seem prepared to stick together against the Democrats in the House. But they were not a few weeks ago, and Senate Republicans remain more divided. And I predict that the House Republicans' unanimity will not hold. Even the president's compromise decision to allow just a little stem cell research, announced Thursday, left many in his own party feeling betrayed and unsatisfied - whether because he allowed too much, or too little, federal funding. This is likely to occur with much of his agenda.
After all, for at least the past few decades, there have been three different kinds of conservatives in American politics. They dispute with each other as much as any of them fights with liberals.
The first two kinds have deep philosophical roots. One set of conservatives tends in the direction of libertarianism. They want government to be small and weak - mainly for defense against outside enemies or internal malefactors - because they believe that individuals have the right to maximal freedom of choice. That choice might be exercised through markets, family arrangements or any other mechanism that appeals to the person. Conservatives who tend toward libertarianism want to lower taxes, eliminate laws and regulations, provide vouchers for private schools and privatize Social Security.
The second set of conservatives tends in the direction of social and moral regulation. They want government to encourage or even require individuals to obey clear, strict moral codes - often but not necessarily based on religious precepts - and they believe that too much freedom of choice and too much reliance on markets leads to excessive license and coarse materialism. They want the government to help strengthen institutions such as churches, local communities and traditional families. This group wants the government to make abortion illegal, provide public funding for faith-based social services, establish vouchers for parochial schools and enforce strict drug laws.
The third set calls itself conservative but has no real philosophical claim to that honorable title. This group seeks to use government resources and connections to enhance the power of the powerful and the wealth of the wealthy - whether they be corporations, individuals or, I am sorry to say, even universities. It wants to use the government to protect HMOs from complaints by their unhappy patients, to insulate lawyers from suits by disgruntled clients, to shield chemical companies from fears of polluted communities, and to override environmental concerns in favor of drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. It also wants to continue the trend of the past two decades in which rich people got much richer, the poor got even poorer and most of the country struggled to stay where they were.
The Republican Party (like the Democratic Party) is a big tent and includes all of these kinds of conservatives. (The Democrats have at least as many internal quarrels.) So if a variety of people claim to speak on behalf of the Republican Party and make a variety of policy proposals, and if a Republican president shows different faces to different audiences, they are likely to conflict with one another.
We have seen that conflict in the headlines of the daily news over the past few weeks. Some Republicans wanted to eliminate all federal funding for stem cell research and to forbid research on cloning. In that case, scientists' freedom to investigate would be curtailed and some people would continue to suffer from terrible and possibly reversible diseases, but claims about the sanctity of unborn life and religious limits to experimentation on humans would be honored. Such a decision would gratify social conservatives but displease libertarians and corporate seekers of bioengineering patents.
Some Republicans seek to drastically restrict individuals' rights to sue their HMOs. In that case, citizens' freedom to act would be narrowed - displeasing the libertarian wing but gratifying the corporate wing of the Republican Party. Some Republicans want to privatize Social Security. In that case, citizens' freedom to act would be broadened (at least for those who don't go bankrupt) - gratifying the libertarian wing and the corporate wing. But some people surely would use their new-found ex-Social Security wealth in questionable or irresponsible ways - thus alarming social conservatives.
Holding all three kinds of conservatives under one tent, even a big one, is not easy (and I have not even raised the question of how to deal with moderates, such as ex-Republican Sen. James Jeffords).
Keeping all the factions focused on fighting the enemy - that is, the other party - rather than each other is a standard problem for any American political party. That is not what we should worry about. What should upset most American citizens is the fact that under cover of all of this contention, members of the corporate wing, those with the least legitimate claim to be true conservatives, are winning the war these days, even if libertarians or social conservatives hold the upper hand in any given battle.
Consider some actions that President Bush and much of the Republican Party have taken or are trying to take. Protection of HMOs, partial privatization of Social Security, opening wilderness lands to oil drilling, giving enormous tax breaks to the rich, abolishing the estate tax, thumbing their nose at scientists' evidence on global warming - in all of these cases and more, the wealthy and powerful win big.
Libertarians will like some of these policies, since some give individuals (at least those with enough wealth to invest in oil companies or leave a lot to their children) more freedom to choose. But libertarians will have no more success than the rest of us in escaping the harms of global warming.
The Republican policy in that case benefits only companies that produce high-carbon energy sources, such as oil, gas and coal. And libertarians should oppose HMO protection and changes in the Clean Air Act that will mainly benefit electric utilities.
Social conservatives are the biggest losers in this three-way conservative tussle. They have received highly visible symbolic rewards, such as the invocation of Christian images in the inaugural address and a scaled-down bill to enhance faith-based social services. They have also won a few real but still tentative victories, such as the administration's recent claim that health insurance should cover "the yet unborn" and the narrowing of the channel for stem cell research.
But they too will be watching the thermometer rise, fighting with HMO bureaucrats and worrying about paying for retirement along with the rest of us who cannot afford to escape the consequences of the corporate-driven agenda. And they have not gotten any major legislation on abortion, gay rights, vouchers for parochial schools, aid for home-schoolers, tax benefits for stay-at-home mothers - anything else that would make a big difference in a lot of people's lives.
After all, if party leaders focus most of their attention on giving a couple of trillion dollars of tax breaks to a few wealthy Americans during the president's precious honeymoon period, they have little time left to focus on families and faith.
Right now, Republicans of all types are working hard (and, as I write, with considerable success) to keep their disputes within the party in order to freeze the Democrats out. The president's new energy plan cuts back just enough on his initial goal of allowing oil wells everywhere and that has brought back straying Republican moderates in the House of Representatives. His willingness to extend a few more legal rights to patients in their disputes with mammoth HMOs has done the same. Both of those moves are good politics, and Republican partisans should be cheered for the moment.
However, disagreements between conservatives who seek to maximize freedom of choice and conservatives who seek to maximize moral beliefs and behavior are too important and deep-seated to be squelched for long. They are also great fun to watch. But while we are debating whether inner-city churches should get a few tax dollars to help drug addicts or whether such churches might violate the rights of clients and employees, the corporate conservatives are running away with the piggy bank.
The recent tax cut would be laughable if it were not so pernicious (Democrats who voted for it deserve at least as much blame as their Republican counterparts), and laws that will primarily protect HMOs and the extraction industry are equally biased in favor of the rich and connected. Real conservatives, of various kinds, should be just as alarmed as liberals at this hijacking of their honorable, if contentious, traditions.
Jennifer Hochschild is a professor at Harvard University in the departments of government and Afro-American Studies. She is co-author of "The American Dream and the Public Schools"
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