The Elephants Remember

On Thursday evening, Colgate’s chapter of College Republicans hosted a panel discussion to debate the future of the Republican Party.

The faculty advisor of College Republicans, Professor of Political Science, Presidential Scholar and Director of the Center for Freedom and Western Civilization Robert Kraynak, one of the self-proclaimed “few registered Republicans” at Colgate, described the future political environment as one where different conservative groups will jockey for control once President Bush leaves office. Three of those factions that were represented on the panel were the neo-conservatives (neocons), the theological conservatives (theocons), and the Libertarians.

Neocons, traditionally thought of as followers of Ronald Reagan, were represented by Michael Ledeen. Ledeen is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a history of being tough on national security and is in favor of regime change in Iran.

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute represented the Libertarians. Libertarians, as Carpenter explained, are traditionally in favor of social justice and limited government interference in the economy.

Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review, represented the theocons. Ponnuru, who is a Catholic, did not exactly welcome the label of “theocon,” noting that his views are not necessarily congruent with the popular conception of a religiously oriented conservative. He also stated that opponents of the movement created the term to make it seem more threatening.

Each speaker summarized their opinions and their view of the future of the party and then the audience was invited to ask questions.

Ponnuru, the first speaker, explained that he is not a typical “theocon”; he is in favor of medicinal marijuana and homosexuals serving in the military and believes that intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in public schools.

However, Ponnuru rejects the American Civil Liberties Union’s conception of church vs. state. He believes that incorporating religion into public life would not make the U.S. a theocracy and that at the time of its founding, America was “shockingly illiberal.” Ponnuru explained that there were fines for bad church attendance and religious tests for office, and stated that, “America’s history as a free country does not begin in the 1960s.”

He also explained that heocons’ views should not be discounted simply because they are associated with religious convictions. Many theocons’ opinions on abortion, he explained, are not based on theology, but on a moral decision only guided by their religious beliefs. Ponnuru suggested that a law banning abortion wouldn’t be imposing religion any more than any other law against killing.

Looking forward, Ponnuru said that moving left on economic issues would be a deadly move for Republicans. However, he believes that there is a growing need to address the anxieties of middle and working class Americans. He proposed reforming the tax codes to be family friendly, and added critically at the end of his speech, “Conservatives haven’t done anything tangible for voters since raising the speed limit in 1996.”

A little less critical was one of the neocons, Michael Ledeen.

“We are living through one of the most dramatic shifts in history,” he said. In his opinion, the left wing used to have all of the answers to society’s problems, but none of its ideas apply today. If there is no working class, Ledeen said, how can class conflict be the engine of history? He believes that liberals are angry because their ideas no longer apply. Ledeen prefers a view of international relations that emphasizes democratic revolution instead of Communist revolution. Part of this trend is the current war in Iraq.

“We’ve waged this war badly, but that’s the nature of human history,” he said.

He believes that mistakes were bound to be made, but that mistakes do not make the issue any less important. Ledeen sees the conflict in Iraq and with Iran as a “life and death struggle” and that nothing will stop the Muslim extremists “short of mass conversion.”

However, these views do not make Ledeen a Bush supporter.

“Most administrations are incompetent,” Ledeen said. “This one is just more incompetent than necessary.”

Next to speak was Libertarian Ted Carpenter. Carpenter was markedly bitter with the Republican Party and explained that the Bush Administration has caused a mass exodus of Libertarians from the party. He said that while Republicans have always been weak on civil liberties, they have become “alarmingly authoritarian” in the last few years.

To Carpenter, the Republican Party was the lesser of two evils because, while they may have bad records on social issues, at least they were in favor of limited government. However, in Carpenter’s opinion, the Bush administration has actually embraced big government by expanding the federal government’s power, enacting huge spending increases and embracing “utopian war fighting.” It is Carpenter’s opinion that most Libertarians will shift their allegiance to the new lesser of two evils: the Democratic Party.

During the question and answer period that followed the speeches, the topic of Iran was prominent. Ledeen’s strong stance on bringing democracy did not sit well with some members of the audience, nor with Carpenter, who said that trying to import democracy to the Middle East would be like trying to build a house from the roof down.

Ledeen disagreed, pointing to what he believes is a very pro-western Iranian civilian population.

Another panel disagreement was over need for Libertarians in national elections.

Carpenter’s opinion was that Libertarians are the swing vote needed to win elections and that the withdrawal of their support resulted in the Democrat’s success in 2006. Ponnuru disagreed, calling the Libertarian support “the kiss of death” and explaining that trying to court such a small, difficult-to-please demographic would actually turn out badly for Republicans.