As thousands of conservatives gather in Washington this week for their annual Conservative Political Action Conference, conference organizer David Keene sat down with McClatchy chief political correspondent Steven Thomma to discuss the state of the movement.
Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, talked about John McCain's testy relationship with conservatives, possible running mates who might help the Arizona senator solidify the base, how a Democratic president would be good for conservatives, the role of Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in the campaign and President Bush's imprint on conservatism.
Question: You've said the important debates are within parties, not between parties. Describe the debate within the Republican Party, and within conservatism.
Keene: The old Reagan coalition, which was small-government conservatism and free-market economic conservatism, lower taxes and all that, is being implicitly challenged by the Bush administration.
We have now compassionate conservatism. We traditional conservatives like to call it big-government conservatism.
Question: How does that play out in 2008?
Keene: You have Romney adopting the old religion and McCain the new religion.
Question: Who's winning?
Keene: McCain, by appealing outside the party and the faithful and because of the peculiarities of the nominating process and the inability of conservatives to unite ... is putting himself in position to remake the coalition in his own image. In that perspective, he's winning.
Question: How is he remaking the coalition?
Keene: McCain has been unable to change the minds of conservatives. The way he's going about trying to change the deal is by bringing in other people who change the balance of the party. That's a struggle that's going to get more heated, regardless of how the nomination process turns out.
Question: More moderates and fewer conservatives?
Keene: He's trying to shift it toward the middle ... it is an extension of his 2000 campaign, when he likened it to a hostile takeover.
Question: Is there any chance conservatives will unite behind McCain?
Keene: Yes. Not all of them. If John McCain were to do nothing except get the nomination, more than half would go along with him because they're Republicans. You're not going to have millions of conservatives walk out on him. That's not such good news as it sounds. You don't need millions to walk out on him.
Question: How does he get more of them?
Keene: If John McCain makes a concerted effort to solve his problems with conservatives, to convince them they're all friends, then he'll get most of them. ... He'll never get all of them. But if he's successful, he'll get enough of them that he can go into the general election knowing he won't get killed from behind.
Question: How? By changing positions on issues?
Keene: He has to gain a modicum of credibility with these people ... in terms of what he says about them. Conservatives have a sense he doesn't like them. I think they're right.
If John McCain doesn't like you and has the power to do something about it, you're in deep trouble. Because that's his nature. They may or may not be right about that, but that's the way they feel. That makes his problem more difficult than if he just doesn't agree with you on taxes. You can always make a deal on that. But in order for the deal to be credible, you have to trust the guy. And I'm not sure conservatives trust him.
Question: What can he say to conservatives this week to fix that?
Keene: It's not a problem he can get up and give a speech and solve. It's a good thing he's coming here. He's not going to solve it here. We don't have the power to say, "OK, John, you're absolved of past sins."
But if he in fact wraps up the nomination ... and has some months, he needs to spend a good deal of that time securing his base. It's conceivable he can secure most of it.
Question: What can help him with conservatives during those months?
Keene: One, the prospect of Hillary Clinton. Secondly, by naming a vice presidential candidate.
Question: Name some running mates who would help.
Keene: Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Question: Any chance a Democratic president would be good for conservatism?
Keene: Yes. From a political standpoint, conservatives would unite. Any party unites better in opposition than in governing.
Question: What about Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas?
Keene: It was a mistake for these candidates to dismiss Ron Paul the way they've done in debate after debate. While Ron Paul makes a lot of ideological mistakes, he's a little bit like the ... conscience that appears on your shoulder and says, "Now remember, this is what you actually believe in."
Question: Was George W. Bush good for conservatism?
Keene: No. He helped create some of the things we're seeing. There were pluses. But in terms of the base of the Republican Party and the strength of the party and in terms of conservatism, I don't think his administration was helpful.
Question: What about the prescription-drug benefit?
Keene: (Republican former U.S. Rep.) Tom DeLay, four days before that he was at a conservative conference in Florida, I sat next to him and he said, "This is the worst legislation I've seen in my entire career." The next week, he threatened to destroy people's careers unless they voted for it. There's valueless leadership.
Question: Bush supporters say he just increased spending to fight a war.
Keene: We had the greatest growth in domestic spending under Bush than we've had since the Great Society. ...
Nobody's an anarchist. Maybe Ron Paul. But most of us aren't. We recognize government should exist. We ask that you ask what functions of government are legitimate. And look for ways to minimize the role of government.
Question: What about tensions among conservatives between security and civil liberties?
Keene: I've been one of the most critical people of the administration on civil liberties. A Republican has a greater responsibility because we're supposed to be the ones who care about these things. ...
The danger we have now is that we have an administration dealing with it in this way at a time when technology makes threats real that were never real before in terms of civil liberties. And you're having a war that is permanent. In the past, we've had presidents of both parties suspend civil liberties during wartime, but at least the war ended. And part of it got restored.
Question: How is technology a threat to civil liberties?
Keene: Technologically, we can now do anything. The sort of "1984" fictional stuff, all of that is no longer fiction, it is now true. It is possible to track everything. In England, a picture of the average Britisher is taken something like 3,000 times a day by security cameras.