In part two of my four-part interview with conservative leader Howard Phillips, Howard discusses conservative victories—and defeats, the folly of “preemptive concession,” the type of Supreme Court justices Republican presidents have appointed, and the state of debate and discourse on the Right.
FLYNN: With Bush, this is the first appointment he’s making to the court. Roberts may well turn out to be a home run. With regard to George H.W. Bush, with regard to Ronald Reagan, with regard to Gerald Ford, with regard to Richard Nixon and Eisenhower as well—they put people on the Supreme Court who turned out not to be home runs. They turned out to be outs as far as conservatives are concerned. Do you think these court appointees reflected these presidents’ outlooks, or do you think they were put on there because the presidents wanted to elude a tough confirmation battle, or did the justices change over time?
PHILLIPS: In the case of Eisenhower, he was doing what Herb Brownell, who was basically his campaign manager—he was Eisenhower’s Karl Rove—wanted. In the case of Ford, although Ford had a conservative record in Congress when he was minority leader, he had a very liberal wife—Betty Bloomer—and, as president, he was a very liberal president. I was shocked at the big left turn that he made. His attorney general was a guy named Edward Levi, who pushed for John Paul Stevens. I have no doubt that Ford, who was pro-abortion and on the liberal side of social issues generally, knew exactly what he was doing. In the case of Reagan, Jim Baker had persuaded him to make a promise that he would appoint a woman to the court, and Reagan announced that promise shortly before the election in 1980. He felt he was fulfilling that promise. But there were other women he could have appointed. And O’Connor told Reagan that she found abortion offensive, but of course Reagan found it offensive too—even when he signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in America when he was governor of California. Reagan relied heavily on his subordinates. In the case of Scalia, that was a home run. There was very little opposition to Scalia. He was the first justice of Italian-American heritage. In the case of Kennedy, I’ve discussed it with Ed Meese who said they made a big mistake. They assumed things about Kennedy on the basis of the fact that he had been friendly toward them. He would drop by the office when Reagan was governor and all this sort of thing. I would say that that was a mistake.
FLYNN: To follow up on the Kennedy thing, do you think part of that was just that—they lose the battle with Judge Bork and they drop Douglas Ginsburg from consideration because apparently he had smoked pot. Do you think it was just battle fatigue?
PHILLIPS: I think they thought he [Kennedy] was their friend and would be reliable. I think it was a mistake on their part. I think they assumed too much and they didn’t probe deeply enough. You know it’s interesting, my eldest son, Doug, who is a graduate of George Mason Law School, had both Bork and Ginsburg as his professors after they were rejected or withdrew from nomination to the court. And Doug’s conclusion was that Ginsburg would have been one of the greatest Supreme Court justices—that he was an absolutely fabulous teacher and rock solid on Constitutional issues. So that was a tragedy.
FLYNN: Nancy Reagan at the time was campaigning against drugs and she was blamed for the fact that he dropped out because he had smoked pot as a professor. I got to think that today that if something like that comes up, they’re going to get confirmed or at most it’s a minor road block. How much do you think that she played a role in spiking Ginsburg?
PHILLIPS: She’s been very influential. She was decisive in preventing Ollie North’s election to the U.S. Senate against Chuck Robb. And I think she had a part in the withdrawal of Doug Ginsburg. Before I forget it, let’s give some praise to Richard Nixon. Had Clement Haynesworth been confirmed, he would have been a very good Supreme Court justice. And it was Nixon who gave us Bill Rehnquist, who is one of the better justices of the Supreme Court. In the case of Bush One, I thank God that he gave us Clarence Thomas, who has proven to be one of the finest justices ever to serve on the Court.
FLYNN: You had made a remark in one your better known speeches that you gave called “Why Our Cause Has Been Losing—How We Shall Win.” You point out that we have yielded to the tactic of preemptive concession.
PHILLIPS: Exactly—losing as slowly as possible.
FLYNN: With regard to the courts and when the shoe is on the other foot—when the Democrats are putting up a liberal justice—it seems that there is a thought process among Republican senators that if we only play nice the Democrats will reciprocate when it’s the Republicans’ turn to nominate Supreme Court justices.
PHILLIPS: There are many differences between Democrats and Republicans, differences which cannot shed favorable light on the Republicans. One is that, as wrong as the Democrats are, they have moral confidence. They believe in the certainty and rightness of the positions they are arguing. Republicans don’t. Republicans are very uncomfortable opposing homosexuality, opposing abortion, opposing the United Nations, taking a tough stand against illegal immigration. Republicans do not have the moral certitude, and, as a result, this is reflected in the strategy of preemptive concession.
FLYNN: Let’s switch gears a little bit. Thinking about the conservative movement in general: Pat Buchanan said earlier this year that the conservative movement is dead. Other people would look at the electoral victories and say, no it’s not dead it’s quite well, thank you Pat. What’s your view of the state of the conservative movement now vis-a-vis ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago?
PHILLIPS: Many conservative and Christian leaders and organizations are very good at leeching themselves to incumbent Republican presidents. That results in their getting large contributions from people who think that someday they may be ambassador to the Court of St. James or secretary of commerce. It enables them to do things that may impress their donors. It enables them to feel as though they’re on the inside. The “inside the beltway” courtiers are doing very well. They always do well when there’s a Republican president. But if you examine the principles upon which the conservative movement was based, we’re doing terribly. Record-high deficits. Record-high budgets. The new Medicare plan. Rapid expansion of the federal role in education. Bush putting us back in UNESCO. Bush giving more money to Planned Parenthood than even Bill Clinton did. We have trade policies that are undermining American jobs and American manufacturing. We have spent more than $300 billion on Iraq and Iraq-related activities, but we have neglected the U.S. Navy, which has been cut in half and then some, beginning with Dick Cheney’s tenure as secretary of defense. It’s now down to 289 ships from 600 under John Lehman as Navy secretary, and it’s sinking more rapidly. We’ve looked the other way as Communist China has established commercial beachheads and positions of influence not only in Panama and the Bahamas, but in Mexico. They’ve got four container ports they’re working on in Mexico. They’re operating all over the world. They’re building up their Navy. We haven’t made clear that we ought to be very upset with a Chinese general promising to nuke our cities if we interfere with their desire to incorporate Taiwan under the control of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I look around, and, whether it’s the National Endowment for the Arts, or the Public Broadcasting Service, or the Legal Services Corporation, or hundreds of other things, we’re worse off every year. The worst time of all is when you have Republican presidents and Republican congresses. Gridlock is much better for us. When you had Clinton in the White House, as terrible a president and person as he was, we had a more conservative government, if only for partisan reasons, and the Republican Congress, after 1994, blocked some of his most dangerous schemes. Because we had a Republican Congress, we had a significant budget surplus at the end of the Clinton years, whereas now they’re bragging about the fact that the $450 billion deficit has been cut down to $330 billion. So, no. I think the conservative cause has suffered very, very badly. Bush continues to reiterate his support for the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, now we see CAFTA, presidential fast-track policies on trade. I could go on at great length about some of the disastrous polices advanced by this president.
FLYNN: This question may be a little complex, so indulge me for a second. Look at a few of the successes of the conservative movement over the course of the last forty years. No one would ever dream of wage and price controls now. There is no more Soviet Union. Tax rates are obviously much lower than they once were. The people who pushed for these changes and succeeded met resistance. Nixon and Rumsfeld, as you point out, were pushing wage and price controls. Gerald Ford was perfectly happy with a 70 percent tax rate. Nixon and other Republican leaders were happy with peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. But there was a part of the Republican Party, and the conservative movement, saying “no” to these things. They were saying: we need to cut taxes, we need to transcend the Soviet Union, and we can’t have price controls. Things like high taxes, the Soviet Union, and price controls, at a certain point, were thought to be institutionalized. But there was a group of people thinking outside of the box. At the time, were these people who were criticizing the status quo, and the policies of fellow Republicans, considered radicals?
PHILLIPS: Dan, The Conservative Caucus has been involved in almost every major issue over the last thirty years. We introduced the concept of the Strategic Defense Initiative into the debate. We led the fight against the Panama Canal Treaties, which, unfortunately, neither Reagan nor the Bushes have acted to undo. We led the fight against socialized medicine under Carter. We led the fight in favor of the 10 percent flat tax in the early years of the Reagan administration. We fought all of the Reagan tax hikes—there were actually three major tax hikes under Reagan. Obviously, there were some wonderful things that happened during that time. I was pleased to be able to work with the Reagan administration in seeking victory over Communism. I worked with the White House in advancing the strategy of defeating the Soviet Union by attacking it at the periphery. Reagan was very good at that. I spent a lot of time in southern Africa, with Jonas Savimbi and with foes of the Communist African National Congress. I spent a lot of time in Central America fighting the Sandinistas and the FMLN and the Marxist group in Guatemala. Praise God that Reagan showed leadership. One of the ironies, one of the interesting dichotomies, is that at the very time, thanks to President Reagan, we were in Grenada arresting the leaders of the New Jewel Movement, including Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard (who was just a hardcore Marxist-Leninist), Reagan was giving $25 million to Bernard Coard’s brother, Robert Coard, who was head of ABCD—Action for Boston Community Development—just as Marxist as his brother, a Great Society relic against whom I battled when I was head of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. So, it’s a mixed bag. We have to thank God for the good things that happened. We have to be grateful for those in the Republican Party, and some Democrats, who worked for things in which we deeply believe. At the same time, on balance, this country is weaker because the role of government has become more intrusive and more supportive of left-wing causes. The government finances much of the homosexual movement. It finances, through Planned Parenthood, much of the abortion movement. It finances the indoctrination academies known as public schools, with this vast expansion of federal funding of education. I could give dozens of other examples of how government money is used as patronage to advance ideological and political causes to the detriment of the Constitution and to our nation’s best interests.
FLYNN: I guess what I’m getting at is: these victories that occurred in the past, they seemed to have occurred because there was not such a reluctance among conservatives to challenge the status quo. There seems to be a reluctance among conservatives to challenge the status quo today.
PHILLIPS: That’s a very good point. Under Reagan, the White House said: you can disagree with the president’s policies, but don’t criticize the president personally. There was an extensive willingness on the part of conservative leaders to disagree with the policies of Jim Baker, who, by his own claim, was, in effect, functioning as president during some of the Reagan years. I organized meetings against the tax hikes. Other people organized meetings on this or that issue. I remember meeting in the Roosevelt room at the White House, where I encouraged President Reagan not to sign the Boland Amendment, which limited his ability to help the Contras. So, we were able to bring our views forward. Some people still are able to bring their views forward to the president, even if such views are not always heeded. But, I would say that the White House under Bush has done a very good job through people such as Karl Rove in massaging conservative leaders, and convincing them that they have a place at the table, which they ought not jeopardize by excessive disagreement with the president’s policies. But again, that kind of disagreement is important. Christian and conservative leaders took a strong stand against Alberto Gonzales for the Supreme Court, and even though President Bush said, I don’t like you to criticize my friend, I think it had an impact—at least in so far as the first Supreme Court nominee was concerned.
Return tomorrow to read part three of this four-part interview. In part three, Howard Phillips discusses his influences, pulling Fidel Castro’s beard, winning the presidency of the student council at Harvard, and his classmate Barney Frank.