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Exclusive: Reagan conservative lashes out at 'hijackers of the conservative movement'

John Byrne
Published: Friday July 28, 2006

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He didn’t support invading Iraq. He says national security decisions are too often made for political gain. And he maintains that Tom DeLay used “legal plunder” for the “immoral purpose of holding onto power.”

A Democrat? No – His name is Richard Viguerie, a conservative icon and key architect of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory. Known to many as the godfather of direct-mail campaign fundraising, his four-decade career has succored scores of conservative candidates and grassroots causes.

A balding grandfather with a wry Texan’s smile, Viguerie is a seasoned conservative who confidently brushes aside accusations that his criticism of Republicans is intended for personal gain. On Monday, he sat down with RAW STORY to talk about his new book, Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.

Modeling himself after Barry Goldwater, a 1960s conservative iconoclast whose reactionary stances later positioned Ronald Reagan for victory in 1980, Viguerie says the worst day of his political life was when Lyndon Johnson defeated Goldwater for president in 1964. Viguerie, who aided Reagan’s election but later became critical of some of his policies, today sees a landscape where Republicans run using a mantle of traditional values but carry the banner of conservatism only as far as it takes them to get elected.

Viguerie begins his book with two quotes. “The first is from Ronald Reagan and it says something along the lines of: ‘I tell my people that when we begin to refer to the federal government as us, we’ve been here too long.’ And then I recount a story of [former House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay (R-TX), late one night after dinner, he wants to light up a cigar and the manager says I’m sorry, Mr. DeLay… it’s against the law to smoke in a federal building. And DeLay says, ‘I am the federal government.’”

Viguerie spares little in attacking DeLay.

“DeLay is singlehandedly the primary person responsible for the most expansion of the government since [Democratic President] Lyndon Johnson,” he remarks. Subsequent research by RAW STORY revealed that, according to the CATO Institute, President Bush has exceeded Johnson in terms of discretionary spending.

Citing the recent bribery conviction of Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), Viguerie says the real threat to government isn’t illegal activity – which he believes will eventually be caught by the law – but legal “plunder.”

“What really affects our life is the legal stuff, the legal thefts, the legal plunder of people like Tom DeLay, for the sole, in my opinion immoral, purpose of holding onto power,” the Texas politico said. “They are engaged in this illegal theft, spending money that doesn’t belong to them to hold onto power. And that’s corrupt and immoral. And people who are engaged in that are in no way worthy of the label conservative.”

Viguerie says he blames DeLay for passing President Bush’s Medicare prescription drug benefit, which conservatives say adds $28 trillion to Medicare’s unfunded liabilities. He also breaks with Bush on Iraq, noting that Bush used his opposition to “nation building” as a means to win conservative support during the 2000 campaign.

“I opposed the Iraq war,” he says. “It’s just nation building, and it’s just, you know, conservatives, true conservatives oppose America going in there, and now that we’re in there I don’t know how to get out.”

Asked where conservatives draw the line between restraining spending and defense, Viguerie framed his response by saying conservatives place defense spending above all other government projects. The United States spends more than six times as much on its military as the next largest spender, I noted, but this didn’t faze the Texas Republican.

“The purpose of government is not to redistribute the wealth, not to promote diversity, not to promote this cause or that cause -- it’s national defense,” he says. “That’s the purpose of government.”

“People are free wherever they’re free not because of their defense budget, but because of America’s defense budget,” he adds.

He does, however, believe military spending is rife with abuse. “The decisions are made far too many times for political reasons and not for defense reasons. Homeland Security is just riddled with pork.”

Viguerie was among the block of conservatives who perceived Bush’s statement in support of the federal marriage amendment -- which would define marriage as being between one man and one woman – as tepid. He believes if Bush stood fast to conservative principles his approval rating would climb out of the mid-thirties.

“The president is in his 30s not because he’s governing as a conservative, but because he’s not governing as a conservative,” Viguerie avers. “He needs to pick ideological fights with the Democrats: judges, spending priorities, taxes...He needs to make some appointments and have the Democrats filibuster them. He needs to be a partisan conservative president. If he does that he’s going to see his numbers go way back up.”

Citing his recent criticism of conservative leaders in the Washington Post, I asked who he’d prefer to see running the Senate. Viguerie named Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a reactionary Republican from the Gingrich class of 1994, who’s made his name opposing gay rights and positioning himself as a bedrock conservative. For example, Coburn held up a 2007 spending bill over an 8 percent increase in Senate spending.

“Almost the entire leadership in my opinion should be changed,” Viguerie says. “They’re all complicit in the problem. I think conservatives are in the similar position as the biblical Jews who had to wander in the desert for 40 years until the corrupt leaders had passed away. Then they can go to the promised land.”

The Interview:

Raw Story Editor John Byrne chatted Monday with Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative and the godfather of political direct mail. Viguerie, who played a major role in the victory of President Ronald Reagan, was named in 1999 by the Washington Times as one of the 13 “Conservatives of the Century.” We spoke in advance of his new book, Conservatives Beytrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.

Raw Story’s John Byrne: What do conservatives conserve? What label would you apply to those in Congress who call themselves conservatives but are not?

Richard Viguerie: Conservatives conserve what’s best from the past. We basically are traditionalists. We don’t believe that every day we should get up trying to change that which has worked in the past. It applies to economic issues, to social issues and to foreign policy. Bush ran in 2000 against nation building and of course he’s engaged in more nation building than any president in our memory.

Raw Story: Do you believe former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) is a conservative?

Viguerie: I used to. I would no longer consider him a conservative. In fact, I start my book-- the very first page has two quotes in there -- the first one is from Ronald Reagan and it says something along the lines of: ‘I tell my people that when we begin to refer to the federal government as us, we’ve been here too long.’ And then I recount a story of Tom DeLay, late one light after dinner, he wants to light up a cigar and the [restaurant] manager says I’m sorry, Mr. DeLay that’s not allowed, and this restaurant is in a federal building and its against the law to smoke in a federal building. And DeLay said, ‘I am the federal government.’

Tom DeLay is singlehandedly the primary person responsible for the most expansion of the government since [Democratic President] Lyndon Johnson, and that’s the prescription drug benefit. He’s the one who kept the vote open in the House of Representatives... to make sure that he had enough votes... and twisted arms, and passed onto our children billions of dollars of debt.

Viguerie then spoke of former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), who recently pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. He said that illegal activity wasn’t really what troubled him, since such activity would be dealt with by law.

Viguerie: What really affects our life is the legal stuff, the legal thefts, the legal plunder of people [by people] like Tom DeLay, for the sole, in my opinion, immoral purpose of holding onto power. They are engaged in this illegal theft, spending money that doesn’t belong to them to hold onto power. And that’s corrupt and immoral. And people who are engaged in that are in no way worthy of the label conservative.

Raw Story: In your new book, you say, “Our job as conservatives is not to be mouthpieces for any administration, but to give credit where credit is due, and to give criticism where criticism is due.” Where do you feel credit is most due with Bush?

Viguerie: I give him credit on the tax cuts. I think there should have been more... but it was a positive thing. I applaud the judges; I think that on balance he has made good judicial appointments -- and he tried to give us a crony, of course, [Harriet Miers] to put on the Supreme Court... But he hasn’t fought for these judges very hard, and I think that’s a shortcoming. Early on in his administration, he abandoned the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty which limited America’s ability to defend itself, that was a very positive constructive thing.

Raw Story: You’ve said, “the only way to cure the problem is for Republicans to lose the Congressional elections this fall.” Do you think they will? What would you do if you were in charge of running the 2006 strategy?

Viguerie: I think it’s too early to say how the elections are going to go. In the world we live in today, communications being what it is, the world being what it is, things can change rather quickly, and move dramatically in a different direction. You have a very political White House, and a White House that has the ability if they focus to make a big difference politically.

I have not called for the defeat of Republicans in the fall elections. I want them to prevail. [But] I think that nothing is going to change in a significant way for conservatives unless there is a change in leadership.

Raw Story: Do you think Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) would be a better Senate leader than current Senate Majority Leader Frist (R-TN)?

Viguerie: He probably would be. He wouldn’t be ideal, but he would be better. Tom Coburn [would be], but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Almost the entire leadership in my opinion should be changed. They’re all complicit in the problem. I think conservatives are in the similar position as the biblical Jews who had to wander in the desert for 40 years until the corrupt leaders had passed away. Then they can go to the promised land.

Raw Story: What is it you think about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that you think would make him a good Senate leader?

Viguerie: He’s a principled conservative. He would not make a good leader with this present Senate because they’re all big government types. Coburn is a hero to conservatives because he’s like Barry Goldwater, he’s principled, he stands on principles. And they don’t like him there. They’ve tried to keep him out of the Senate. The earmarks, the pork barrel. Any issue expanding government, Coburn is going to stand there and yell stop. He’s not going to go there... Goldwater became Goldwater for a very simple reason, because he stood up to the leaders of his party.

Raw Story: If you were in charge of Republican strategy for the November elections, what would you do?

Viguerie: For conservatives, this is a Catch-22. In one sense’s it’s relatively simple: Republicans never win national elections unless the elections are nationalized, when the country is focused on a national agenda. Tip O’Neill famously said, ‘All elections are local.’ That’s a Democrat saying. Democrats like elections to be local. Democrats are a deliverer of services. They pave the roads, they make sure that your social security checks arrive on time. Not so Republicans. The 1980 election of Reagan – elections were nationalized, people were focused on a national election. 1994: the country was focused on again Hillary care, the competence of Bill Clinton, a social agenda, gay rights, a tax increase where no Republican voted for it -- that’s a nationalized election. They also nationalized the election in 2002 quite successfully. Originally they were opposed to homeland security legislation, then they flipped and came out for it.

Raw Story: What do you think the most important issues are in the 2006 elections?

Viguerie: National defense. That’s what Karl Rove has in essence told us... What the Republicans successfully did in 2002 and 2004… was to create a nexus between Iraq and national defense. They said weapons of mass destruction, and al Qaeda, and people felt that there was a connection between Iraq and national security. That’s the problem the president is having with his poll numbers. Somehow or other I expect they’re going to try to get it back.

They also have to pick ideological fights with the left. The president is in his 30s [in the polls] not because he’s governing as a conservative, but because he’s not governing as a conservative... He needs to pick ideological fights with the Democrats, judges, spending priorities, taxes... There’s almost a Conservatives Need Not Apply sign in front of the White House [except for a few appointments]: Jim Nicholson at Veterans’ and [UN ambassador] John Bolton ...He needs to make some appointments and have the Democrats filibuster them. He needs to be a partisan conservative president. If he does that he’s going to see his numbers go way back up.

Raw Story: So you would encourage partisanship? There seems to be an effort today to reduce it.

Viguerie: Partisanship is fine. I would hope that as long as we have disagreements we should be disagreeing, we should talk about it. It’s the demonization of people that is a problem, but partisanship is very healthy, that’s America.... We weren’t partisan in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and that’s when Democrats controlled everything.

Raw Story: The war in Iraq has been broadly supported by conservatives and liberals alike, and is costing the US more than $2 billion a week. Republicans say that to leave Iraq would be to cut and run, whereas Democrats say its time to begin a phased withdrawal? What’s your view?

Viguerie: I opposed the Iraq war. It’s just nation building, and it’s just, you know, conservatives, true conservatives oppose America going in there, and now that we’re in there I don’t know how to get out. In terms of spending priorities, the purpose of government is not to redistribute the wealth, not to promote diversity, not to promote this cause or that cause -- it’s national defense. That’s the purpose of government. That’s why governments come together, to form governments, [why individuals] give up liberties... And internal defense -- you want to be safe in your home. However much money it takes to be safe, that’s what people are prepared to spend. Certainly you can’t compare that to welfare. That’s not why people form governments, to redistribute their income.

Raw Story: One area of particular interest to me is military spending. As I’m sure you know, the US spends at least six times more than the next biggest military spender, and continues to outpace other governments after the cold war. It seems to me that military muscle and fiscal frugality are both conservative values – where do you think the conservative middle ground lies?

Viguerie: We’re the insurer of everybody’s freedom. People are free wherever they’re free not because of their defense budget, but because of America’s defense budget. We’re probably not spending it wisely; there’s an enormous amount of waste and abuse. There’s a lot of pork in these budgets; Homeland Security is just riddled with pork... The decisions are made far too many times for political reasons and not for defense reasons.

Raw Story: John McCain seems – at least right now – to be the front-runner among Republicans for the 2008 race, and has done so by asserting his independent streak while courting the Bush team and Bush’s supporters. What’s your opinion of McCain, or say, Rudy Giuliani?

Viguerie: The idea that Giuliani is a serious candidate for a Republican nomination is not a serious idea. It would destroy the Republican Party. He’s a serial adulterer, he doesn’t agree with Republicans on virtually anything... He doesn’t agree with the Republicans on the second amendment.

McCain is interesting. He’s a serious candidate. McCain is like a political broken clock. He’s right a couple of times now and then. Right on spending primarily, and right on other issues. But he has a real problem with conservatives because conservatives don’t see him as a conservative.

Raw Story: What would you tell Democrats to win in 2006 or 2008?

Viguerie: We all know the things that we hear -- the knocks on the Democrats are that they don’t have ideas that they are promoting. You can summarize them in, ‘My name is not George Bush and I’m not a Republican.’... In many ways, they’re like the big-government Republicans -- if the people really understood what they believed in, more government, less freedom, higher taxes, more spending on welfare, abandoning traditional values in many areas, the type of judges that they would appoint, they’d have a very hard time winning elections. But there are two big areas out there that are going to dominate security for the foreseeable future, and that is national defense and moral values.

Raw Story: I understand national defense. But isn’t moral values a Republican issue that’s being pushed as ecumenical?

Viguerie: If you look at the recent history of elections here, you’d be hard pressed to show that... In terms of moral values, traditional values – I remember I had a discussion with Katherine Kennedy Townsend in the early 80s about how the Democrats are going to have a very difficult time winning elections in the future if they have an anti-God, anti-religious image. They’re uncomfortable with religious issues. There’s one exception – you cannot be a Democrat in good standing if you are perceived as being very religious – the one subgroup is where you’re allowed to be very religious is the blacks, they allow that… If [Sen.] John Kerry (D-MA) had gone to mass... that would really have been a concern to Democrat primary voters.

Raw Story: In May 2000, you said among your goals were “To use the Internet to involve Americans in the political process, to help conservatives gain an advantage over the left.” Who do you think is winning the battle online?

Viguerie: Neither. Right now everybody is talking to the choir. Radio, television, even direct mail, we use these forms of communication to reach out to people who are not [as involved, but] on the Internet, people are talking to themselves. I don’t think it’s had any major impact on politics the way television has, or radio has had.

I developed a business model 40 years ago... in terms of how to use direct mail for political ideology. Nobody has done that on the Internet yet. There’s no business model that has successfully done that on the Internet. [Candidates have been successful,], but not [as] a replicable business model. Right now, it’s a group of hardcore activists.

In terms of political action, the liberals have clearly been more successful, the MoveOn, Howard Dean, etc. But the conservatives have dominated so far using the Internet as a communication means, Newsmax, Matt Drudge, World Net Daily – the conservative sites reach far more people. In one area liberals dominate, in the other area conservatives.