With the right wing reeling after Barack Obama's victory and the Democrats as firmly in control of Congress as they've been in more than a decade, reason checked in with Richard Viguerie, a man who has had a front-row seat, including some hand in steering, as the conservative movement rose and fell (and rose and fell) since the mid-1960s.
Viguerie was the leading early innovator of right-wing direct mail fundraising, and his company, American Target Advertising, has mailed over 2 billion letters over the past 40 years. During that time, Viguerie has had a hand in everything from the Young Americans for Freedom to the Moral Majority. He was a central theoretician of "The New Right," the more traditionalist and populist wave of right-wing activism that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His latest book is Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause (Bonus Books, 2006). He currently runs the web site ConservativeHQ.com.
He has been known for a truculent refusal to bow down to the standard gods of the GOP, having been a loud public critic of politicians from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giuliani to George W. Bush, criticizing each in the name of his own right-wing vision, which combines free-market economics with cultural traditionalism—a combination he still believes has a political future in America. He made his bones understanding the needs of a significant portion of the electorate. I spoke to him by phone last Thursday about what he thinks the near future holds—and should hold—for American conservatism.
reason: Why did McCain lose?
Richard Viguerie: Obama got under 53 percent of the vote, with McCain carrying around his neck a very unpopular president, a very unpopular body of Republicans in Congress, and a very unpopular war. McCain was also outspent three to one, and the entire mainstream media left the sidelines and joined the other side. In addition, McCain for a good part of the last 20 years was at war with the base of his own party. He's fortunate it wasn't more of a blowout, with the financial meltdown on top of that.
For whatever reason Republicans have been nominating highly inarticulate candidates, whether Bob Dole, George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain. It took a plumber to frame the debate in the last weeks of the campaign! So with all the handicaps McCain brought to the table, it's amazing he did as well as he did.
reason: Sarah Palin seemed like a vice-presidential pick straight out of your New Right playbook, with her stance as the populist, mainstream, family-values American opposed to hoity-toity Eastern and media elites.
Viguerie: Palin was huge for a number of reasons. One that hasn't gotten a lot of publicity is that Republicans tend to be royalists. The king is king, long live the king, and whoever's turn it is next in the apparent line of succession has a massive head start. You saw this with Reagan, the first Bush, Dole, McCain. If McCain had chosen a Tom Ridge, a Mitt Romney, a Tim Pawlenty, it would have been "their turn" in 2012. So now it's a clear field for conservatives, which there wouldn't have been if he'd picked a moderate or liberal Republican for VP.
I think Palin was a brilliant choice. I was with 300 conservative movement figures the morning that she was announced, and our feet didn't touch the floor all day long. I was with [Phyllis] Schlafly, [James] Dobson, and for the most part serious conservatives had been on the sidelines or not doing a whole lot [for McCain], unenthusiastic. Palin got the conservatives energized in a way I can't think anything else would have done. We take the attitude that she has been so vilified by the mainstream media for only one reason: She's effective. People don't kick sleeping dogs. They see her as a serious threat so they are trying to destroy her.
reason: Are you still excited about Palin's future?
Viguerie: Absolutely. I was with a bunch of conservative leaders the night before last, and everyone is still very excited and enthusiastic about her. Still, the number one mistake that conservatives have made in the last dozen years is, they have become an appendage of the Republican Party, looked to the GOP in the House, the Senate, the RNC [Republican National Committee], for leadership.
I think it has caused us a great deal of problems. You don't see that on the left. Unions, for example, are notorious. When you have a Democratic president and they get 90 percent of [whatever they want], they scream and yell till they get the last 10 percent. I have never been concerned about White House invitations or returned phone calls, and far too many of my friends are. Like I said, Republicans tend to be royalists and like to be close to the seat of power and touch the king's purple robe.
But I had three different cabinet officers during Reagan's presidency tell me privately we need [public criticism from the right of the sort Viguerie provided]. "Keep it up! We need to go in to a cabinet meeting and say we can't do that because the conservatives will go ballistic."
If conservatives had spoken out loudly and consistently from day one when George W. started making nice with [Sen. Ted] Kennedy and with No Child Left Behind, farm bailouts, prescription drug benefits, we would have had far more success. Conservatives in Washington don't have the strength, many of them, to hold to their beliefs like liberals do. The MoveOn crowd, the environmentalists, they stand up to a Democratic president.
I'm writing a book now that says the key to conservatives coming to power is what I call a "third force"—not a third party but a third force. The left's success has been through 340 different environmental organizations, consumer groups, race-based organizations, feminist groups, homosexual groups, unions; they all have their own membership, their own agenda, their own source of funds, and they pull everybody, Republicans and Democrats, in their direction.
It's critical for conservatives to also operate independently of the GOP and launch thousands of new organizations at the national, state, and local level, dealing with narrowly focused issues, public education, or maybe in your local community it might be property rights, it could be taxes, whatever the issue might be, work on those issues wherever your abilities and talents lead you to. In my lifetime the most successful public policy issue has been the state of Israel. It's so successful it's off the table: Everyone supports Israel. The issue did not get tied to a political party, and any time you tie an issue to a party, your grandchildren will be fighting that issue.
reason: You were involved in an aborted attempt to get conservatives around the GOP in 1976 by trying to take over the American Independent Party, George Wallace's operation. Your third party involvement has continued; you spoke at the Libertarian Party convention, and were rumored to be heavily involved in Bob Barr's choice to run for LP…
Viguerie: I was keynote speaker at the LP convention, and the Constitution Party one as well. Bob [Barr] is a friend, we've been friends since he came to Congress. His father worked for me for some years. I advised Bob over the years but once he got the LP nomination, I didn't really get into strategy, because I was supporting McCain. People got that confused.
I've been taking the attitude for some years that conservatives can govern America, but it's not going to happen quickly or easily. If I could have selected the president, conservatives still would not govern, because we would not have the House or Senate or state legislatures or governors.
But as for the LP or Constitution Party, I am a Frank Meyer disciple, a Frank Meyer fusionist. It's just reality: I can't find 51 percent of the people who agree with me all the time on everything. Unfortunately, it seems impossible for some of our conservative leaders and activists to reach out and work with everybody that I consider in the ball park of our ideology.
reason: A common idea floating among the more establishment right, like Bill Kristol, is that the GOP is hobbled by any perceived dedication to smaller government. What do you think?
Viguerie: Kristol says something about how we had five GOP presidents in the past 50 years and only Reagan ran on small government, and Reagan, he said, wasn't very successful at actually reducing government, and the other four were Big Government Republicans and were successful.
What Kristol doesn't mention is that each one [besides Reagan] left the party in shambles! Conservatives are in the wilderness these days, but like Churchill in the 1930s, who raised a standard to which the honest and wise could repair so that at one point Britain decided to turn to him for salvation. If we become Democratic Party Lite, liberalism lite, and at some point the house of cards financially that our country is standing on comes crashing down—and we are moving in that direction strongly now—why turn to us if we haven't been true to our principles and why think we have any answers? I do not see salvation for the GOP in openly abandoning conservative principles.
A well-known conservative friend of mine who I visit with after mass most Sunday mornings asked me last year: "Richard, I identified 17 neocons—can you think of any more?" They have got The Weekly Standard and access to The New York Times and Fox, but I think the conservatives are obviously the base of the Republican Party.
reason: You are known as the father of direct mail ideological fundraising. Is that dying in an Internet age?
Viguerie: Not at all. Radio didn't go away when TV came along. Direct mail is alive and well and has a major role to play in the public policy arena. When I started doing my thing back in the 1960s and '70s I was fortunate to pioneer political and ideological direct mail, and I developed a business model that has been replicated hundreds if not thousands of times from people on the left and right. But no one has done that for the Internet. You can't take what Obama did across the street and do it for some other candidate.
reason: You were a Pat Buchanan supporter in the 1990s. Do you agree with his anti-interventionist, antiwar foreign policy?
Viguerie: Absolutely. Most conservatives are opposed to a neocon approach to foreign policy. I like to use Reagan as an example. Reagan said we were not going to defeat communism so much as transcend it. Planes didn't fly, tanks didn't roll, guns didn't fire. There were times during Reagan's presidency where I didn't think he did what needed to be done [to fight communism], but in hindsight he was very right and I was wrong. But most conservatives I know think of themselves as noninterventionist; it's part of our makeup, our DNA.
reason: You were key in bringing the religious right into the conservative political coalition in the 1970s. Do you still think that culture and values issues are key to conservatism?
Viguerie: When I started in politics in the late '50s, Republicans would customarily get 45 to 47 percent, not often 51. In those days the base of the GOP to a large extent sat on a two-legged stool: anti-communism and fiscal responsibility. Then in the late '70s when the Moral Majority formed and the Republicans began to bring the religious right on board, everything changed. Then Republicans would get 51, 52, 54 percent of the vote.
The left screams and yells about the separation of church and state, how it's terrible the Republicans use religion as a wedge issue. But they complain because it has allowed conservatives to be as effective as they have been in the last 30 years or so. It's the only part of the Republican Party where there really are ground troops. The Left has different minority groups, unions, any number of groups that serve as ground troops and Republicans don't, other than the religious right leaders, [who are] the only ones with any troops out there. Economic conservatives don't have troops on the ground and are not organized in the way values voters are.
So values voters, social conservatives, continue to be vital to the GOP. Look at Ohio. We know in '04 Ohio was the difference. Bush beat Kerry by 120,000 voters there with the same sex marriage issue on the ballot, and religious value voters worked to carry Ohio. McCain got [nearly 200,000] votes less than Bush did, because religious voters didn't turn out, their leadership wasn't engaged as they were for Bush. If values voters don't turn out, it's going to be very difficult to elect Republicans.
reason: Does it seem to you in the wake of the bailout and Obama's victory that the small government part of the conservative coalition is electorally dead?
Viguerie: I'm not going to make the case in December 2008 that there is a small-government majority out there. My hope is whatever Obama is going to do from the left, he does it quicker rather than later. People on the libertarian side and the conservative side that have not sold out their principles, that have not abandoned ourselves to liberalism lite as the neocons would have us do, if all of us who share small-government beliefs work to articulate them every opportunity we have—by the way, one of the things that causes me to be optimistic is new and alternative media: 40 years ago all these great ideas were like a tree that fell in a forest with no one hearing.
But new and alternative media, from direct mail to talk radio to the Internet, through these we can communicate our views and values. If we do that, we know there will come a time when things will be far worse economically than they are now, and at that time if we have shown we have answers and can govern responsibly people will turn to us.
When Reagan ran it's not that people bought in so much to his views as they knew they didn't like what they had: They didn't like the Democrats running Congress and didn't like Carter. Reagan presented a responsible alternative. That's what Obama did, too. It's not so much that voters bought into him; they were just really angry at Bush and the Republicans and wanted to fire them all. The only way they knew to do that was to vote Obama.
We have to go out and articulate responsible, reasonable alternatives to what's happened in politics and economics at the federal, state, and local level. At some point that whole thing will come crashing down around us. An America faced with going off the cliff with socialism will turn to people who have a different view. That will give us our opportunity if we have prepared.