Moderation – a True Conservative Principle?

Peter Berkowitz has written a book addressing the ever-growing division within the ranks of republicans. The book, a quick read of only 126 pages, is called Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self Government, and Political Moderation. This phenomenon (the lost tribes of conservatism) has been a core theme of the Bull Gator Party, and Berkowitz proposes a solution for the question we often seek to answer (“where do we go now?”). The book was written in 2013 but the author frequently contributes to a number of publications and he recently summed up his thesis for the book in a July 2015 Wall Street Journal article.

Berkowitz loosely defines the division as between two main camps: social conservatives and limited government or libertarian conservatives. While this framing of the problem may be too narrow, it is a good start. Pretty much every single issue that will be relevant to elections in this era will be addressed in one view or another by these two camps, and in many cases the camps will be at odds. For examples from the current presidential campaign to illustrate the harmful division, we will consider abortion, national defense, and immigration.

Under this bipolar framework, abortion is dealt with by both camps: Social conservatives believe in life at conception and advocate for staunch pro-life policies, while limited government conservatives take a more libertarian approach and support the right of a woman to be free from government regulation, at least to some extent. Immigration is dealt with by both camps. The social side looks at a wave of non-assimilating immigrants and sees an attack on our culture and values, and is more likely to advocate for both a stop to illegal immigration, as well as a severe stemming of legal immigration, while the limited government side looks at the issue primarily from an economic perspective, and is less concerned about the culture change. Both sides agree on the need to address illegal immigration immediately, but they reach an impasse on the value of healthy levels of legal immigration. On National Defense, social conservatives cherish the US position as leader of the free world, and embrace our active role in foreign affairs, while the limited government side cringes at the cost of wars and peaceful intervention and the perpetual state of conflict in one region or another.

You can see how a rift is born among the right-leaning coalition. It is getting so bad that the camps are attacking eachother with more ferocity and anger than is directed at the (currently very harmonized) democratic electorate. Labels like “RINO” and “Establishment” are launched and both (or all, depending on how you define the camps) claim undisputed title to the term “conservative”.  The camps competing for the term “conservative” are so different they could realistically form two parties and be mortal enemies! Meanwhile, the majority of democrats or left -leaners are entirely aligned on every single one of these issues.

Berkowitz suggests that conservatives return to the basic principles that gave birth to the conservative movement, those principles having been lost somewhere along the way. Chief among these principles are “individual freedom, equality under law, and limited government—all of which presuppose and protect religious faith and traditional morality”. These principles, at times, may be at odds with current notions of the Republican platform.  Can these positions be reconciled?

A key theme of the book is a call for return to the concept of political moderation. This causes many hard-liner heads to spin. The mention of the word “Moderate” invokes images of lily-livered, mealy-mouthed deal makers who sell out their constituencies and their principles for dollars, or in the furthering of inside washington deals that only bolster the political class. Berkowitz addresses the difference between this unattractive characteristic, and the type of moderation he encourages, on pg. xi in the preface to the book:  “I do not mean that conniving and cowardly offspring of expedience and ambition that betrays principle just to get ahead or get along. I refer instead to political moderation well understood, which accommodates, balances and calibrates to translate rival and worthy principles into practice.”

The first few chapters of the book go on to remind the reader that our nation was founded on one of the greatest political compromises of all time between two camps which were hopelessly at odds. The Federalists, and the anti-federalists both considered the opposing side to be entirely wrong. After a lengthy and heated debate, the best political system and thus the most powerful nation in the world was formed out of this highly unlikely compromise.

Moderation, especially at the executive level, may be the truest of conservative principles. We have now experienced an energetic executive with wild-eyed plans to fundamentally change the character of the nation, and the result has been a nation re-divided along racial lines, stagnation for the middle class and those in poverty, and radical social changes which elevate new minority groups at the expense of the liberties of the people at large.

This is not to say there are no bad guys. There would be no need for a Bull Gator Party if we felt our leaders were staying true to conservative principles. We would define “Establishment” politicians (those who have firmly disavowed any conservative principle, from any camp) as the “bad guys”. John Mccain, John Boehner, and Chris Christie come to mind as potential banner-waivers for this bunch, and we would be best served to identify and publically excommunicate those who have long since abandoned their ideological compass.

If we continue to insist on pure ideological purity in our chief executive, we are likely to face many generations of progressive leaders and policy because we simply do not have the coalition power to compete against a united progressive electorate. Our most revered conservative icon knew it, and we would do well to at least consider the idea. Neither camp (or their variations) can justifiably claim ownership and dominion over the term conservative, unless we stick to the broad principles of limited government and individual liberty. Perhaps we need a leader who, without respect to the term “Moderate” (Big M), has the innate maturity and leadership ability to moderate (little m) between our rival and worthy goals.

An Irreligious View on Abortion

First, we must distinguish between our personal convictions, and our view of the government’s role in our lives. Considering that we acknowledge the government’s role in providing legal protection for the lives of individuals, we should adopt an irreligious view of abortion. This involves being much LESS judgmental of women choosing to have abortions very early on in their pregnancy, and MUCH MORE judgmental of women, and others involved in the practice of, aborting children who have developed into human form.

A disturbed Ohio woman was arrested and charged with murder this week. After her third child died a suspicious asphyxiation death, the authorities figured out that her children didn’t have some rare genetic condition causing sudden suffocation, and looked into the matter.

What is all the outrage about? Why should this woman not be permitted to make her own choices about her body? Why should the government regulate, and subsequently condemn her disposition of her body parts as she sees fit? Certainly this is a ridiculous question. These were children, outside of the womb. They were independent from their mother. They were, in fact, human beings endowed with the right to live protected by law. So, maybe a better question is: when did they cease to become a part of their mother’s body, and become human babies?

There was not much debate where a 17 year old Ohio girl beat her 26-day-old baby to death. She was charged with felony murder and child abuse and no one rushed to her defense. This was definitely a baby. Another young troubled mother in Virginia, facing many of the same challenges as those considering abortion, killed her baby on the day it was born. How much did that baby change in the hours that had passed since it was delivered out of the woman’s body?

If it is the mere process of delivery that transforms a fetus into a baby, is it the umbilical cord that serves as the bond between woman’s body and baby, and the object only becomes the latter upon severance? Or is it the immersion in amniotic fluid and containment within the placenta?

The viability standard in place since 1973 attempted to resolve the issue with a crude judicial compromise (the term “splitting the baby” seems crass, yet appropriate). The standard, still in place today, considers whether a fetus could survive outside of the womb, especially under certain conditions. It attempts to confront nature with tortured scientific logic, ignoring whether the life growing inside the woman has developed into living human form, to the point that it should be considered an individual; a human worthy of rights independent from its mother.  One could reasonably argue that a 6 week fetal nucleus is viable, because under the condition of 20 additional weeks of development, it would certainly survive.

Why should the viability inquiry only consider life outside of the womb? All of the infants murdered by their mothers above were helpless. They had no chance of survival without another human feeding them, keeping them upright and clear of hazards. Were they even viable? We do not condition their personhood, or the authority of the law to protect them, on their ability to survive. Does a standard which protects all except the helpless make any sense?

Too often the debate between life at conception and viability devolves into one of religion and morals. Consensus will never be reached in this manner because we don’t all share the same religion or morals. We do, however, all share the same Constitution and sense of individual rights (setting aside, for now, the influence of religion on the Constitution). This is why any discussion of abortion in the United States should avoid religious and moral appeals. In fact, the strongest argument against late term abortions and government funding of the same is an irreligious one.

Consider the Human Form Standard:

  1. The removal of an embryo yet to reach human form (defined below) is a medical procedure, not unlike removing an ovary. A woman (or man for that matter) is free to choose to elect medical procedures of their choice without interference from the state.
  2. There comes a point inside the womb where the fetus becomes a baby, in full human form. The baby has developed fully formed arms, hands, fingers, and feet, can open and close its fists and mouth, reproductive organs have formed (it is a boy or a girl), circulatory and urinary systems are working and the liver is producing bile; eyebrows, eyelids, eyelashes, nails, and hair are formed; teeth are formed and the baby can suck his or her thumb; the baby can be seen via ultrasound yawning, stretching, and making faces. (Practically speaking, this stage of development is somewhere between 12-16 weeks).The baby that has reached this stage of development (which necessarily requires mutilation in order to be “evacuated”) is just as human and helpless as the post-delivery children discussed above, and the government has an interest in protecting this independent and recognizable life.
clump of cells?

Women seeking to terminate early pregnancies in #1 above should be given privacy, and treated with dignity and respect. Those with a firmly held religious belief that abortion, even at this stage, is murder, should be offering up sincere prayers for the woman in private, not publicly stoning her. On the other hand, when the baby has reached human form, our government should assert its authority to protect individual lives, whether that life is in jeopardy of being mutilated pre-delivery, or smothered with a blanket shortly after taking its first breath.

What Matters in 2016?

This is not intended to be a 2016 election blog. Instead, among the many lost tribes of conservatism, the Bull Gator Party is intended to be a city of refuge. A place where ideas can be discussed without the associated restraints of, and the ensuing direct endorsement of, “party”.

The current campaigning going on serves as a convenient catalyst for conversation, and is thus intertwined with our goal of shining new light on unpopular ideas.

Everyone has “their issue.” There are organizations and voters whose entire political world of thought revolves around abortion. Another set of folks rally around education, whether they work in the industry or have children of the age where they see the products of a failing education system in their daily lives. Out of these interests, and other interests like them, come political infighting and the separation and concentration of donated funds into special interest camps.

How does one focus on what matters? Certainly action is not warranted, and will not be taken on every issue in every presidential term. For that matter, do we want a leader who aims to actively and aggressively FIX problems? If the Bull Gator Party is about anything, it is about thoughtful leaders who resist the urge to throw money at every problem in some sort of maniacal legacy building quest (i.e. “fundamentally transforming the United States”), and confine themselves to the enumerated powers in the constitution.

The office of the president was never designed to be the primary driver of the nuts and bolts of any change, but to set the course and right the ship as it is required, in the routine administration of the executive branch. The job of making laws was intended to be the province of our elected representatives in the house and senate, and more importantly, in our state capitols.

There is a lot at stake in 2016, but with debate moderators asking questions designed to humiliate candidates regarding fringe issues (“What would you do if your daughter told you she was gay?”) it is time to hone our focus on the macro level issues that matter.

  1. Consitutional Conservatism – Problem – The size of the federal government, the irresponsible and freedom-killing national debt, and the infringement of individual and state rights by an out of control federal government. Action needed – pass a federal balanced budget constitutional amendment. Responsibly phase out (i.e. ELIMINATE, not reform) several federal government departments. (Education and Homeland Security come to mind).
  2. Securing the Border Problem – Immigration Policy (firmly within the constitutional boundaries of the federal government) which allows millions to enter the country in violation of immigration law resulting in grave economic and security risks. Action needed – There a number of competing views, to be discussed at depth in future posts. Suffice it to say for now that all candidates need a solid plan on this issue. All solutions must begin with regaining control of the southern border once and for all and enforcing existing laws.
  3. SCOTUS Selections –   Opportunity – Antonin Scalia (79), Anthony Kennedy (79), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (82), and Stephen Breyer (77) are highly likely to be replaced within the next four years, and nearly certain to be replaced in the next eight years. Of all the powers of the president, this power has the most potential to impact the fundamental character of the nation. Action Needed – Don’t scrutinize justices based solely on their positions on past issues. Look for patterns of thought that reflect a deep deference and respect for not only the text of the constitution, but for the founders timeless concept of federalism.

You will take note that the following have been intentionally excluded from the list: Abortion, Gay Marriage, ISIS, Job Creation, Obamacare, Gun Control, Tax Code. This is not to suggest for a moment that all of these issues are not very important. These are significant issues on the micro level and it is clear that they are near and dear to the hearts of many. These are the conservative hot-button issues used to drive grassroots momentum and inertia that hopefully propels many in to the polling place. But they are a double-edged sword, because they also drive wedges between the different camps of conservatives and force candidates to die gruesome deaths on unnecessary battlefields once they are competing on the national stage.

James Holmes – The Case Against the Death Penalty

Remember when support for or opposition to capital punishment used to be a major campaign issue? It is rarely discussed anymore. It is one issue that has near overwhelming support among US citizens making it a political non-issue. Since 1936, support for the death penalty has only dropped below 60% for a 16 year period around the 1960s.

Yesterday the Colorado theater shooter (12 killed, 70 wounded) was spared his life by a Colorado jury. Two things made this case unique from other mass murders. First, the shooter survived. Second, his insanity defense was rejected. This looked to be the easiest slam dunk death sentence in the history of the penalty. The Joker was going to get the needle. But something happened in that jury room, and from the few accounts that have surfaced, nothing was going to change the mind of at least one of the jurors.

Revelations in Holmes’ notebooks sent to his family and his psychiatrist point to a very intelligent man who was determined to prove that life was absurd and without meaning. It is such a difficult perspective for anyone to even remotely comprehend, that ordinary folks will only refer to his rantings as insane. Pure evil. The organization and coherence of his planning and follow through are so sadly impressive that one understands why he was determined to be sane. If he isn’t pure evil though, then no one is.

The primary objections held by hard core death penalty abolition advocates are 1) the possibility of innocence, and (2) the racial bias inherent in the process resulting in disproportionate death sentences for black killers. There was no question of innocence in this case. The factor of Holmes’ race will certainly be discussed given the outcome, but at least in the eyes of a death penalty abolitionist, Holmes race was not a factor that would improperly cause a jury to invoke the death penalty. So you had a case that did not trigger the two primary objections to a death sentence. Where is an abolitionist or civil rights advocate to look for reasons not to kill this monster?

There are four primary aims of sentencing in US criminal common law. Retribution (vengeance), Specific Deterrence (prevent Defendant from committing this crime again), General Deterrence (prevent others from committing a similar crime), and Rehabilitation (help this person be productive in society again). Based on the crime the different goals are weighted differently, but suffice it to say, rehabilitation is not factored in significantly in the case of murder. Where the defendant has been found guilty and the only alternatives are life without parole and death, specific deterrence is accomplished either way (aside from the very low probability risk of escape), and is thus not an issue.

But what about retribution? Do we want our government taking vengeance, even on our behalf? Whether the government sanctioned slaying of a convicted killer actually serves the victim’s families’ interests, and gives them so-called “closure”, is not exactly settled.

Constitutional conservatives should oppose the death penalty. Not because it is cruel and unusual, although it could be. Not because the states don’t have the constitutional authority in black and white. For three reasons, one of which we share with the abolitionists: 1) Possibility of innocence, 2) Cost and 3) simple governmental propriety.

Innocence – Simply put, sometimes states get it wrong. Juries get it wrong, and lawyers get it wrong. You can’t turn back an execution. Since 1973, over 1,400 people have been executed in the United States, and 155 have been sentenced to die and later completely exonerated. It is almost impossible to tell how many of those actually killed may have been innocent, because courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence once the defendant is dead, but there is strong evidence that at least 10 innocent men have been executed. That is nearly 1%, and when you are allowing the state to kill your neighbor, those are horrible odds.

Cost – If we are to stay true to a core principle of conservatism in the use of taxpayer funds, then we cannot ignore the statistics from across all states with the death penalty, proving that the death penalty and its mandatory appeals cost at least twice as much as life without parole in the highest security setting. This varies across states, but a ballpark average figure would be 1 million to incarcerate a prisoner for life, compared against 2.5 million to house them on death row, fight appeals, and ultimately carry out the execution. This does not even quantify the intangible value of the victim’s family’s time spent in limbo, waiting for the mythical “closure”.

Governmental Propriety – We should all pray we never have to experience the loss of a loved one to any murder, let a lone one as gruesome as this one. The families are in anguish, and clearly wanted Holmes to die. If it was our child, spouse, sibling or parent with a shotgun hole in their body in a sticky cinema seat holding a box of hot tamales, anguish and rage wouldn’t permit us to accept anything less than blood. The law, however, is not designed to carry out a sentence tailored to the desires of the victim’s families. If it were, the death penalty would be completely off the table for Dylan Roof (of Charleston AME shooting fame), because his victim’s families have already forgiven him and wished mercy upon him.

It is justifiable for the tormented survivors of the slain to block out restraint and caution and allow blind rage (or forgiveness, as the case may be) to govern, but this vengeance and emotion is not appropriately imputed to the state. We should fear a state that acts out of anger.We should be repulsed by a government license to kill, for any purpose, under any circumstance other than defense or exigency. Call it civility, enlightenment or simple governmental propriety.

Killing a criminal who has already been proven not to value life is ungainly. James Holmes did not get off easy. He will continue to toil over his existence, and is likely to have a long row to hoe if he is permitted to mingle with the population in his new forever home. The only remaining question may be whether he ends his own life or simply walks into the wrong corner of the jungle. Sadly he may not be able to make that final entry in his notebook. The one that says “yes indeed life is absurd and meaningless, but there is also a logic and order to it, and it has a natural way of correcting its mistakes”.

Organizing the 2016 Republican Field

Many of us like to call ourselves independent, libertarian, conservative or some other unique variation while vehemently denying any affiliation with the Republican party. This is motivated by the identity crisis the republican party is facing and the scattering of so many souls who feel disenfranchised from politics. This is the very conflict that prompted the creation of the Bull Gator Party, and one that deserves MUCH discussion. It doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the possible candidates representing our views are currently camping under the republican banner. For better or for worse, this is the framework we have for this election.

14 of the 17 candidates met for a “Voter’s First Forum” in New Hampshire last night. This was not a debate, but a low-key introduction to each candidate. A premier of sorts. It was refreshingly simple and honest. The production value was low, and this gave the viewer an insight into how these candidates can adapt to a setting they are not familiar with.

One of the goals of the Bull Gator Party will be to discuss these candidates from time to time, during this long campaign season. The following is an initial attempt to organize the candidates into some categories or “camps”. There are so many of them that this might help spark some discussion. Within each category is a very brief (20 words or less) impression of each candidate’s forum performance. Feel free to comment on moving candidates between “camps”, and any other observations you may have made.

The Establishment 

Bush – Bumbling. Several bombed jokes. Difficulty with casual forum.

Christie – Promised to help a lot of people. Spoke well, but no sign of conservative principles.

Rubio – Polished. Charismatic. No sign of conservative principles other than an aside on Obamacare.

Graham – Slick. Sarcastic. Several jokes fell flat. Claimed to understand the common man when he was 22.

The Evangelicals

Huckabee – Absent.

Santorum – Upbeat. Optimistic. As in the past, not a lot of depth.

The Moderate Conservatives

Kasich –  Balanced Budget Amendment. Smiled genuinely. Mature leader. Expressed need for republican compassion.

Perry – better than 2016. Strong personality. Seems to struggle thinking on his feet.

Jindal – Stronger than expected. No stuttering, no dancing around issues. Intelligent and articulate with a smile.

The Private Sector

Fiorina – Stronger than expected. Well spoken. Speaks like a leader. Fangs out on Hillary.

Carson – Very intelligent, very soft spoken. Very deep. Some people might not ‘get him’.

Trump – Absent.

The Hardline Conservatives

Cruz – Very intelligent. Slick, plastic, and ideological. Staunchly principled, but slightly creepy.

Walker – Easy going. Spoke well. Personable. Talks a lot about beating unions and recall election.

Paul – Intense. No smile. Lots of privacy talk. Tried with some difficulty to deflect the isolationist slur targeting his sane foreign policy..

The Forgotten

Gilmore – Absent.

Pataki – Looked out of place and uncomfortable.

That’s it for now. For the record, Perry is difficult to place into one of the camps. Watch for more details as the stories unfold!