The Washington Times

A grand total of six Republicans voted “no” in the House Education Committee on the school reform legislation the White House wants and has been working with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy to get through in bipartisan fashion. The vote tells us a thing or two about the state of the organized conservative movement and about the relationship of conservatives and the Republican Party.

This is legislation that institutes federally mandated testing from third grade through eighth, that calls for a vast increase in federal funding of local schools and from which even a highly attenuated “school choice” component was dropped more or less from the get-go. In other words, it denies the primacy of local control, nationalizes standards, uncritically buys into the proposition that the failure of schools is a result of insufficient money, grants the legitimacy of Washington as the conduit for the money and rules out the one reform (competition in the form of school choice) that conservatives think offers real hope. In short, at any and every moment of the entire previous century, this bill would have represented precisely everything that conservatives oppose with regard to education policy.

If this bill had been the product of the Democratic Congress in conduction with the first Bush White House, it would have provoked a fissure in the Republican Party of a magnitude somewhere between the one provoked by the 1991 reauthorization of the Civil Rights Act (which George H.W. Bush had previously been denouncing as a “quota bill”) and the one provoked by the 1990 Andrews budget deal (in which George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge).

Yet the Republican Congress is going to pass this education bill overwhelmingly (with overwhelming Democratic support, too), and the Republican in the White House is going to sign it with enthusiasm. If the committee vote is any guide, conservative dissent will be politically marginal.

And while some outside conservative groups and individuals have voiced their objections, they have a couple of serious problems on their hands: First, this bill is a juggernaut, which is to say, anyone in its way will surely be flattened. Worse, there is a very distinct possibility that ratcheting up the volume of the opposition will mainly have the effect of revealing how little clout the opposition actually has. This is not good for those seeking to retain influence in other policy areas.

Now, as it happens, the conservatives willing to stand on long-held principle on the education bill tend to regard their erstwhile comrades who have either ducked or taken the other side as a species of faux or perhaps fallen conservative. In the view of the former, the latter have sold out their conservative principles as a matter of political expediency. They have become squishes. But this is not quite right, or at any rate, the whole story. Because many of the squishes on education remain very hard-line in their support of, for example, tax cuts and missile defense. The squishiness, in short, is of a selective character.

Moreover, it strikes me that many of the conservatives supporting the education reform bill (no small number of whom once supported the elimination of the federal Education Department), or opposing it at most tepidly, will be glad once it’s over and they can turn their attention back to policy areas where they are more traditionally conservative. And as for the opponents, one does not exactly get the sense that they are going to hold education reform against George Bush until their dying day. This issue does not look to be turning into anybody’s rallying cry. The opposition, too, has a bit of a faux quality to it.

What’s going on, then? There is, in principle, a difference between the advocacy of ideas and the pursuit of political and electoral success. In the context of a political party (which is to say, once those who have ideas take a notion to actualizing them by means of partisan politics), the ideas advocacy has to take place in the context of the pursuit of political success and must be thought to be contributing to that success. Ronald Reagan was conservative not only on principle but also as a means to political success. Newt Gingrich pursued the Revolution not just out of conviction but because he believed the American people wanted the kind of change he was promoting. Mr. Reagan may have been more and Mr. Gingrich less correct in their assessment of what the country wanted, but in both cases they had persuaded their own party that their agendas not only were glorious policy but also led to victory.

Insofar as you are partisan and committed to electoral success, if you can’t plausibly make the claim that your policy preferences will contribute to victory, your policy preferences have to undergo some modification. A principled conservative position on education says, as it always has, “local control first.” But there aren’t that many people who are conservative only as a matter of principle; most conservatives now seek political success first. That’s the story of this education bill.