“Conservatism is progressivism driving the speed limit.”
On the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1994, the sun shone on a beautiful autumn day in Washington D.C. The high was 78 degrees with no rain in sight, tolerable humidity and brisk winds of 10 mph circulating up from the south.
Inside the US Capitol building, a small yet raucous crowd had assembled to celebrate the changing political winds also blowing in from the South.
The day before, the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 had been victorious, gaining 54 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate in the midterm elections. But the revolution wasn’t done yet.
That afternoon, the day after the election, one more signature would soon be added to the Contract with America. The new and improved GOP was now about to add another Senate seat to its fledgling majority. As the three US Senators approached the gaggle of microphones, the crowd assembled erupted with applause.
The Senator at the center of the day’s hullabaloo, easily the tallest man in the room, had Sen. Bob Dole clutching his right hand and Senator Phil Gramm grasping his left. This towering man with a wide smirk then raised his fellow Senators’ hands high in the air and shook them like a victorious prizefighter.
The cheers of the crowd continued for more than a minute, ending with a chant, “Shelby! Shelby! Shelby! Shelby!”
“Thank you! Good afternoon, good afternoon,” said Alabama’s junior US Senator Richard Shelby, a then 60 years young Southern Conservative Democrat, “This is a good afternoon, I believe, for the American people.
“For 16 years, eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate, I’ve tried hard to work within the Democratic Party, a party that I grew up with in the South. But I can tell you it has been frustrating because I thought there was room in the Democratic Party for a conservative Southern Democrat such as myself… but I can tell you there’s not.”
After a brief pause, Shelby then gave the crowd what they had been waiting for, an announcement Ronald Reagan himself had asked Congressman Richard Shelby to make all the way back in 1981: “So officially, right now, I am changing parties to a party of hope for America, not a party of dependency, to the Republican Party effective immediately.”
The crowd, of course, went wild. It was the dawning of a new political age and a new kind of Republican Party.
“I can tell you this,” Shelby said as the hooting and hollering subsided. “I’m going to continue to work for the people of Alabama and the people of America to make government smaller but make business create jobs. And I believe that’s what the American people want, is an opportunity, not dependency. And I’m hoping, in the future, that you’re going to see more Southern Democrats cross that line and come back to the philosophy where they want to go and where they belong.”
“Shelby! Shelby! Shelby! Shelby!” the crowd roared again.
“Where is America going? What’s happening to America?” Shelby went on. “What’s happening to young people’s opportunities? It’s too late for me, you know. I’ll make it some way, I hope. But what about the unborn and the young?”
On that day, Nov. 9, 1994, I was five years old. I guess Sen. Shelby was, in part, talking about me.
Fast-forward 28 years later, and one has to wonder whether the fanfare was warranted for either Shelby’s switch or the Republican Revolution of ‘94.
Now that Senator Shelby is on the cusp of retirement and the 2022 Alabama US Senate race to replace him is reaching a smarmy fever pitch in the GOP primaries, one has to ask: did Sen. Shelby’s tenure as one of the most powerful members of the establishment GOP make the federal government smaller? Less intrusive?
Is the state of Alabama more or less dependent on the federal government since Richard Craig Shelby switched political parties nearly 28 years ago?
And, beyond Richard Shelby, did the Gingrich Revolution actually secure a decrease in the size and scope of the federal government? How about the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush?
Did the switch of the once old (and now very old) conservative Southern Democrats to the Alabama GOP downsize state government, decrease dependency, reduce corruption or even improve basic outcomes for the people of Alabama?
I hate to say it, but the modern conservative movement — nationally and especially here in Alabama — has either been powerless to stop the victory march of progressivism, government growth and dependency, or it has been complicit.
Take your pick: impotence, betrayal or both.
However, when faced with such a choice, this is usually when the canned conservative excuses begin. I wish my conservative fellow travelers on the right would stop it with these excuses and admit the problem.
Yet, they persist.
The first and most popular conservative excuse is always some reasonable partisan counterfactual — “well, it could have been a lot worse”— followed up by a long litany of reasons why the Democrats, Socialists, and the left are so awful and dangerous.
This is merely an excuse for conservatism’s historical impotence.
It’s true enough, sure, but it also makes my point. The conservative movement should and can be better than serving as an occasional brake on progressivism. And that only happens when conservatives aren’t lining up to play the role of ‘dumb villains’ for the progressive ‘heroes’ to defeat.
Wouldn’t you like to be driving the car instead of occasionally getting to pump the brakes or play the role of the annoying backseat driver?
That brings us to the second most popular conservative excuse: that someone like Sen. Richard Shelby is a RINO - a Republican in name only.
This is only an excuse for conservatism’s historical betrayal.
I’m sorry, but when Richard Shelby is elected term after term and has served as a Republican US Senator for 28 years, he much more defines what it means to be a Republican from Alabama than any disgruntled activist, talk radio caller or mama grizzly who feels their conservative principles have been betrayed.
Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby and Kay Ivey are not RINOs; they are Republicans. These members of the Republican establishment are probably more Republican than any Tea Party or Trump voter, not because their policies are better or more conservative, but because they hold the power within the Republican party.
He who holds the power sets the rules of the Republican game — even if he used to be a Democrat. Just ask Donald Trump.
When faced with this reality, the last-ditch excuses of my conservative friends then devolve into the realm of cliché from “politics is the art of the possible” to “you’re making the perfect the enemy of the good” to “you wouldn’t have it better living in any other country so be grateful for what we have here.”
Yes, all true. But these old chestnuts only distract from the point at hand: that conservatism in modern American political history, for whatever reason, has failed to live up to its vision and promise of smaller, limited government, especially in Alabama.
Let’s just admit it.
Admitting the truth, after all, is much better than any false consolation or unearned pride in a job not actually done well.
Once we see the GOP establishment — and Conservatism Inc — for what it is and what it has been in our modern political history, we can either position ourselves to drive the car of American politics, or we can further admit that many everyday conservatives (especially former Alabama conservative Democrats) secretly love it when progressives are behind the wheel — as long as they are driving the speed limit and bringing home the bacon.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and currently, the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback please email email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com.