A summary moment occurred during the primary in New Hampshire, with interesting omens for the Republican future. The primary itself was a contest pitting the party's two viable presidential candidates against the three amigos of its parochial right. Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes have never been elected to any political office (Keyes has actually been trounced twice), but that has not prevented them from considering it their moral prerogative to launch nonexistent political careers by running for the highest office in the land.
"There will be no abortion on demand in a Gary Bauer administration," Gary Bauer has pompously promised. What administration can he be thinking of? He has never had the slightest chance of gaining the party's nomination or of winning any truly contested federal office in any electoral district in the entire United States. Nor has Keyes or Forbes.
But thanks to the absurdities of the primary process, all of them have the opportunity to pretend that they represent an important constituency in the Republican Party. Democrats and their fan club in the nation's press are happy, of course, to collude in this pretense while enjoying a spectacle that confirms their every cherished prejudice against their conservative opponents.
The summary event I mentioned took place during a debate in the New Hampshire contest, moderated by Tim Russert. It was a moment when the redoubtable Keyes -- a preacher without a church -- stepped forward to call Sen. McCain to judgment. McCain's mortal sin was to reveal that he had been to a rock concert with his 15-year-old daughter and had liked a band called Nine Inch Nails.
Unfortunately, Nine Inch Nails is a heavy metal group whose cacophonies are spiked with four-letter words. McCain's inept bid to join the popular culture was reminiscent of other failed Republican efforts, as when Ronald Reagan's staff tried to appropriate a song by Bruce Springsteen as its campaign theme back in the '80s, whereupon Springsteen threatened to sue. The Reagan team had neglected to note that the rock star was so far over the left cliff he thought the communists were the heroes in Vietnam and Republicans the aggressors.
In New Hampshire, McCain's misstep allowed Keyes to turn his lamp of righteousness on his hapless opponent.
Keyes (sternly): Don't you think that as leaders we ought to be a little bit more serious about the kind of influences that are now destroying the lives of our children, instead of aiding and abetting the cultural murder that is taking place?
McCain (to Russert): Can I get a life-line? (laughter)
Russert: Who do you want to call?
McCain: My 15-year-old daughter. (laughter)
Keyes (glowering): I'm a father and I've got to tell you -- I'm not laughing.
It was as if Keyes had caught the senator making whoopie with the Antichrist.
Many people, especially on the left, find Alan Keyes funny. One Maureen Dowd column suggested that Keyes sounds like Marvin the Martian. Others have been less kind. "Hectoring megalomaniac," "shrill fanatic," "paranoid egoist," "Harold Stassen on steroids" -- these are labels that stick easily to the frenetic moralist.
And no wonder. At various stops along the primary trail, Keyes has referred to the U.S. government and George Bush as "massa," compared abortion and taxes to slavery, and accused the media of "racism" for not taking his candidacy as seriously as Keyes himself does. In these puerile outbursts, Keyes actually achieved something remarkable -- a racial mugging delivered by a religious conservative reminiscent of the Sharpton left.
I do not find Alan Keyes particularly funny. I find him angry, hysterical and mean-spirited -- which is pretty much a voter's-eye view. All that keeps Keyes from attaining Sharptonesque proportions as a public menace is his political irrelevance. Unlike Sharpton, Keyes has no following of resentful radicals and hate-whitey blacks that is large enough to affect the direction of his party or, given the right circumstances, provoke mayhem in the streets.
Keyes' audience does contain a cohort of moral zealots, but his main constituency consists of pale-faced conservatives so desperate for a black face to defend them against radical attacks that they don't seem to appreciate the way in which their candidate himself is a radical.
In Bedford, N.H., Keyes spoke about abortion to a group of 10- and 11-year-olds in a manner more suited to an Act-Up missionary than a conservative presidential contender. "Now tell me something," he said to the children. "If I were to lose my mind right now and pick one of you up and bash your head against the floor and kill you, would that be right?"
"No," the children answered.
Keyes then turned to a 10-year-old girl. "Do you think it was OK to kill you when you were 1 year old, or 6 months old?" When she shook her head no to that question too, he said: "You sure? Because we live in a country right now where according to some of our courts and some of our politicians, it is OK."
But if Alan Keyes thinks that abortion at any stage of the gestation process is the same as bashing out the brains of a 10-year-old, why is he being such a hypocrite about it? Why isn't he calling for the execution of the million-plus women who had abortions last year? Not to mention the men who impregnated them and went along with their decisions? If the issue of abortion is more complicated than that, why doesn't he get off his moral high horse and stop pretending that he has all the answers straight from his source on high?
According to Keyes, America is experiencing the most serious "moral crisis" in its history and there is no more important issue in the political campaign than getting the American people's morals right. The country needs a president, he says, "who votes conscience and principle and nothing else." Yet, out of the other side of his mouth he concedes he would be ready to compromise and permit abortions to save the life of the mother or in cases of incest or rape, as a practical matter (since the votes aren't there).
If abortion is murder, however, how can these exceptions be anything but the cheap political double-talk that elsewhere Keyes condemns? Is a mother's life more valuable than her child's? Is the child of a rape any less human, because of the manner of its conception? Is the child of incest any less deserving of the right to life?
Because most pro-life conservatives embrace the mother, rape and incest exceptions, they are involved in the same kind of moral tangle, a moral tangle that underscores the rhetorical excesses of spokesmen like Keyes. The very complexity of the moral issue is an argument for taking it out of the political debate, to which conservatives should be especially sensitive. Complex personal issues like abortion are properly confronted in the private sphere, where families and religious communities can address them, without bureaucratic interference. There are no simple answers to these issues, except perhaps that government is the institution least likely to be able to "solve" them.
It is unseemly, moreover, to have conservatives advocating that the federal government force otherwise law-abiding Americans to observe a moral principle they aren't ready to observe of their own free will. What is liberty if not this right? Why should this form of prohibition work when others with similar public resistance to them have not?
It is liberals and leftists who think the role of government is to be a social redeemer and make people far better than they are. It is liberals and leftists who believe that government can transform human beings into something they are not. Conservatives know -- or should know -- better. Terminating a pregnancy is a matter between a woman and her God, or a woman and her conscience, or a woman and her family. No serious conservative should wish to have government arbitrate between them.
It is not only the substance of Keyes' harangue that belongs in the book of radical politics, but his targets as well. Ten-year-olds! Aren't political assaults on the young a profound component of the moral crisis that the left has inflicted on the culture? Isn't this exploitation of the innocent precisely what conservatives have condemned leftists and liberals for doing in the past? Invading their young lives with adult agendas, like sexual preferences that are entirely inappropriate for their tender years? Why is frightening children to make anti-abortion propaganda any different from thrusting condoms at them?
It is the self-righteousness of the moral crusader that blinds religious fanatics like Keyes to the immoral consequences of their political crusades. The Founders whom Keyes is so found of quoting did not outlaw abortion. (It was not outlawed in the United States, in fact, until 1840, and then at the behest not of clerics but of doctors.) Moreover, the founders were willing to compromise with a great evil, slavery, which their principles condemned, because they felt there was no practical way to end it as an institution.
The slavery metaphor, which has also been used by Gary Bauer, is invoked by Keyes to justify the urgency and primacy of the abortion issue. If slavery was a crime against humanity and a cause worth dividing party and nation over, so is the cause of the unborn. But if Bauer and Keyes are advocating a civil war over the abortion issue, they should say so. If they think it is a cause that would be worth the lives of tens of millions of Americans (which would be the contemporary price of the Civil War) -- they should say that too.
If they don't think that, they should stop using the language of moral absolutism to press their case. The only entity they will divide (and conquer) is the Republican Party, burying their own cause in the process. The issue should be one of practical politics and reasonable compromise. Law-abiding women should not be made to live in fear of their own government, or the Republican Party.
But moral hectoring is not merely a style for those who confuse religion and politics, it is the substance of what they believe and why, in the long run, their beliefs are incompatible with a conservative perspective and party. Moral absolutism leads to bigotry and intolerance, which are incompatible with leadership in a pluralistic democracy, and which currently constitute the greatest obstacles to a Republican majority.
Conservatism grows out of the Judeo-Christian view that this world is corrupted and cannot be redeemed without divine intervention. Those who wish to remove sin from the world by human effort alone will be sorely disappointed. Moreover, the effort to do so, borne as it is of human pride, will lead its proponents into sin themselves. (Consider only the social redeemers of the past century, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Pol Pot.)
Alan Keyes and conservative bigots like him have taken up arms against what they habitually refer to as the "homosexual agenda" -- as though all homosexuals think alike, and as though homosexuality itself is a political agenda. This crusade is what makes others regard their belated and ad hoc gestures of tolerance and compassion ("we hate the sin but love the sinner") as so much political hot air.
I take second place to no one in condemning the gay left and their liberal allies in the Democratic Party for subverting the public health system. Their efforts to impose "political correctness" on the battle against AIDS enabled the virus to metastasize into a national epidemic, affecting not only homosexuals but women, Hispanics and blacks. I have called this a "radical holocaust" and criticized the complicity of the political left in the deaths of several hundred thousand people in the prime of life.
But subverting the public health system and spreading AIDS is not a "homosexual agenda." It is a political agenda shaped by the left whose victims are homosexuals. Failing to make this crucial distinction -- and thus holding all the victims responsible for their suffering -- is what gives a lot of conservatives their mean-spirited and intolerant image.
Religious conservatives have devised a "presidential pledge" on the moral issue of homosexuality as though this were a pillar of conservatism parallel to the tax issue, which has a similar "pledge." But if being gay is so morally important how is it that Jesus and Moses forgot to mention homosexuality in the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments?
Perhaps the moralists think that God left a ban on homosexuality out of the Ten Commandments because adding it would produce an uneven number. Or perhaps he didn't regard it as such a big deal. If homosexuality wasn't that important for the Father and the Son who were pointing the way to eternal salvation, why do Christians like Alan Keyes think it is so important for a presidential election?
The intolerance manifested by the Republican fringe is costing the Republican Party its natural majority. In the last few years, Americans have accepted Republican principles on welfare, balanced budgets, law and order, personal accountability and most of the other reforms that have made up the Republican agenda for a quarter of a century. All that blocks Republicans from gaining the electoral majority their principles have earned them is the image of intolerance that moralists like Keyes are constantly burnishing for them.
George Bush and John McCain are the Republican front-runners because they seem to understand this. Unfortunately they were pushed to the right in New Hampshire by Keyes and his minions and have lost some ground with independent voters as a result, particularly on the abortion issue. But they have not yet gone over the top, and both have continued to welcome the support of homosexuals and include them in the conservative coalition. This is actually more like ending the "don't ask, don't tell policy" for civilians. Fully 30 percent of homosexuals already vote Republican -- more than Jews, blacks or Hispanics. It's high time for Republicans to convert this into a political virtue.
When the votes were counted, Keyes won only 6 percent of the Republican support in New Hampshire and Bauer only 1 percent. This is not an overwhelming mandate for Republicans to continue their self-defeating genuflection to the prejudices of the morality right that has cost them so dearly in campaigns in the past. During the New Hampshire primary, journalist Robert Novak asked Keyes how he would respond if George Bush or John McCain were to take a pro-choice Republican as his running mate. Keyes responded: "I will walk. I will leave the Republican Party."
Be our guest, Alan. You will take far fewer Republicans with you than will decide to join because of your departure, or whose votes we will lose in November should they continue to mistake you for one of us.