The many strains of conservatism

Photo of John Feehery
John Feehery
  • See All Articles
  • Subscribe to RSS
  • Bio

      John Feehery

      John Feehery is President of the Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm dedicated to helping its clients achieve their legislative and communications objectives in Washington D.C. He is also a frequent commentator on the political landscape, widely quoted around the country and often seen on such television programs as CNN’s The Situation Room, MSNBC’s Hardball, and Bloomberg Television’s Money and Politics. He is also a contributor to The Hill’s “Pundits Blog”

      Feehery has worked for almost two decades in a variety of influential positions both as a staffer for three prominent members of the United States House of Representatives Republican leadership and a legislative strategist in the private sector.

      He has been called “indefatigable” by Norm Ornstein and “highly-regarded” by the Washington Post’s Al Kamen, and he was repeatedly named to Roll Call’s Fab Fifty List for when he served in Congress.

      Most recently, Feehery served as Executive Vice President for Global Government Relations and Global Public Relations for the Motion Picture Association of America. There, he helped the MPAA make significant progress on legislative issues that faced the industry such as tax policy, internet piracy, net neutrality, and decency standards. He testified twice before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on behalf of the MPAA.

      Feehery managed the communications operation for Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert. Feehery was the longest-serving top spokesman to a Speaker of the House in the history of the House of Representatives

      Feehery came directly to the Speaker’s office after a stint as a government relations advocate for the Barbour, Griffith and Rogers. He also served concurrently as Vice President for Communications for Policy Impact Communications. There, Feehery worked with former RNC Chairman, and now Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour and future RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie.

      Before that stint, Feehery served from 1995 until 1998 as the Communications Director for Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Before becoming DeLay’s communications director, he served as the Whip office’s Chief Floor Assistant, during the historically notable “Contract with America”. He advised Members of Congress on how to vote, and helped the Whip Office count votes for the first eight months of the historic 104th Congress.

      Feehery started his career with House Minority Leader Robert Michel, where he served as a research analyst and speechwriter. His most notable achievement during his service in Michel’s office was his creation of the House Republican Theme Team. Under Feehery’s leadership, for the first time in history, House Republicans used one-minute speeches and Special orders in a coordinated fashion to promote their message, helping to poke holes in the Clinton Administration’s agenda and setting the state for the 1994 elections.

      A double graduate from Marquette University, with both a BA and MA in history, Feehery was named the Young Alumni of the Year for Marquette’s School of Arts and Sciences in 2003. Feehery serves as member of the board of Cooperation Ireland, an organization dedicated to peace-building in the North of Ireland. He also serves as a board member to Illinois State Society. He wrote several articles that have been published, including “Cleaning Congress’s Clock” in the Washington Post, “Hammered”, in the Washington Post, and “Speaker from the Heartland” in Roll Call. Feehery has run three marathons and has two holes-in-one. He married Kerry Fennelly Feehery in Killarney, Ireland in 2003, and they have one son, Jack Feehery.

The Republican Party has traditionally been seen as a party of two parts: a moderate wing and a conservative wing. But that view has become less and less relevant as the moderate wing shrinks to a party of basically two people (Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins).

It would be easy to then make the conclusion that the Republican Party is chiefly a conservative party – now that the moderates have fled – and that its views are monolithic and homogeneous. Of course, nothing can be further from the truth.

Indeed, the conservative movement speaks with many voices. Here a rundown of the many strains conservatism,

Sarah Palin Conservatism: Palin is an anti-intellectual conservative, as Richard Hofstadter, the left-wing historian, might have put it. Although she may not know it, she inherits a proud legacy of populist conservatives, those who disparage the East-Coast elite, who gain more energy by attacking the media, who don’t need to read books (other than the Bible) to gain wisdom. In many ways, she is a conventional conservative in her embrace of traditional values, of gun-owner rights, of smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulations. But what makes her unique is her ability to garner media attention, no matter what she says or what she does. And the more the media attacks her, the more support she gains.

Dick Cheney Conservatism: Cheney’s conservatism is one that melds national security with executive power. Cheney is an interesting case. He is actually pretty liberal on social issues, especially on the questions of gay marriage and homosexuals serving in the military. He gains conservative credibility by being a hawk on national security questions, and his brand of executive power conservatism is unique to his personal experience. His belief, formed through his experiences as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff and as a former House member who saw first hand the excesses of Congressional dominance in the 1980’s, is one that believes fiercely in the idea that the Executive Branch ought to be the preeminent branch of government.

Ron Paul Conservatism: Paul is the best known of the true libertarian conservatives, and his supporters are among the most intense despite some positions that are outside the mainstream of conservative thought. He wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve, thinks we should go back to the Gold Standard, wants us to end the war on drugs, and believes that we should never have gotten involved in either Iraq or Afghanistan. He wants Congress to authorize any military action, and is against torture.

Mike Huckabee Conservatism: Huckabee’s philosophy melds Christian conservatism with economic populism. As a former Baptist preacher, he believes that the government should reflect America’s Christian character, so he is in favor of prayer in school, and is a believer in Creationism, which he believes should be taught in school. Huckabee was the first Republican to understand during the campaign that the economy was struggling, and he incorporated populist messages to appeal to those who were out of work. Huckabee, who fought his own battle of the bulge, also made an issue of personal responsibility when it comes to health and nutrition.

George W. Bush Conservatism: Better known as compassionate conservatism during his campaign for president and big-government conservatism after he left office, Bush believed that the government had a responsibility to provide for the general welfare, and thus he pushed for two big domestic initiatives (No Child Left Behind, Medicare/Prescription Drug Reform), which spent a lot of money. He is also believed in the essential power of democracy, and pushed a pro-democratic agenda in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Mitt Romney Conservatism: Romney campaigned as a right-wing, anti-immigrant, Christian conservative in 2008, a theme which rang as inauthentic to most voters, who didn’t see him as right-wing (given his track record in Massachusetts), as anti-immigrant, as Christian (many evangelical Christians don’t view Mormonism as Christian) or as truly conservative (his health care plan in the Bay State). This time around, he will likely take up the business conservative standard, running as a former CEO who can bring common-sense business practices to a broken federal government. His book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” lays out his vision of conservatism, which in contrast to the populism of Sarah Palin, the social conservatism of Mike Huckabee, and the isolationism of Ron Paul, makes a case for an engaged government that responsibly regulates, is actively involved in the financial markets (he makes the case for TARP) and is otherwise working to promote America’s global role.

Teddy Roosevelt Conservatism: Sen. Lindsey Graham is the chief proponent of this trust-busting, pro-environmental brand of conservative thought in the modern era. Like the man who founded the Bull Moose Party, Graham and his intellectual Godfather, John McCain, might sometimes seem to be outside the mainstream of conservative thought, they have inherited a proud tradition within the Republican Party of environmental activism and of small business sensibility. Breaking up the anti-competitive trusts that restrained competition and bilked the American people during the turn of the last century have their modern corollary with Graham’s desire to work on climate change and immigration policies.

George Wallace Conservatism: There is still a strain of conservative activists who hearken back to the race baiting of George Wallace. They push for “states rights”, “nullification”, “secession”, and they use other code words that are meant to appeal to those elements who view the world through a narrow, racist lens.

Bill Kristol Conservatism: Kristol is the principal advocate of neo-conservatism, an intellectual philosophy inherited from his father, Irving, who once famously said, “a neo-conservative was a liberal mugged by reality.” Kristol was the perhaps the most aggressive advocate for the Iraq War, and consistently pushed for an escalation of troops in that war.

Pat Buchanan Conservatism: Buchanan has evolved from being Richard Nixon’s most pugnacious defender to being the most articulate defender of paleoconservative principles. He spoke out against both wars in Iraq, and has become much more of a  protectionist on trade matters.

All of these different strains of conservatism have their own reasons to claim that they are the true heirs of the legacy of Ronald Reagan. They all believe that they represent the best hopes for the future of this country. And they all have their own deep concerns about some of the views of their rivals.

For example, neo-conservatives believe that the Pat Buchanans of the world are anti-Semitic. The Bull-Moosers think that the George Wallacers are crazy. The Mitt Romney wing of the party fear that Sarah Palin will be the death of the party. Everybody else thinks that the Ron Paul wingers are nuts (except, of course, the Ron Paulers).

One thing they all agree on, however, is that the current President is taking the country in the wrong direction. These different strains of the conservative movement (and I am sure that I missed a few) don’t have to agree on anything else, as long as they agree that the President needs to be stopped, or at least slowed down.

The hard work of reaching consensus about the future of the country and the future of conservatism will be done during the Presidential primary in 2011 and 2012. In the meantime, conservative of all types will have to unite if they want to effectively counter the President in the upcoming November election.

John Feehery is President of the Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm dedicated to helping its clients achieve their legislative and communications objectives in Washington D.C. He is also a frequent commentator on the political landscape, widely quoted around the country and often seen on such television programs as CNN’s The Situation Room, MSNBC’s Hardball, and Bloomberg Television’s Money and Politics. He is also a contributor to The Hill’s “Pundits Blog”

  • thisiswhatithink

    After reading this, I am reminded why I left the GOP.

  • redlegwife1996

    Wow, I really didn’t know that advocating for “states rights” was really just “code” for being a racist. Did you go to the MSNBC school of journalism?

  • libertyatstake

    I almost made this a “Mainstream Commentary Must Read” except for the egregious omission of “Ronald Reagan Conservatism.” Too bad.

    [For a light hearted take on our present peril]

  • tinteardrop

    “Mitt Romney Conservatism: Romney campaigned as a right-wing, anti-immigrant…”

    WTF???? Romney is not “anti-immigrant”…when did he say he was? If you want to say he wants to deal with the problem we have with the looters that are here illegally I would agree. But immigrants, those that have entered the process of immigrating, he has not denigrated or said he has a problem with. The author’s slip is showing using this slur…what an a$$hat!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Goodin/100000750272463 John Goodin

    If by ‘unite’ you mean going back to 2007, let it burn.

  • logic

    This is an interesting analysis but libertarians like Ron Paul are in no way isolationists. They want individual liberty, prosperity, free markets and sound money to be available to everyone. They want a focused national defense that truly protects everyone while not infringing on civil liberties or doing undue harm around the world. They want to fully engage with other nations on business and trade. They also avoid isolationism by not chaining themselves to religious beliefs or other divisive social issues and instead try to include everyone by focusing on more unifying principles. Libertarian thought has a far better chance of converting leftists than the current, divisive neoconservative platform of the Republican party ever could.

  • rivingtonessex

    Fairly on point. Initial observations are that Ron Paul supported retaliation against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (so saying he was against getting involved in Afghanistan is a mis-characterization), and he’s not an isolationist as he is a free-trader (whether free trade is good or bad is another point). Pat Buchanan I would consider an Isolationist as he is an advocate of protectionism.

  • bosco

    Capturing the assorted strains of conservatism strains the imagination, potentially eroding a collected strength. Sounds democratic, even with a capital D. These next months will be fascinating and the November elections, the only poll that matters, will reveal the current country. Ah, the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

    I hope to read more writing like this article in the future, writing that focuses the priorities of the different participants, elucidating the strengths and gaps of individuals and parties, and not stuck/diverted by gasp-inducing moments that appeal to some perceived lowest common denominator.

    The Sons of the Confederacy are every bit as American as our President, his agenda, and the strains of conservatism, even those who act as if putting down others elevates their own preferences/ideals/blind spots. Have at it.