What YAF’s expulsion of Ron Paul says about the conservative movement

Photo of Christopher Preble
Christopher Preble
VP for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, The Cato Institute

Earlier this week, Chris Bedford, national vice-chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, explained why his organization had chosen to expel Ron Paul from YAF’s national advisory board. Bedford makes repeated reference to the guiding “Sharon Statement” drafted by Williams F. Buckley and other conservative leaders in 1960, and states the case for why its principles cannot be reconciled with Paul’s opposition to aggressive U.S. militarism.

It would be easy to ignore Bedford’s essay, but it would be a mistake to do so. True, his organization has slipped into irrelevancy. David Franke, one of the founding members of YAF, estimates that the group has no more than a few hundred dues-paying members, and thus is easily dwarfed by the many thousands of young people who have flocked to Ron Paul’s Young Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty.

There are rumors, however, that YAF is trying to rebuild itself, and there is more at stake than whether Bedford will succeed in breathing new life into a moribund organization. In his attack on Ron Paul, Bedford signals the type of people that he believes are deserving of inclusion within YAF and, indirectly, the conservative movement writ large: namely, neoconservatives who generally favor government intervention, both at home and abroad.

But the issues of greatest concern for CPAC-goers do not comport with YAF’s vision. Attendees signaled an interest in limited, constitutional government, fiscal restraint, and strategic prudence. Bedford, it appears, is bidding for the paltry few (I hesitate to call them conservatives) hungry for spiraling debt, a loose interpretation of the Constitution, a growing state apparatus at home, and endless nation-building missions.

I am neither a conservative, nor have I ever been a member of Young Americans for Freedom. As a libertarian, however, I count myself as within the large intellectual tent of conservatives and libertarians first assembled at William F. Buckley’s Sharon, Connecticut, home. As a historian, I appreciate the political context that framed the Sharon Statement.

Bedford does not.

The Sharon Statement was drafted in the final year of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, a tense time when the Soviet Union appeared on the march, and when communist ideology was supposedly sweeping the planet. The YAFers were competing with liberal groups such as Americans for Democratic Action, who blasted President Eisenhower for failing to halt the Soviet’s seemingly inexorable ascendance. YAF also opposed those liberals within the Republican Party who leveled similar charges at Ike, most notably New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Liberals accused Eisenhower of allowing his conservative philosophy to override strategic imperatives. They claimed that his prudence and restraint in avoiding a large-scale confrontation with the Soviets was tantamount to surrender. They scorned his resistance to matching the Soviets missile for missile, and plane for plane. They claimed that he had allowed the Soviets to open a missile gap with the United States. (Eisenhower knew better; there was a missile gap, but it favored the United States.)

The liberals’ critique was grounded in an assault on Ike’s economic philosophy. Keynesian economists such as John Kenneth Galbraith, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson and Leon Keyserling castigated Eisenhower for his views on government spending. They scorned his belief that the public sector should be kept as small as possible. They rejected his contention that America’s dynamic private sector was the true source of the nation’s power.

Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 represented a repudiation of Eisenhower’s conservative philosophy, but the general-president got in a parting shot in his farewell address when he advised his fellow Americans to be on guard against the interest groups who had contributed to the dramatic growth of the federal government.