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The Principled Opposition

Princeton's Robert George sets up a conservative activist group with intellectual heft.

12:00 AM, May 28, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
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Enter Robert George. A professor of politics (and a lot more) at Princeton--he holds an endowed chair once held by Woodrow Wilson--George wants to bring intellectual vigor to the Republican party and the conservative movement, especially on social issues like pornography and marriage. "We need to connect our intellectuals with our activists," he says.

George, 48, has founded the American Principles Project (APP) with an ambitious agenda that would change the face of conservative politics. And Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell, leading conservative strategists who run a public affairs firm in Washington, have joined him.

George, who created the popular James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, is no stranger to politics. He's a pro-life, pro-family conservative who was appointed by the first President Bush to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and by the second to the Council on Bioethics. But his new venture will make him a major political player.

The idea behind George's leap in politics is twofold. First, he would publicize scholarship by academic intellectuals that buttresses the conservative case on issues from family breakdown to the "the sexualizing of children" and bring it to the attention of conservative politicians and activists. He calls this the "mobilization of scholarship." The aim is to change the view of Republican elites that social issues in particular are lowbrow, emotional, and to be avoided.

Second, George wants to elevate issues that reflect conservative popular sentiment--again, notably social issues--and give them a prominent role in the national political debate. Cannon says Republicans and conservatives have missed numerous opportunities to play up social issues, citing the failure to raise strong objections to President Obama's selection of David Ogden, a lawyer who defended pornographers, as his deputy attorney general.

"The very best scholarship has been underutilized" by conservatives, George says. "There's a lot of excellent scholarship out there. But it's not known. Conservative politicians don't refer to it. They haven't been good, as liberals have been, in using intellectual work."

What work? George has a long list. "Forty years of data" have underscored "the social costs of pornography." As for children, "it's a fantasy" to believe they aren't harmed by a culture that is "value-free" on sexual matters, he says. "There's a cost to pay for the mainstreaming of Hugh Hefner's philosophy," he says, and plenty of scholarship to prove it.

Family breakdown and divorce are two more issues on which intellectual work backs the conservative view, he says. He cites the findings of Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia on "the social cost of out-of-wedlock birth rates." Much of the work on divorce and how it damages children has been done by liberal academics, George notes.

Bell describes APP as "an activist group that brings intellectual heft and high tech skills" to the national discussion of issues. "We're not antagonistic to political leaders," he says. But there's "a vacuum" on many issues. "Good arguments are being left at the gate."

A model for APP is MoveOn.org, the left-wing group, when it first began. "Liberals were nervous about calling for the impeachment investigation of President Clinton to be shut down," Bell says. Then MoveOn argued that impeachment should be dropped so the country could "move on." That notion caught on quickly. "They hit the sweet spot in how you build up a mass base."

That's what APP would like to do with issues with grass-roots support that conservative elites shun. Cannon says the organization will initially focus on marriage, pornography, the rights of faith-based groups, and keeping Guantanamo prison open. Rather than replace other conservative groups, APP wants to mobilize them, along with Republican leaders, on these issues.

George, who's keeping his day job at Princeton, and APP have their work cut out for them. "This is a time when conservatives are experiencing a wilderness period," George says. "The liberals are in charge. It's their moment."

Now an intellectual heavyweight--George--has joined the fight against them. And today in Washington, George will debate Professor Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine Law School on "life issues." But that's merely a preliminary to the public unveiling of APP at a press conference.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.