08/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Conservative Sellout? Quelle Surprise

"David Keene is no conservative."

That is what I predict Mr. Keene's brethren on the right will soon be saying about the longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU).

Last week, Mr. Keene's ACU became embroiled in another of Washington's pay-to-play scandals, seeming to offer its services to an outside company for a cash consideration. And virtually the only way conservatives have of dealing with such an embarrassment is to declare the miscreant an "impostor," to find that the city changed him rather than the other way around, and to excommunicate him from the movement.

But before that happens, I want to suggest that Mr. Keene, the head of an organization that has for decades judged the conservatism of everyone else on the scene, might just be the one who is truest to the cause.

The story begins with one of those classic D.C. battles between big K Street spenders -- in this instance, FedEx and United Parcel Service -- that are thought to be matters of first principle to Beltwayers but that are completely uninteresting to almost everyone else. Employees of UPS are covered by one labor law -- the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) -- while employees of FedEx are governed by a different one, a law that makes it much harder for them to organize a union. Lots of UPS's employees are organized; few of FedEx's are.

The House has passed a bill putting both companies under the NLRA and the Senate is considering similar legislation now. UPS reportedly approves of the measure, while Fedex is boiling mad. Last spring spokesmen for the latter company even threatened to cancel an order for 30 Boeing jets if Congress dared to give its employees more of a chance to have a say about work conditions.

Toward the end of June, it seems that an officer of the ACU named Dennis Whitfield wrote a letter to an officer of FedEx proposing that the ACU organize grassroots opposition to the hated legislation. Mr. Whitfield outlined the steps that would be taken: The ACU would mobilize the troops by contacting voters, "participating in Hill meetings including key members of the Senate," and "producing op-eds and articles written by ACU's Chairman David Keene," who is also a columnist for The Hill newspaper.

Then Mr. Whitfield quoted a price: All of this activity would commence in exchange for $2 million and up, depending on how far FedEx wanted to go.

About two weeks later, with FedEx having evidently decided against the campaign, a group of conservatives wrote a letter to the CEO of the company taking UPS's side in the controversy and berating FedEx for -- yes -- using unfair tactics in the battle. One of the signers of the letter: David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Last week, the letters were published and the story exposed by Politico under the headline, "Conservative Group Offers Support for $2M."

In response, Mr. Whitfield issued a furious statement declaring, "ACU's positions on important policy issues have never been for sale."

Public outrage has so far fallen mainly on Mr. Keene. But it's Mr. Whitfield's attitude -- "never been for sale" -- that should give pause to conservatives. What does he have against market-based exchange? Does he think that ACU talking points enjoy some lofty status above the free enterprise system?

His organization, he might do well to recall, is supposed to be one of the nation's chief evangelists for the free-market gospel. In fact, he said it himself in his original letter to FedEx: "For more than four decades we have worked in support of lower taxes, free markets, limited government," and so on.

And the last time I checked, sales were a basic element of free markets. Individuals don't determine the merit of things by dint of superior judgment; buyers do, by bidding the prices up and down. When applied to politics, the logic is the same: Ideas and legislation should live or die depending on how they satisfy the market's needs.

Most conservatives in D.C. seem to know this; that's why their movement is fashioned along business lines, bringing prosperity as well as political success to the activist entrepreneur. The basic strategy is to apply market forces to the state: More money in politics, not less, is what will get the goods.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is thought to be an inherently corrupt enterprise because it is driven less by good, honest market forces and more by the myopic whims of the millions. So when Democrats were threatening to pass the "card check" bill -- which would make it easier for workers to form unions -- back in March, Mr. Keene railed in The Hill against the obvious quid pro quo, as Democrats paid "the price for organized labor's support."

"In politics," he concluded with a world-weary sigh, "it all depends on what one gets for selling out someone else's rights."

What one gets for this kind of cynicism, on the other hand, are the very wages of righteousness.

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