Politics & Policy

In Reagan’s Shadow

Compassionate conservatism vs. the shining city.

While I still think it would be bad for America if Bush lost the election to Kerry–and terrible for Republicans–it’s less clear it would be bad for the conservative movement. The recent Nestea plunge into Reagan nostalgia only served to reinforce that judgment.

At pains to say something nice about a president they detested, many talking heads insisted that Reagan was in reality a “pragmatist” who may have talked a big game about limited government but didn’t really deliver.

I tried to rebut all of that in a previous column, but let’s assume this liberal damning-by-faint-praise were true. Such criticism ignores the importance of political rhetoric. The first rule of politics is that you have to say what you believe before you do anything about it.

If a man won’t say he’s in favor of something in principle, you know he’s unlikely to support it in practice. For example, there are probably lots of politicians who are insincere about their position on abortion, pro or con. But you can be sure that a politician who’s afraid to say he’s pro-life isn’t pro-life.

Rhetoric is the tip of the iceberg of dogmatism. Dogma has a terrible reputation these days, but it is actually vital to a free society because dogma establishes the boundaries of legitimate debate and action. Most people can’t offer a rigorous defense of free speech or private property; they just know these are important things for a free society. Well, that’s dogma. Indeed, dogma means “seems good.”

Liberals, historically, believe in the fundamental merits of income redistribution in order to promote equality, justice and all that jazz. American conservatives, historically, believe in private party and limited government because they believe government is there to secure liberty, not comfort. Both sides may disagree among themselves about how to put their principles into practice, but the underlying conviction matters

Discussing the importance of dogma, William F. Buckley wrote in 1964, “If our society seriously wondered whether or not to denationalize the lighthouses, it would not wonder at all whether to nationalize the medical profession.”

Reagan’s rhetoric and actions moved America closer to a country where we argue about denationalizing lighthouses. George W. Bush’s rhetoric and actions are moving us in the opposite direction.

Last Labor Day, George W. Bush told a crowd, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

Reagan would never had said something like that.

Indeed, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” has more in common with his father’s “kindler, gentler” America than it does with Reagan’s shining city on a hill. Fortunately, the first President Bush believed, as he put it in his first inaugural speech, that America had “more will than wallet.”

The current President Bush has lots of will and a wallet full of credit cards. On the domestic side, Bush has asserted that the federal government has a central role in education–once a local concern–and he’s backed that up with a 60 percent increase in federal funding.

He’s created a new Cabinet agency, massively expanded entitlements in the form of a prescription drug benefit and asked for a major new commitment by the federal government to insert itself into everything from religious charities to marriage counseling. And these are just a few examples.

Now, all of these programs aren’t necessarily bad. Some might be quite defensible from a political or public-policy perspective. Also, there are quite a few truly Reaganite ideas bouncing around this administration.

But, at minimum, Bush seems to have abandoned the rhetorical high ground. Reagan declared that government wasn’t the solution, it was the problem. In countless ways, Bush has been saying the reverse. And once you concede that the “government has to move” every time “somebody” hurts, you’ve pretty much abandoned your dogma and picked up the opposition’s.

What makes things even worse is that while Bush may be good and decent and unfairly criticized for a host of things, he’s a terrible spokesman for conservative principles. One cannot listen to four decades of Reagan speeches and off-the-cuff remarks and not be amazed by the man’s ability to enunciate a coherent philosophy. Bush gives some excellent written remarks, but off the cuff he can make even sympathetic listeners cringe.

Some conservatives are now claiming that Bush’s conservatism isn’t about “big government” so much as “strong government.” Others are complaining–or cheering–that conservatism is flying under the flag of religion more than liberty.

But most are simply suspending needed conversations until after the election, because a Republican victory at the polls and/or an American victory in the war on terror take precedence. It’s an understandable impulse. I just hope there’s enough of the Reagan legacy to build on after the election.

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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