Politics & Policy

State of The Conservatives

EDITOR’S NOTE:National Review is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. Throughout the month, NRO will be running pieces from the archives to help take a trip down memory lane. This piece appeared in the November 22, 1999, issue of National Review.

Does the conservative movement need to take some lithium? As the Washington Post’s Thomas B. Edsall recently observed, over the last five years its mood has swung from giddy optimism to despair and back again. The arc can be traced in the pronouncements of individual conservatives. Less than a year ago, Bill Bennett was despairing of the American public’s moral insipidity, as evidenced by its conspicuous lack of outrage at Bill Clinton’s misconduct. Now he blesses George W. Bush’s efforts to put a smiley face on the Republican party. Some of the same conservatives who were broaching the subject of justified revolution a few years ago have fallen behind the Texas governor as the unlikely leader of their insurrection.

These changes of mood are neither surprising nor particularly unhealthy. They reflect changed circumstances, for one thing. After several years of watching congressional Republicans play Wile E. Coyote to the president’s Road Runner-their every trap exploding in their faces-conservatives can now look forward to each morning’s newspaper, with its fresh revelations of the Gore campaign’s incompetence.

Besides, mood swings are notoriously part of growing up. The 1994 Republican sweep left conservatives with a foolish and self-destructive, but also quite understandable, sense of their invincibility. People who believe in their inevitable triumph, of course, inevitably get their comeuppance-after which their grand expectations may curdle into excessive disillusionment. Attaining a majority, for a movement no less than for a teenager, involves moving to a third stage, in which the difficulties and imperfections of adult life inspire neither denial nor despair.

The real trouble with the conservative mood is not that it is mercurial. It is that it may be delusional. To support Gov. Bush as the best candidate available to conservatives would be one thing. It is quite another to describe him as the son of Ronald Reagan rather than of his actual father, as some conservatives have come close to doing. The overrating of Bush’s conservatism (and of his electability, for that matter) is part of a general overrating of conservatism’s prospects, even as it is evidence that those prospects are in fact not good.

Whatever they may say, conservatives know in their bones that their position is weak. Fear, after all, not confidence, is what motivates the stampede toward Bush-a stampede in which conservative voters as well as GOP hierarchs have participated. A lot of conservatives seem not to want to hear a word of criticism of the governor, much less a debate.

What these conservatives sense is that, at a level of politics deeper than the fortunes of the political parties, the ground is shifting away from them. What they have not noticed is that the 2000 election is shaping up to be a ratification not of conservatism but of Clintonism-and will be so even if the Republicans win.

Dick Armey, speaking to the Heritage Foundation on October 13, took a different view: “I can honestly tell you that, more than at any time in my life, our ideas and policies are on the rise.” He has a case. Nobody believes in the planned economy, or wage and price controls, anymore; the budget is in surplus, inflation low, welfare reformed. The movement for school choice is enjoying its first halting successes. Almost as many Americans are now willing to call themselves “pro-life” as “pro-choice.” In last year’s elections, the Democrats came in third (getting only 18 percent of younger voters) in Minnesota-the land of Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey. This, mind you, was amidst what was generally seen as a liberal resurgence. Social democrats may be in power throughout the industrialized world, but they have no choice but to implement a conservative program, however slowly and reluctantly.

If this optimistic case is to prevail, Bill Clinton’s successes must be explained away as having nothing to do with his unconservative politics. They must be attributed to the accident of a booming economy and stock market, Clinton’s freakish political talents, a biased press, Republican missteps, and a hundred other things. Many of these explanations have merit. Yet even taken together, they seem inadequate. It is revealing that conservatives often seem to suggest that Clinton has cast a spell on the public and that the Congress is too cowardly to resist him-revealing because this is an explanation that comes uncomfortably close to the one liberals had for Ronald Reagan’s success in the 1980s.

Liberals took a long time to recognize that Reagan’s success had anything to do with what he stood for; even today, many people place more stress on “the Reagan demeanor,” as Armey did in his speech. (Gov. Bush, he said, “embodies” this demeanor: “Like Reagan, he is sunny, he is optimistic, and, yes, he’s compassionate-because he recognizes that conservatism, like America itself, is inherently sunny and optimistic and compassionate.” Where does one begin?) Just as liberals were unwilling to concede that Reagan’s policies were popular-and my apologies to him for this comparison-conservatives are making the same mistake about Clinton.

And even when the substance of Clinton’s politics is credited for his success, it is usually misunderstood. The press, and those Republicans who take their cues from it, has deduced that Clinton stands for a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism; that this mix of tight money and loose morals is extremely popular; and that savvy Republicans such as Bush are tailoring their politics to suit this fashion.

This consensus is pretty much false from top to bottom. If social conservatism is dooming the Republicans, why has every major social-conservative initiative of the Republican Congress passed by lopsided, bipartisan majorities? The ban on partial-birth abortion passed the House 295-136, and the Senate 63-34. The anti-gay-marriage bill: 342-67 in the House, 85-16 in the Senate.

The kernel of truth within the consensus is that Clinton does indeed favor abortion-on-demand and oppose nationalizing the banks. But these are not exactly pressing issues for most voters. And to them, Clinton looks much more socially conservative than the Democrats of old. The political weakness of post-’60s liberalism was its perceived excesses on issues of race, crime, sex and family, and work. Clinton systematically addressed each vulnerability: He dissed Sister Souljah, came out for the death penalty, opposed same-sex marriage, and pledged to end “welfare as we know it.” The end of the Cold War aided this project by ending a set of debates that had reinforced liberals’ image as weak, unrealistic, and unpatriotic.

As Ben Wattenberg put it in the title of a book Clinton studied, “values matter most.” Freed from the responsibility of defending social liberalism, Clinton was able to go on offense over the issue of government activism for the middle class. The battle over Medicare was the biggest issue on this front, but Clinton proposals on health, education, child care, etc., gave voters something at every stage of their lives, from cradle to grave. Government activism was no longer subverting widely cherished values, but supporting the values of family and security-a strategy I’ve dubbed “values statism.” It is this solicitude for middle-class values and interests, and not a reputation for compassion toward the downtrodden, that is behind the success of Clintonian liberalism.

To say that the Left has abandoned the most damaging parts of its creed is to say that the Right has won on all the things the public cared about: crime, welfare, racial militance, anti-Americanism, overt hostility to religion. But this does not mean that somehow conservatives are “winning the debate” generally. People who see victory in the fact that Clinton agrees with us on such matters as the undesirability of a 70 percent tax rate forget that it also means that we agree with him. If our victories are all victories that Clinton can applaud or at least accept, to say that we are winning is, in a way, to say that we are all Clintonites now.

This seems to be a depressingly accurate description of all too many Republicans. They’re not talking about closing the Commerce Department anymore, or even the National Endowment for the Arts. It was a Republican, Bill Paxon, who first proposed that the federal government finance the hiring of 100,000 teachers. Some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress are supporting bills to regulate health insurance. The Republican governors, for their part, have been much worse on spending than the Congress, and that spending is going to the familiar Clintonite priorities of health, education, child care, etc.

And what of Gov. Bush? Most observers of the primaries have made a hobby of tracking his supposed attempts to distance himself from the social Right. But this project can be sustained only by refusing to hear what the governor is saying. The fact is that while Bush has criticized conservatives such as Robert Bork for what he considers excessive pessimism, he has not retreated an inch on policy. He is comfortable with the current Republican platform language on abortion; he has not given up the possibility of someday passing a Human Life Amendment. True, he doesn’t talk much about these issues, but in what way is this a departure from previous Republican candidates? Neither Bob Dole nor Bush’s father talked much about the moral issues either. When Bush does talk about them, he is often more eloquent than either of those two-admittedly, no Ciceronian feat.

Bush’s attempts to distance himself from the Right have never taken the form of denouncing “intolerant” social conservatives who want to “impose” their views on our morally pluralistic populace. He has criticized the “destructive mindset” that says “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved.” This “approach,” he says, has “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘leave us alone.’” In another speech, Bush said, “Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.”

What Bush is repudiating, in theory and practice, is not social conservatism but economic conservatism, or more precisely libertarianism. Bush’s apparent and, according to his spokesmen, unintentional slap at Judge Bork drew a lot of ink. Less remarked was his earlier swipe at Grover Norquist’s notion of a “leave-us-alone coalition.” The leave-us-alone slogan had driven neoconservatives-such as Mike Gerson, who wrote Bush’s lines, and Bill Bennett and Gertrude Himmelfarb, who gave advance approval to some of them-up the wall. What Bush thinks he is accomplishing by taking up cudgels for them is unclear.

Bush makes a reasonable point when he notes that disdain for government does not necessarily serve the cause of limited, effective government. It’s a lot harder to make the case that the Republican domestic program has been too antistatist. The Republican “revolution” of 1995, which proposed merely to keep the growth of federal spending to $ 350 billion over seven years, was hardly the anarchist riot Bush’s rhetoric implies. Antigovernment fervor surely does not describe today’s Congress, which has increased funding for many of the programs those revolutionaries sought to terminate.

Bush’s turn away from libertarianism, however, cannot be dismissed as merely rhetorical overkill. In no area has Bush called for a substantial retrenchment of federal activity. His focus has been on how government can be used to further a “private-sector” War on Poverty. And Bush is hardly alone in abandoning limited government as an important practical goal. John McCain quickly seconds every philosophical pronouncement the governor makes. Pat Buchanan is far more interested in using government to promote his ends than in cutting it down to size. Gary Bauer, in a more modest and principled way, has left the economic-conservative fold on taxes, Social Security, and trade. Libertarian ideas are in retreat in the conservative intellectual world, too.

All of these moves are motivated, essentially, by the fact that antistatism doesn’t have much of a constituency in American politics. Or to put it another way, libertarians don’t pull their electoral weight within the conservative coalition. That’s why values statism has been so successful. And that’s what Bush and McCain, in particular, are responding to. It’s not that there is a huge constituency for a big-government conservatism; it’s that Republicans who have given up on limited government have to come up with something else to talk about.

If Republicans don’t know how to beat values statism-and if the public hates political argument, as it surely does-the obvious response for Republicans is to co-opt and defuse, turn down the volume on the issues, and run on personality. Which is to say, to attempt to win within the confines of Clintonism, thus solidifying it as a national consensus.

Large portions of the GOP, especially the business class, are quite content with such a strategy. The party now reflects the business class’s view of the world more thoroughly than at any other point since Ronald Reagan’s nomination in 1980. That class is hostile to ideological crusades. Mindful of “diversity,” it is especially hostile to crusades against racial preferences (as are Bush and McCain). It does not feel guilty about the poor, but thinks it ought to feel guilty; hence “compassionate conservatism” appeals to its sentimentality. The triumph of the business class within the GOP is not a wholly bad thing, but there’s no reason to dress it up as some profound philosophical advance for conservatism, as some writers are attempting to do.

The libertarians, bless their apolitical hearts, mostly have no idea that they’re losing ground. Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, sees clearly that compassionate conservatism is aimed squarely at people like him. Many libertarians, however, are pleased by the mistaken belief that it is aimed at social conservatives. And some libertarians are toying with the idea that they should ally with liberals rather than conservatives, the theory apparently being that it’s more important to defend their precious right to clone themselves than to privatize Social Security.

Should social conservatives care about the eclipse of libertarianism? Marvin Olasky, a prominent religious conservative and a Bush adviser, is not worried. He told The New Republic, “Let’s throw away the budget cutters. I see that coming with Bush. I see that as part of a governing alliance.” The weakness of libertarianism, however, weakens moral conservatism too. First, as a simple matter of coalition politics: Religious conservatives are not a silent majority of the public, as they have sometimes imagined, but a large minority, and therefore they need allies.

More important, the abandonment of limited government as a goal leaves social conservatives without some of their best ideas-indeed, with no serious and achievable agenda. To revive the stigma against socially disruptive and immoral behavior will require a rollback of the antidiscrimination laws that make it impossible for employers and landlords to punish such behavior. Free-market pressures will have to be brought to bear on the schools to break the lock that liberals have on the education of our children. It will be difficult to promote thrift and prudence while advertising for state lotteries, treating bankruptcy lightly, maintaining generous welfare benefits, and bailing out banks whenever they make foolish loans to Third World countries.

Or take modern health care. Through a complex array of policies, the federal government and state governments have been socializing costs for years. Since this causes costs to explode, health-care administrators feel increasingly compelled to contain costs by discouraging some behaviors (such as smoking tobacco) and encouraging others (such as euthanasia and abortion). Thus does public policy promote the replacement of the old morality by a new one. And this is to say nothing of the financial fraud and the whiny sense of entitlement that these policies also abet.

If the welfare state has undermined traditional virtues, and not just among the underclass, it seems quixotic to attempt to revive them without reining in the welfare state. Social conservatives would be left making ineffectual symbolic gestures (such as keeping outspoken social liberals from becoming ambassadors), or calling for the impossible (such as strict censorship). Without limited government as a lodestar, moreover, social conservatives will be tempted to pursue the dead end of Buchananism.

The lack of a mass constituency for limited government, then, has been profoundly debilitating for conservatives. And it has left them holding a remarkably weak hand for 2000. The Republican presidential primaries (including the run-up to them) have been one of the main pressure points conservatives have in American life. The bureaucracy, the courts, the media, the universities, Hollywood, the foundation world, the publishing houses: All are dominated by opponents of conservatism, and as previously mentioned, corporate America is hardly the bastion of conservatism the Left takes it to be. The primaries are therefore all the more important. Yet conservatives are being marginalized. Their organizations-from the NRA to the Christian Coalition, from the Family Research Council to U.S. Term Limits-are in varying degrees of disarray and enjoy less influence than they did only a few years ago.

It must be said that Bush has not taken many actual positions at odds with antistatist conservatism; his innovation has been a matter more of tone, emphasis, and language. Bush has, indeed, run a more conservative campaign than he has had to. That, in a way, is the point: What’s striking about this primary pre-season is how little Bush has been tugged rightward by conservative organizations or rivals. (Scott Reed, Bob Dole’s campaign manager, has wistfully remarked that his candidate had no such luck.) Movement conservatives have been unable even to mount serious presidential candidacies. Phil Gramm at least limped into the Iowa caucuses in 1996. This time around, the only conservative candidates with any elective experience-John Ashcroft and Dan Quayle-have already dropped out. Worse, conservatives have no champion on the horizon for 2004.

Rather than ask why this is so, those conservatives who have noticed have preferred to indulge in escapist fantasies. The campaigns of Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes look likely to marginalize the worthy causes for which both men have fought so valiantly. It is a sad performance. And whatever Bush’s own position on the ideological spectrum, as a very practical politician he will respond to the correlation of forces indicated by that performance.

None of which means that it makes no difference who wins the 2000 election; it will make a difference, on everything from foreign policy to the courts to taxes. The inexorable victories conservatives foresaw just a few years ago should not be replaced by a vision of inevitable decline. Conservatism may not be “inherently sunny,” even in America, but neither is it despairing. Conservatives can have a bright future if they find a way to swell the constituency for limited government, using any tool that happens to be at hand (very much including Gov. Bush). The rise of the investor class is a hopeful sign, if a largely unexploited one. Conservatives will achieve nothing, however, unless they first look closely at the state of their movement, without sentiment or illusion.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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