Politics & Policy

The Meanings of Moderation

Debating a conservative virtue.

Reviewing Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny in The Weekly Standard, Peter Berkowitz tries to make the case for moderation. The trouble is that this case is exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible, to make. As William F. Buckley Jr. and Willi Schlamm wrote in the Fifties, “Middle-of-the-Road, qua Middle of the Road, is politically, intellectually, and morally repugnant.” (The same, of course, is true of seeking to be as far to the right as possible for the sake of being there.)

Berkowitz surely means to extol something different from the impulse to split the difference, an impulse that vexed Buckley and Schlamm, but he does not supply an adequate substitute — or rather, he supplies too many. So while Berkowitz has a lot to say that is intelligent and even wise, as he often does, his case for moderation does not quite come together. Does he want conservatives to court voters who consider themselves independent of the parties, to be prudent, to work out “reasonable accommodations” between liberty and tradition, to advance distinctive solutions on such issues as health care, or to accept the New Deal? At various points in the review he seems to want all of these things. They are not incompatible with one another. But they aren’t synonymous, either, not with one another and not with “moderation.”

Berkowitz begins with contemporary politics. He criticizes former vice president Dick Cheney for saying, in a May interview, that “it would be a mistake for us [Republicans] to moderate” and saying, in Berkowitz’s paraphrase of another interview, “that he preferred Rush Limbaugh to represent the GOP over [Colin] Powell.” Here it is important to look at the context of the remarks. Cheney, in the first interview, was being asked to react to the proposition that the party should move in the direction of Powell and Arlen Specter; that’s what he means to deny. Cheney did not mean that it is unimportant to appeal to moderate voters — in the latter interview, he explicitly endorsed “trying to find ways to appeal to a broader range of people” — or that Republicans don’t need to advance their own health-care reforms.

When he turns to Levin’s book, what most exercises Berkowitz is the author’s refusal to come to terms with the New Deal. It is not enough for Berkowitz that Levin’s short-term goals are to “contain” and “slow” the growth of government, or that he repeatedly counsels prudence in the pursuit of conservative objectives. His ultimate goal is “the overthrow of the New Deal,” which for Berkowitz is a “revolutionary ambition” that is “hard to square with prudence.” It would, he adds, “require the dismissal of society’s accumulated experience, knowledge, and traditions over the course of 80 years.”

The “New Deal,” like “moderation,” is a term with many meanings that need to be unpacked. It would be uncharitable to take Berkowitz to be saying that the accumulated knowledge of 80 years tells us that we must keep the Tennessee Valley Authority going forever (although, come to think of it, it seems like it will be anyway). He means that it is wrong to harbor the ambition to radically reduce the scope of the federal government.

It seems to me that Berkowitz reads the last 80 years incorrectly, because we have in certain respects scaled back government quite a bit. In 1970 one could easily have said that a wide-ranging set of regulations on price and entry in important markets was here to stay, woven into the fabric of American life, impossible to abolish, etc. But we got rid of most of these regulations nonetheless. We could have said something similar about the pre-1996 welfare system, or what many smart people considered to be an irreversible and decades-long increase in inflation. The role the federal government plays in American life is different from what it was four decades ago, and it could change again.

Berkowitz is certainly right to imply that an electoral coalition made up solely of principled opponents of the welfare state would not win many elections. Such a coalition would not have won in 1980. But it does not follow that the tradition of welfare statism is one that is worth conserving. A successful conservative politics has in the past made room for plenty of people who did not think so, and it can do so again.

– Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.

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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