The Corner

Politics & Policy

Is Clinton Running as the Conservative?

Jim and a few others have noted, some with wonder, that President Obama let the Republicans off the hook, a little bit, at his DNC speech, rather than trying to hang Trump around their collective neck like a big orange albatross.

I myself am not especially surprised by this. Hillary Rodham Clinton clearly intends to run simultaneously as the “change agent” in the race and the conservative. It may very well prove a successful strategy.

What “conservative” means is contested right now, and requires a little sorting out. There is ideological and philosophical conservatism, which you can learn all about in the pages of National Review. There is temperamental conservatism, which is natural to much of the American electorate, a deeply rooted caution about radical and sudden change. These two ways of being conservative often are at odds, the great example being Newt Gingrich, who is ideologically a conservative but temperamentally a radical. Much of talk radio and right-wing cable news relies on that combination, too, for the obvious reason that temperamental conservatism is not very exciting — in fact, it opposes excitation. 

The Trump movement contains a different kind of rightism, which is found among people who are neither philosophically conservative nor temperamentally conservative but who are as a matter of cultural and social identity not so much with the Right as against the Left. These are the people who are moved by Trump’s denunciations of “political correctness” and railing against “elites,” even as they embrace the full Roosevelt-Johnson welfare-entitlement state and clamor for an even more paternalistic government. They are on the Right in the sense that Marine Le Pen is on the Right.

People who are ideological conservatives are not going to put down their Hayek books and Buckley conspectuses to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and neither are the resentment-filled anti-elitist Trumpkins. But among people whose conservatism is mainly temperamental, Mrs. Clinton may have some appeal.

Barack Obama has been a pretty poor president and has done real damage to the republic, but the walls have not fallen in upon us, and it remains safe to walk (most of) the streets. The United States still looks pretty sensible compared to much of the European Union, a declining Japan, a very nervous China, etc. People who own Apple shares and real estate have not been reduced to penury. What Mrs. Clinton mainly promises is more of the same. Trump, meanwhile, talks loosely about pulling out of every international arrangement from NAFTA to NATO, alliances and partnerships that took a generation to build and that, while surely imperfect, perform necessary and useful functions. He has zero respect for the separation of powers, and his models of executive excellence are authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and various third-rate caudillos of the epaulet-wearing variety. If you are fearful of willy-nilly political innovation and dread an unpredictable government, Trump is not your candidate. Mrs. Clinton is nothing if not predictable.

There are people on the Right who are now saying in defense of Trump: “Well, he couldn’t do any worse.” And there are conservatives who know that things always could be worse. It is the latter group to whom Mrs. Clinton apparently intends to appeal. If that means saying a few nice things about Dwight Eisenhower or George H. W. Bush, she’s swallowed larger helpings of humble pie in her low and woeful life. She’d get a Reagan tattoo on her forehead if doing so would lock up Florida and Ohio. 

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