This column was originally published by Salon on October 6, 1997.
It has become the topic of the season on the political right: Whatever happened to the triumph of conservatism? Recently, the Weekly Standard ran a cover symposium titled “Is There a Worldwide Conservative Crackup?” Conservative ideas appear to be ascendant, the editors pointed out, but the party that represents them is getting battered. In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “What Ails Conservatism?” two of the right’s most articulate theorists, William Kristol and David Brooks, put it another way: “The era of big government may be over, but a new era of conservative governance hasn’t yet begun. Why the delay?”
The short answer is that there is confusion in the ranks. Kristol and Brooks identify three “tendencies” in the current conservative mix: anti-government, “leave us alone” sentiment; the family values movement, which wants to “re-moralize” society; and the federalists, who want to give power back to the states. What’s missing in these agendas, according to the authors, is America itself. The tendencies may, individually, be healthy responses to the threats from the left, but what’s missing is “a conservatism committed to national greatness.” “Let Clinton talk about building a bridge to a multicultural, diverse and politically correct 21st century,” they write. “Conservatives should act to shape the next century as an American century.”
But what additional constituency do Kristol and Brooks imagine GOP leaders would attract if they came out as patriotic nationalists beating the drum of “American greatness”? We already presume that Republicans are patriotic, and the fact is, they sound the theme of American greatness often. But — this is the real kicker — so does Bill Clinton. Moreover, Bill Clinton is no stranger to the other conservative “tendencies” identified by Kristol and Brooks. Remember “The era of big government is over” — the key line in Clinton’s pre-election State of the Union address? Family values was the saccharine mantra of the stage-managed 1996 Democratic convention. In his acceptance speech, Clinton actually claimed credit for six of the ten points in the Republicans’ “Contract With America.”
The (sad) truth, one that the conservative hand-wringers seem to overlook, is that Bill Clinton, the Great Antagonist himself, is presiding over the conservative agenda. While there is a considerable amount of smoke and mirrors in his act, it is Clinton who appears to be balancing the federal budget, reforming the welfare system, toughening government attitudes toward crime and shrinking the liberal state. And Clinton has done one more thing which any right-wing party must do to win the center and thus a majority of the American electorate: He has presented himself as a conservative with a heart.
What really ails conservatives is not that people think they lack the lift of a driving dream, but that they appear to have a mean spirit. Republicans look like accountants whose principal concern is marginal tax rates, not the real human beings whose hearts, as well as minds, they need to win. For all the economic good times, the country is distressed about declining schools, drugs, an abusive popular culture, sexual predators on the loose. But what do Republicans talk about? Whether there should be a flat tax, a value-added tax or a tax credit.
Forget “national greatness,” whatever that means. Republicans would be better off asking themselves why the American people want Bill Clinton to implement their agenda. It is because — however weird this may sound — they trust Bill Clinton to do it with compassion. It’s the fair play syndrome. They like that Clinton tries to identify himself with America’s diverse constituencies, black and white, native- and foreign-born, middle class as well as the disadvantaged and poor.
Of course, there is great injustice in this perception. It is the liberal welfare state created by Clinton’s party that has destroyed the inner-city family and created a culture of poverty that has blighted the lives of millions of children. It is the liberal and Democratic apologists on crime who have made our nation’s once-safe streets a minefield of terrors for women and the young, especially in our poorer neighborhoods. It is the feel-good, relativist, anti-authority fashions of the “progressive” left, and their mouthpieces in the pro-Democratic Party teacher unions, that have brought America’s schools to their lowest ebb in the nation’s history, depriving children of the poor — who lack the access of their liberal betters to private education — of the most necessary tools to fulfill the American dream.
Now that would make a promising Republican platform. Liberate the American people, most especially minorities and the poor, from the last decaying shackles of retrograde liberalism. But to be credible in advancing this agenda, conservatives have to first reach out and show people they care.