George Will

Gerson's call for "idealism" is not an informative exhortation: Huey Long and Calvin Coolidge both had ideals. Gerson's "heroic conservatism" is, however, a variant of what has been called "national greatness conservatism." The very name suggests that America will be great if it undertakes this or that great exertion abroad. This grates on conservatives who think America is great, not least because it rarely and usually reluctantly conscripts people into vast collective undertakings.

Most Republican presidential candidates express admiration for Theodore Roosevelt. A real national greatness guy ("I have been hoping and working ardently to bring about our interference in Cuba"), he lamented that America lacked "the stomach for empire."

He pioneered the practice of governing aggressively by executive orders. Jim Powell, author of "Bully Boy," an unenthralled assessment of TR, says that in the 40 years from Abraham Lincoln through TR's predecessor, William McKinley, presidents issued 158 executive orders. In seven years, TR issued 1,007. Only two presidents have issued more -- TR's nemesis Woodrow Wilson (1,791) and TR's cousin Franklin Roosevelt (3,723).

"I don't think," TR said, "that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man's hands." That sort of executive swagger is precisely what Washington does not need more of. It needs more conservatives such as David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union for 23 years and Southern political director of Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign. Writing on "The Conservative Continuum" in the September/October issue of The National Interest, Keene says of Reagan:

"He resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office. ... After the (1983) assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets. Can one imagine one of today's neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?"

It is a pity that TR built the Panama Canal. If he had not, "national greatness" and "heroic" conservatives could invest their overflowing energies and vaulting ambitions into building it, and other conservatives -- call them mere realists -- could continue seeking limited government, grounded in cognizance of government's limited competences. That is an idealism consonant with the nation's actual greatness.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read George Will's column. Sign up today and receive daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.