Jonah Goldberg

While I still think it would be bad for America if Bush lost the election to Kerry - and terrible for Republicans - it's less clear it would be bad for the conservative movement. The recent Nestea plunge into Reagan nostalgia only served to reinforce that judgment.

At pains to say something nice about a president they detested, many talking heads insisted that Reagan was in reality a "pragmatist" who may have talked a big game about limited government but didn't really deliver.

I tried to rebut all of that in a previous column, but let's assume this liberal damning-by-faint-praise were true. Such criticism ignores the importance of political rhetoric. The first rule of politics is that you have to say what you believe before you do anything about it.

If a man won't say he's in favor of something in principle, you know he's unlikely to support it in practice. For example, there are probably lots of politicians who are insincere about their position on abortion, pro or con. But you can be sure that a politician who's afraid to say he's pro-life isn't pro-life.

Rhetoric is the tip of the iceberg of dogmatism. Dogma has a terrible reputation these days, but it is actually vital to a free society because dogma establishes the boundaries of legitimate debate and action. Most people can't offer a rigorous defense of free speech or private property; they just know these are important things for a free society. Well, that's dogma. Indeed, dogma means "seems good."

Liberals, historically, believe in the fundamental merits of income redistribution in order to promote equality, justice and all that jazz. American conservatives, historically,  believe in private party and limited government because they believe government is there to secure liberty, not comfort. Both sides may disagree among themselves about how to put their principles into practice, but the underlying conviction matters

Discussing the importance of dogma, William F. Buckley wrote in 1964, "If our society seriously wondered whether or not to denationalize the lighthouses, it would not wonder at all whether to nationalize the medical profession."

Reagan's rhetoric and actions moved America closer to a country where we argue about denationalizing lighthouses. George W. Bush's rhetoric and actions are moving us in the opposite direction.

Last Labor Day, George W. Bush told a crowd, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

Reagan would never had said something like that.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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