One of the biggest political clichés, popularized by Ronald Reagan no less, is the old joke about how an optimist is someone who, when he finds a pile of manure under the Christmas tree, exclaims, "I'm getting a pony!"
But what people never think through is that (ital) even if (end ital) you get the pony, you still have to deal with the big pile of manure in your living room. Which is to say: There's a downside to everything.
Conservatives don't seem to understand this yet. It seems like every major conservative in America is Christmas-pony happy about the new president. Just this week, The New York Times ran another front-page story explaining how ultraconservatives adore Bush (and implying, therefore, that maybe normal people shouldn't).
This administration is "more Reaganite than the Reagan administration " says Ed Feulner, president of the very conservative Heritage Foundation. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a leading right-wing activist group, told the Times: "There isn't an us and them with this administration. They is us. We is them."
In an earlier story about how Bush is a real conservative, Paul Weyrich, perhaps the crankiest of the curmudgeon conservative activists, told the Times, "I personally love this president."
So, yes, there's a whole lot of love going on. But no matter how much you love your pony, you'd better watch out that you don't step in something.
Conservatives need to face the fact that at some point George Bush could be our Bill Clinton. Oh, don't get me wrong. I think GW is a decent and honorable man who, like Reagan, wouldn't dream of removing his jacket in the Oval Office, let alone his pants.
But Bush's "compassionate conservatism" may well end up looking a lot like Clinton's famous "triangulation" strategy. This was the technique whereby Clinton would rhetorically concede a few points to the opposition while pushing through his own agenda and calling it a "third way."
So, Clinton criticized Sista Souljah to win over white moderates, but he delivered real substance for his black democratic base. He said he wanted to make abortion safe, legal and rare, but the "rare" was merely focus-group rhetoric. He wanted to "mend" but not end affirmative action, meaning change nothing. He said the "era of big government is over" to placate a Republican House, but he increased funding for programs wherever he could.
It's possible that "compassionate conservatism" isn't so much the Republican alternative to Clintonism, as the Republican (ital) version (end ital) of Clintonism.
The evidence has been there all along: During the campaign, Bush criticized Judge Robert H. Bork and declared that congressional Republicans shouldn't "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." Even the Republican convention snubbed numerous movement conservatives in favor of Motown singers. This was all a deliberate effort to "change the tone" in Washington, i.e. Bush's own "third way."
More recently, Bush dusted off one of his favorite lines from the campaign stump. He says, "As president, my job is to tell every parent to love their children." In his big speech to Congress last month, Bush declared in pitch-perfect Clintonism that he denounced the "old, tired argument: on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need. We should leave those arguments to the last century, and chart a different course."
Such rhetoric should bother conservatives. Under no circumstances should the federal government tell parents to love their children. In fact, any parent who needs to hear that message from the federal government might need to have his child taken away by the federal government.
More importantly, in regard to Bush's attack on "tired old arguments" about the budget, conservatives (ital) never (end ital) argued from principle that we shouldn't have programs we need because they cost too much money. They argued that we don't need such programs because they cost too much for the people they are trying to help.
Indeed, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, Bush's new Health and Human Services secretary, was a conservative reformer of welfare, and his "workfare" programs cost (ital) more (end ital) than the old system. It was George Bush's un-conservative father who declared in his inaugural address that we have "more will than wallet."
Bush's triangulation may be great for the Republican Party; we don't know yet. But we do know that Clinton's triangulation contributed to the Democrats' loss of the House, the Senate and numerous statehouses and legislatures. These actions made the Democratic party seem more about maneuvering and less about principles. More importantly, it made it difficult to understand what the labels "liberal" or "Democrat" mean anymore.
Conservatives, happy as they are about their pony, should avoid stepping in similar problems.