Look who's shaking things up now

Posted: Jun 13, 2005 12:00 AM

When President Bush addressed the Class of '05 at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, he challenged them to be "champions of change," to cut through "established ways of thinking." Think outside the box and be innovative, he told them: "Pursue possibilities others tell you do not exist."

 He accompanied the challenge with a warning. "The opponents of change are many, and its champions are few, but the champions of change are the ones who make history. Be champions, and you will make America safer for your children and your grandchildren, and you'll add to the character of our nation."

 Do you notice something odd going on here? Political definitions have been turned upside down. A conservative president emphasizes change; the liberals in Washington, who for decades were the agitators for doing everything different, now suffer hardening of the arteries of the imagination. Curiously, neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times, the house organs of the liberal establishment, mentioned the president's call for creative thinking in their accounts of the speech. The Washington Times, whose editorial page defines the conservative resurgence, put it on Page One.

 In a rare defense of the president's foreign policy, Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, the venerable liberal weekly, observed that "if George Bush were to discover a cure for cancer, his critics would denounce him for having done it without adequate consultation, with a crude disregard for the sensibilities of others." Such critics are the opponents of change and would rather depict the president as a dunce than cut thought the cant of narrow-minded liberal shibboleths. 

 Underestimating a conservative president is a professional hazard for liberals. They found that out the hard way with Ronald Reagan. When mossback liberals afflicted with cataracts failed to see his vision, many traditional Democrats simply switched parties. A new book, "Why I Am a Reagan Conservative," edited by Mike Deaver, who was Ronald Reagan's deputy chief of staff and the author of his 49-state sweep in 1984, demonstrates why. (Full disclosure: I have a chapter in the book.) It wasn't easy to dissent from the received wisdom a generation ago. Mike Deaver notes that "liberal views dominated nearly every major institution for a good part of the century."

 Liberal Democrats grew fat and lazy as conservatives grew energetic, organized the grassroots, built think tanks and spread their ideas through new media. Today liberals are huffing and puffing trying to find a way to play catch-up, but it's not easy for them, either.

  "Conservatism has become not only the ascending political force, but the interesting intellectual one," wrote Robert Bartley, former editor of the Wall Street Journal, in an essay published posthumously. He tells how he flirted with liberalism when John F. Kennedy became president with an open appreciation for intellectuals who promised to apply the insights of the university to public life. Instead, the university soon became the place where liberal intellectuals armed themselves with arrogance and self-righteousness and offered stale pieties instead of reasoned argument.

 Bob Dole recalls the years of scorn and ridicule. "We were lampooned as little old ladies in tennis shoes worried about communists under the bed and fluoride in our water supplies, our overstuffed tycoons in batwing collars were unwilling to look at the new moon out of respect for the old one," he writes.

 When I was invited to write a column two decades ago, "women conservative columnists" were rare. There weren't many male conservative columnists, either.

 But there's a danger in conservative dominance. It's equally important to know "what conservatism is not," writes Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. Conservatism, after all, is neither a religion nor an ideology, neither a political platform nor even a unified set of beliefs. "It is instead a broad social movement of diverse but reinforcing beliefs, gathering travelers on the same journey -- pilgrims who argue over the topography of the promised land but who move in the same direction."

 Being a conservative requires continuing the transformation of old ideas into new applications. We can take a cue from George W. Bush, who described for the new midshipmen what "transformation" means in the military. In Afghanistan, our troops rode into battle on horseback to maneuver the tough terrain, but the "cavalry" was guided by advanced satellite communications when it called in air strikes: "They combined a staple of 19th century warfare with the most advanced 21st century technology." Winston Churchill got it right first: "The farther back you look, the farther forward you see." That's the secret of the conservative renaissance.