Can conservatism survive?

Posted: Jan 08, 2007 12:01 AM
Can conservatism survive?

The Question beloved by pundits is being asked already: "Is conservatism finished?" The Question is the subject of a lengthy essay in Commentary magazine by Wilfred M. McClay, who sprinkles his essay with lots of quotes from angry conservatives suggesting that doom for the Grand Old Party is at hand. Joe Klein, no conservative he, writes in Time magazine that "2006 may be remembered as the year that the Reagan Revolution finally crested and began to recede."

When Ronald Reagan died, the funeral oratory heralded the triumph of the conservatism he brought to the national consciousness, and it was a legacy that seemed to promise permanence. The outpouring of grief for Gerald Ford last week suggests the message, like the flavor of the month, had changed. This decent, short-term president was hailed as the healer-in-chief, a triumph of moderation, a Rorschach test for both liberals and conservatives who could see what they wanted to see and claim him to support their particular political persuasions.

Alas, ideology is never as pure as its adherents wish it to be. It's all in the emphasis, stupid. Reaganism may well dim for the duration of the 110th Congress, but like the announcement of Mark Twain's death, it's premature to say conservatism is finished. Writing grand, sweeping obituaries for the Republicans (1964) and the Democrats (1972, 1984) usually follow blowouts. That's what pundits do. This time some of our pundits are trying to draw grand, sweeping conclusions from tiny fragments of evidence, as if wishing could make it so.

McClay correctly observes in his Commentary piece that the American electorate has moved slowly but steadily toward the right since 1968 (only four years after the Republicans were left for dead after Lyndon Johnson dispatched Barry Goldwater and conservatism to permanent oblivion). A considerable number of the Democratic winners in the new Congress are conservative, and many of the Republicans who lost were beaten not by ideology but because they were careless congressmen who ran bad campaigns. James Webb's defeat of Sen. George Allen is a dramatic example. Many of the margins between Democrats and Republicans were, as in Virginia, tiny.

Tensions in the conservative coalition, between libertarians and neoconservatives, religious traditionalists and traditional Republicans, businessmen big and small, are not new. The fissures between social conservatives and market conservatives usually closed, and they joined to win elections. Bob Dole, criticized for not being conservative enough, nevertheless called himself a Ronald Reagan conservative and declared that liberty should not be perceived as license. What Ronald Reagan called the "magic of the marketplace" often required conservatives "to raise our voices in protest when the profit motive turns poisonous, coarsening our culture, polluting our air or airwaves."

It's a mark of conservatism that hope must be tempered by experience. George W. learned that from his father's defeat. "Read my lips," can't morph into "Swallow the taxes." He's late in calling for spending restraint but he says he means it. (We'll see.) "The farther back you look," said Winston Churchill, "the farther forward you see." The late Robert Bartley, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal for 30 years, said it succinctly: "Conservative principles and conservative approaches start in the real world as it exists, not in some lovely but imaginary utopia."

I grew up in a card-carrying New Deal family, where Republican women were ridiculed as little old ladies in tennis shoes guarding the water against fluoride or as buxom Daughters of the American Revolution looking backward to their ancestors with little interest in the future. Ronald Reagan restored my patriotism with his clear-eyed view of "the evil empire."

George W. Bush is not Ronald Reagan, but in some ways he echoes the earlier president's foreign policy vision. He has not fought the war in Iraq with the competence we expected, but his vision sounds like the vision Ronald Reagan shared with the British parliament in 1982: "We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable right of all human beings. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy."

We'll have to wait and see whether this can apply in Iraq. That will be the president's legacy, for better or worse, no matter how we characterize his ideology.

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