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AFTER THE HANGOVERTHE CONSERVATIVES' ROAD TO RECOVERY
By R. EMMETT TYRRELL JR.
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePRONOUNCED DEAD
The Premature Obituary of America's Longest Dying Political Movement
The 2008 presidential election has now been interred in history's cemetery for over a year. The little candles that once flickered around its gravesite burned down months ago. The election ended in a Democratic victory, not a landslide but close enough for the political pundits in their slovenliness to call it one and return to composing what through the decades has been a staple of mainstream journalism, the conservative movement's obituary.
The journalists' deathwatch began two years earlier with the Democrats' takeover of the 110th Congress, a takeover hastened by the Republicans' abandonment of fiscal restraint and by the scandals perpetrated by various minor Republican Congressional members and their political operatives. For the next two years, the political community produced murmurings of the conservative movement's "decline," its "fragmentation," its "exhaustion," and-without attribution-"the conservative crack-up." I say this without attribution because I coined the term in an American Spectator symposium devoted to the troubled condition of conservatism during President Ronald Reagan's second term. Supposedly, conservatism has been cracking up for decades, and always conservatism's obituarists have been there in the parking lot, waiting for the hearse to pull up.
In 1992, I published a book titled The Conservative Crack-Up in which I pondered the conservative movement's troubles during the Reagan administration's last years. I also laid down a thesis about conservatives that was as true then as it is today: the conservative political animal is so fundamentally different from the liberal political animal that the two might be drawn from different species. Politically speaking, the conservative is more domesticated, less feral.
Liberals seemed to like the idea. In the New York Times Book Review, the book received a page-2 review, the Review's silver medal for the week's literary competition. To review the book, the Times's editor chose a former Reagan speechwriter, the conservative personality Peggy Noonan, whose review was more a psychoanalysis of me than a review of my book. She was almost Freudian in her analysis of my vocabulary, language admittedly more complicated than a speechwriter's, but then consider my clientele! Peggy's sly disparagement validated another of my propositions about conservatives, namely: conservatives, particularly conservative writers, have remained marginalized by the political culture and left with only one expedient to stardom, which is to snipe at fellow conservatives. Sometimes it has worked, as in the spectacular rise of the early George Will. Sometimes it has proved futile, as in the ongoing, muddled career of Tucker Carlson. As we shall see in the pages ahead, for three decades the rat race has continued.
In my 1992 book, I dated the crack-up of the late Reagan years from July 1, 1987, when President Ronald Reagan stepped to the microphones and with ill-considered joviality nominated Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Throughout the subsequent confirmation hearings, the conservatives were utterly feckless in protecting Bork, despite the presence of a card-carrying member of the conservative movement in the Oval Office.
What ensued was a perfect example of the Liberal-conservative species variation. The Liberals snarled and clawed. The conservatives looked bemused. Bork's antagonists transmogrified him from the sensible, thoughtful federal Court of Appeals judge that he was, into a creep. Senator Edward Kennedy declared that "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens." Senator Howell Heflin was less verbose. He simply called Judge Bork "some kind of rightwing freak," who led "a strange lifestyle." Ironically, Senator Heflin was a conservative Democrat from Alabama, who, when "down home," defended the right to bear arms and opposed both gay rights and abortion-that last issue being the chief stimulant that agitated Liberal neurosis over Bork.
Besides being a well-known judge, Bork had been a distinguished scholar at the Yale Law School. The conservatives' inertness in defending him exemplifies another of my propositions regarding conservatives: they do not do politics as well as Liberals. They can be energetic, resolute, unprincipled, and ad hominem, but rarely as energetic, reso lute, unprincipled, and ad hominem as their Liberal opponents. Illustrative of the Liberals' political artistry is that they have convinced large numbers of ordinary Americans that the conservatives-not the Liberals-maintain a brutal "attack machine," and are adepts of "politics of personal destruction." Looking back at the Liberals' grotesque demonization of Bork, one has to be impressed by their powers of misrepresentation. No conservative with any claim to the respectability of a Kennedy or a Heflin has ever in modern times uttered slanders of such virulence. Any who attempted to would not survive in public life.
Historians may dispute me and date the conservatives' late-1980s adversity from the Iran-Contra unpleasantness, which made headlines on November 12, 1986, or from the 1986 midterm elections, when President Reagan's Republicans lost the Senate. Still, whatever history's judgment might be, from the late 1980s into the early 1990s the conservative condition remained parlous. Moreover, out on the hustings another Liberal miracle worker was making his way to the White House, cast in the heroic role originated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and updated by John F. Kennedy in 1960. This miracle worker, Governor Bill Clinton, was to vanquish President George H. W. Bush by using the same script developed by Roosevelt and edited by Kennedy. Both were models for what has become the prototypical Liberal president: always youthful, charismatic, bold, intellectual, all in all fundamentally irresistible. It is a model that has rather amazingly endured for eight decades.
After the Democratic victory of 2008, critics of the conservative movement warned that the Reagan model so often invoked by Republicans was now a thing of the past. Yet Liberals have been relying on the prototypical Liberal presidency for more than two generations. From time to time in this book, I shall propound the theory that Liberals remain petrified in a mythic past while conservatives have been intellectually dynamic, discarding ideas and prejudices held by earlier conservatives-say, President Herbert Hoover or Senator Robert A. Taft-and adopting alternatives, some once championed by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
For instance, conservatives have moved from the isolationism of their political ancestors to what historians at the middle of the twentieth century called internationalism. Some conservatives have actually become evangelists of democracy, following the path of Kennedy and Roosevelt. Others remain more restrained in their foreign policy goals, standing only for the defense of American national interests. The split became apparent as the war in Iraq continued. At any rate, there are few isolationists numbered among American conservatives today. Nor are there many who remain in Senator Taft's tradition of strict budget balancers either. Most contemporary conservatives stand for growth. Taft's followers have been replaced by supply-siders. Yet the charge leveled against conservatives by Liberals is that they are slaves to orthodoxy, to an unchanging fundamentalism.
Over the years a few winsome attributes have been added to the model of the prototypical Liberal presidency. Amusingly, these additions require exertions from their presidential candidates that are often injurious to themselves and occasionally life threatening. By the 1970s the prototypical Liberal presidential candidate had to be physically fit and given to exercising in public, a requirement that almost killed Jimmy Carter during his only known 10K race. A decade later, the candidate also had to display military prowess, which explains why the diminutive governor Michael Dukakis allowed himself to be photo graphed popping out of the portal of an M1 Abrams tank, looking like a large toadstool, his tiny head topped by a huge helmet. The stunt ended his candidacy in an ambush of laughter.
Then in the early 1990s, Governor Clinton had to embrace all of the above, along with an implausible enthusiasm for rock music and for the more vulgar aspects of adolescent culture. He played a musical instrument onstage, and to an MTV audience of pimply-faced teenagers, confided his preference in underpants. Impelled by yet another requirement of the prototypical Liberal president, ethical purity, Clinton went over the top, promising "the most ethical administration in history." Almost immediately the skeletons began clattering in his closet, inspiring investigative reporters to pursue his history of dodgy land deals, recklessly financed gubernatorial campaigns, and, of course, his famed scortatory projects.
Clinton's arrival in the White House occasioned yet more prophecies of the conservative movement's demise. This would be the third round of obituaries for conservatism since the modern conservative movement's birth in the early 1950s. The first round came in 1964 (Goldwater). Then came the obituaries of 1974 (Nixon). Now we have blubbered through the Republican defeat of 2008 and the fourth round of obituaries for conservatism, which make it the longest dying political movement in American history. Yet the movement is still around, and oddly enough, the political center toward which Liberal political candidates claim they are running is more clearly shaped by modern American conservatism than by Liberalism.
When Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush each ran for the presidency, they forthrightly claimed they were for conservative policies, for instance, lower taxes and limited government. They publicly opposed abortion and promised to defend social issues and a strong foreign policy. When Bill Clinton and, later, Barack Obama ran for president, both were vague on these matters. They intoned the Liberal pieties-"Hope" and "Change"-but they certainly did not say they favored higher taxes and usually danced around the question of extending government's growth.
In other words, whereas Reagan and Bush spoke forthrightly, Clinton and Obama practiced deception. For their forthrightness, the conservative candidates were accused of ideological extremism. The Liberals' deference to the conservatively influenced center continued for President Obama even after his victory. As he presided over the largest peacetime expansion of government since the New Deal, he actually declared in his February 24, 2009, address to a Joint Session of Congress that he had done so "not because I believe in bigger government-I don't."
The obituaries for conservatism that followed Clinton's election brought the term conservative crack-up back to life. Happy Liberals used it freely. Google the term and you will find that in the aftermath of the 1992 election, the term took on new life, usually employed by gloating Liberals but occasionally by conservatives. Even that famously sensible conservative, Charles Krauthammer wrote, "The conservative crackup is near."
Actually, the long-standing pessimism accorded conservatism's prospects has always been unjustified and was for a certitude unjustified in 2008. As I just pointed out, conservatism has been a powerful force over the last few decades in shaping the middle of American politics. More over, from the last quarter of the twentieth century on, the Liberals have had more reason to feel endangered than conservatives.
From its overwhelming preponderancy at the end of the New Deal, Liberalism has had to witness a growing conservative movement that has at times routed Liberals. Even in 2008 the strength of conservatism forced the Democrats to draft moderate-to-conservative candidates to campaign in the South, the Heartland, and the West. The ascendancy that Liberals achieved with Clinton's election lasted only two years before the Democrats suffered a loss of historic proportions. Republicans captured both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades. Talk of conservative demise or crack-up subsided, not to be heard again for a dozen years. A dazed President Clinton was forced to declare, "The era of big government is over," a declaration as famous as his line "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" though less precise.
The conservative movement's revival in 1994 was for a decade seen as irreversible-an indelicate little matter utterly forgotten after the Democrats' 2008 victory. It began with incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's seductive Contract with America. Though the Contract was only partially implemented, conservatism was strong enough to vanquish Clinton's vice president, Al Gore. Running on his boss's record of peace and prosperity, Gore should have won, but he was beaten by a relatively unknown governor, probably because Gore broke with his boss's centrism and veered too far left in the 2000 race. His opponent, governor George W. Bush, campaigned as a full-blown conservative, though in a gesture that demonstrated conservatism's lingering controversiality (at least, in the media), Bush confected the dubious label "compassionate conservative." The term was an early presentiment of Bush's political tin ear that would become evident as the Iraq War dragged on and his popularity declined. Nonetheless, the conservative tide remained on the rise in his first two years of office. In 2002 Bush became the first president since FDR to gain congressional seats in his first midterm election.
By Bush's 2004 reelection, conservatism was so strong that the term conservative crack-up was now flung back at Liberals as a taunt. In 2005, Jonah Goldberg, the cheeky National Review writer, chided those few Liberal dreamers who might still be pondering "whether a 'conservative crack-up' is nigh." Goldberg boasted that since my introduction of the term conservative crack-up, "conservative ideas [had] won under a Democratic president and [now] Republican politicians inexorably claimed majority party status in this country." He dismissed warnings from John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their then current book, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, that conservatism might become "too Southern, too greedy, too contradictory."
Goldberg also dismissed the possibility that rivalries within the movement, namely between traditionalists and libertarians, might bring on fragmentation. For conservatives this rivalry was a long-standing concern. It was there in the movement's earliest days in the 1950s, as I shall relate in later chapters. I myself mentioned the rivalry in The Conservative Crack-Up. Such a potential for fragmentation has been a staple of conservative obituarists since the movement began. Goldberg was right to dismiss it. As I explained in Crack-Up, these rivalries never impeded conservative voter turnout any more than Liberal rivalries-say, between Big Labor and environmentalists-impeded Liberal voter turnout.
Unfortunately, toward the end of the Bush years, with scandals mounting, Republican fiscal laxness apparent, and Bush's leadership failing, the premonitions uttered by the authors of The Right Nation gained plausibility in political circles. By 2008 their warning that conservatism was catering to the rustics would become a fashionable critique of conservatism. After Senator John McCain tapped the evangelical governor of a rural state to be his running mate, their warning rose to the epistemological category of Washington "conventional wisdom," which for mainstream journalists and believing Democrats is Irrefutable Truth.
Excerpted from AFTER THE HANGOVER by R. EMMETT TYRRELL JR. Copyright © 2010 by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
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