Reagan's Spoiled Children

Malaise and infighting are threatening the future of the conservative movement.


Mr. Ponnuru is NR's national reporter.

THIS has been a winter of discontent for conservatives, one that left the high spirits of 1995 a frustrating memory. Budget defeats and infighting in the primaries have left them still more demoralized. Republicans in Congress fear taking on powerful but controversial issues such as official English and affirmative action. They ascribe to Bill Clinton and Dick Morris mythic powers of winning the public-relations battles that would ensue. And in some cases their defeatism extends to predictions that the GOP will lose its majority in the Congress.

At the grassroots, the Left is more energized than the Right for the elections. ``You can practically feel the malaise,'' says Amy Moritz, head of the National Center for Public Policy Research.

This mood is in part a byproduct of the political season, the dog-days between the primaries and the general-election campaign. Grover Norquist, the jovial strategist, argues that ever since ``the adrenalin rush in the first hundred days,'' conservatives have had been marking time. They should use the lull, he says, to build up their grass-roots organisations rather than grousing.

Then, too, Beltway conservatives are still adjusting to majority status. Unrealistic expectations of a ``revolution'' after the 1994 elections set them up for disillusionment. A thin majority in the House and merely nominal control of the Senate ought to have led them to build the case for expanding their majorities by giving the public a preview of the tangible benefits they could expect from conservative governance. Instead they tried to govern immediately, believing that their triumph was historically inevitable and permanent. When Clinton declined to roll over as expected, says Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, ``Many conservatives, particularly the younger ones, discovered to their shock that the other side can shoot real bullets.'' As a result, the Congress has so far delivered for only one group: speed demons made happy by the repeal of the federal speed limit.

And those early defeats have made them gun-shy. Where they once had over-ambitious goals, they are now nervous of having any goals at all. Their inability to devise a sequel to the Contract with America that would command broad support from lawmakers is an ominous indicator of the present mood. ``If you don't have a goal, you won't have morale,'' says Miss Moritz. ``And we haven't had a goal other than taking Newt's orders for fifteen months.''

But if specific mistakes and the constraint of having Clinton in the White House were wholly responsible for the current malaise, conservatives could be optimistic. But they have a deeper anxiety: is their coalition cracking up, its internal disagreements no longer submerged by a common desire to topple the mighty empire of Liberaldom? Even on an issue as central as taxes, conservatives have not reached a consensus. After two years of debate, supply-siders still see the tax credit for children as a sop to the Christian Coalition, and social conservatives still see the capital-gains tax cut as a sop to Wall Street. In this and other debates, different sorts of conservatives are too often walled up in their respective ghettoes.

When they're not hurling incendiary charges at each other. Charges of racism and nativism, for instance, have been bandied about freely, and other charges typically used by liberals to smear conservatives en masse have been brought into intra-family debates. Such conduct ftyhr tjos jave jadee beem [be has provided grist for liberals' mills and eroded the collegiality that used to exist on the Right.

And as conservatives fought these Beltway battles, they were losing touch with the concerns of conservative voters in the boondocks. The two candidates who won the most votes, Dole and Pat Buchanan, were the very ones most disliked by the conservative intelligentsia. Conservatives were, at best, irrelevant to the presidential race. Yet they have been remarkably disinclined to reflect on their role in the debacle.

FOR debacle it was -- and, moreover, an unnecessary one. In 1988, the three conservative candidates won about a third of the primary votes; this time around, economic and social conservatives combined were pulling much closer to 50 per cent. The conditions were there for a united conservative coalition to win the nomination and the election. While it's too early to know how a Dole Administration would turn out, it's not too early for recriminations.

On paper the choice was an easy one: either make a conservative case for the front-runner, or coalesce around a candidate capable of stopping him. A thin slice of the conservative intelligentsia settled for Bob Dole early. The rest played with weak candidates or non-candidates. A number of prominent conservatives, many of them clustered around The Weekly Standard, flirted with Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich -- helping Dole freeze out his actual competition for crucial months. (By the time they moved to the Lamar Alexander camp, their influence in these matters had worn thin.) Other conservative notables such as Norquist and Paul Weyrich adopted an airy nonchalance about the outcome; some even suggested that it might not matter if Republicans won the White House so long as they held Congress.

And in the absence of a unifying candidate, the Reagan coalition split, with economic conservatives backing Steve Forbes and social conservatives going to Buchanan. The Forbes campaign was an attempt by the libertarian minority of the coalition to overpower the traditionalist majority through the sheer force of money and the support of a portion of the conservative elite (the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and The American Spectator blew kisses toward Forbes on a regular basis). The effort backfired, magnifying the influence of Buchanan, the least pro-market candidate, in early primaries.

Few conservative leaders backed Buchanan (though Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly, Human Events, and others indulged his departures from free-market orthodoxy). But the Beltway Right inadvertently helped Buchanan to exploit fissures in the coalition by blithely ignoring the sentiments of social conservatives. A steady drumbeat from D.C. had signaled that social issues, notably abortion, had to be pushed to the back-burner. Washington conservatives' blind spot on the familial and moral principles that animate the grassroots caused them to underestimate Buchanan's political potential.

The upshot: social and economic conservatives signed a suicide pact. Not only did conservatives fail to control the nomination, they marginalized themselves as well. A fifth of primary voters listed taxation as their most important issue. An impressive plurality (39 per cent) of them backed Forbes even as he was soundedly defeated (with 12 per cent of the vote). Arguably, the effect of his campaign was to set back the cause of tax reform. Buchanan, meanwhile, did even better among dedicated pro-lifers than Forbes did among anti-taxers. When he was going strong, Buchanan simply isolated religious conservatives from the rest of the party. In the end, the man who won the primaries owes very little to either economic or social conservatives; except for Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, they've mainly given him trouble.

Phil Gramm deserves a good portion of the blame for this debacle. In many ways the logical candidate of the coalition, he apparently assumed he was therefore its inevitable candidate. (In this respect, his campaign was eerily reminiscent of Kemp's in 1988.) Dole, ironically, did a better job of courting it. Gramm might have recovered from his early errors in a longer campaign. But although everyone talked about the speed of the primary process this year, nobody was really prepared for it. Even NR, which did the right thing in endorsing Phil Gramm, did so too late to do any good -- and that was before Iowa, let alone New Hampshire.

CONSERVATIVES overestimated their power in the nominating process for the same reason Gramm erred. They confused electoral victories for conservative candidates over the last three decades with a deep and systematic belief in conservative ideas on the part of the voters. The conservative ``movement'' exists in the minds of a fairly small number of people; many who march with it have no deep understanding of its principles. (Nor, apparently, do its pundits.) While there may be an inchoate conservative majority in the country, it's not there just for the asking. That majority has to be continually converted, recruited, and given rousing song sheets.

Conservatives ought to ponder the possibility that their current difficulties are symptomatic of an underlying disease, one whose debilitating effects may last beyond November regardless of the election results. Richard Vigilante saw the danger as early as 1985. Writing in NR's 30th anniversary issue, he warned that the conservative enterprise had become ``too large and too busy for philosophical reflection. If it does not find, or is not given, a clear, simple sense of what holds it together, it will split apart, ruptured by confusion and opportunism.'' Conservatives are not receiving that kind of intellectual sustenance, and are therefore increasingly adrift.

If conservatives are on intellectual autopilot, much of the explanation may lie in the culture of that network of thinkers, writers, and activists, (too) largely located in Washington and New York, whom one might designate collectively as ``conservative opinion leaders.'' They are, in short, an elite -- and they act like one. Too many conservatives are operating on a stale and derivative, even if largely accurate, orthodoxy. If popular concerns fit into that orthodoxy -- for instance, anti-tax sentiment -- they can respond readily enough, and win votes by doing so. Other anxieties -- notably, over the nation's cultural fragmentation -- just pass under their radar screen.

But the Right's strength since the Fifties has largely been built by diagnosing the grievances and anxieties of ordinary Americans and responding to them with real remedies. It is now losing touch with its base and its potential support. Thus conservatives are constantly being caught off guard by swings in the popular mood. (A case in point: the panic over ``worker anxiety'' after Pat Buchanan's showing in New Hampshire.) On occasion they have even tried to suppress discussion of the public's cultural anxieties. Instead of asking why so many grassroots conservatives opposed NAFTA, for instance, the Beltway elite simply told them they were being paranoid. A political movement in touch with its supporters can tell them when they're wrong; it can't tell them that they're not worried.

One Reaganite, herself a Beltway insider, decries ``the pernicious influence of the think-tank approach to life and politics. In the Seventies and Eighties, they did a terrific job of giving policy articulation to inchoate political resentments. But the policy articulation has now floated free of the political ground from which it originally sprang.'' The think tanks tend to reduce politics to a set of discrete policy areas without providing an overarching philosophy to link them.

Worse, conservative intellectuals seem unable to distinguish between their role and that of conservative politicians. They take care to keep their arguments safely within the confines of the politically ``possible'' while perhaps seeking to nudge those boundaries rightward. ``Too many people are writing op-eds which picture them in the campaign bull session or in the committee mark-up room,'' complains Lawrence Kudlow. As a result of this sort of positioning, conservative leaders lose sight both of first principles and of their own social base.

Meanwhile, the occasional mention on the Style page has gone to some of their heads. The immersion of many conservatives in the celebrity culture -- and particularly their willingness to caricature their ideas in order to make them sellable on television -- has been corrupting. With some honorable exceptions, they entertain viewers with their political movement and in the process are domesticated and rendered ineffectual. Blurring the line between politics and entertainment tends to make conservatives -- especially those in the Beltway -- seem cynical and frivolous.

Indeed, fin-de-siccle conservatism is increasingly concerned with matters of style, straining to make itself appear fashionable. Conservative chic often accompanies a tiresome triumphalism. The implication, notes Kudlow, is that ``we've won, we're cool, and you better join us'' -- as if the goal of conservatives were to replicate the smugness of a liberal Georgetown cocktail party. The result is not so much moral compromise, though it is sometimes that, as the political myopia that was evident during the primaries.

GIFTED and principled political leadership would go far to cure the conservative malaise. But no one since Reagan has emerged to provide a focal point for conservatives. Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, icons to almost all conservatives just a few years ago, lacked the stomach to audition for the role. Instead, they have gone out of their way to annoy other conservatives; their remaining influence derives mostly from good press. Newt Gingrich, for his part, has proved unable to lead congressional Republicans and the conservative coalition simultaneously in the face of a hostile press. By default, then, Rush Limbaugh is the most visible conservative on the national scene. He is a force for common sense, but, wisely, he has declined to play a role for which he is not suited.

Conservatives cannot afford to wait for another Reagan to come along. Former NR publisher William Rusher says, ``I share the nostalgia. But the Lord does not always provide you with Ronald Reagans. We were badly spoiled and sometimes you have to do without.'' It is especially unbecoming for conservatives to complain that Bob Dole dispirits them when their own fecklessness did so much to ensure his nomination. One thoughtful observer of the Beltway Right expresses exasperation with the current conservative mood: ``All these people who are lamenting that we don't have a Reagan are betraying his legacy, which was a can-do spirit. If he were at these meetings he'd be asking how we could aggressively push forward, not kvetching that there's no Reagan.''

If Bob Dole is elected, it will make a difference whether the dominant faction of the party he leads is rudderless and confused, or vigorous and clear-headed. Tom Pauken, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, warns that if economic and social conservatives do not form a successful governing coalition in the next few years, ``You're going to see the splintering of our movement, you'll see conservatives start leaving the Republican Party, you'll see third- and fourth-party movements, you'll see a phenomenon in which people after a while just kind of bail out of the whole political system.''

Or conservatives could use the Dole interregnum to regroup, developing a higher degree of ideological self-consciousness and becoming accustomed to the political discipline of governing. They must simultaneously hold the conservative coalition together; keep the GOP anchored within a conservative, antistatist consensus while tackling new cultural and economic anxieties. A movement beset by inertia will be unable to accomplish any of these tasks. So far, however, conservatives don't seem to grasp that there's a problem.