Conservatives in this summer of their discontent are suffering political hypochondria. They have a real problem, of which their hypochondria is symptomatic. They are not thinking clearly.
And their somewhat surly bewilderment reveals conservative variants of two sins of this era - self-pity, expressed in a sense of victimhood, and the entitlement mentality. Some conservatives feel victimized by various villains (the media, conservatives in office, etc.) and entitled to an unresisted sweep for their ideas.This week 28 contributors to The Weekly Standard discuss whether there is a conservative crackup, a supposed sign of which is that conservative ideas are ascendant while conservative politicians are being "battered." Actually, some conservative ideas are ascendant because, lacking the ballast of convincing content, they are lighter than air. And the idea that America's conservative politicians are downtrodden reveals an unconservative fixation with the presidency.
Since the Clinton era began, Republicans have gained 51 members of the House, 13 senators, 15 governors (about three-quarters of the electorate today chooses to live under Republican governors) and more than 500 state legislators. The two largest cities have Republican mayors. Politically, Clinton is the man who walked across a field of snow and left no footprints.
Granted, Democrats, after losing seven of 10 and five of six presidential elections, have now won two. But the Clinton presidency's most important initiative - the health care plan - never even came to a vote. And the only events of the Clinton years that historians 25 years hence are apt to dwell upon - welfare reform (repeal of an entitlement, forced by Republicans) and trade liberalization (opposed by a majority of Democrats) - limit government.
Michael Barone, author of "The Almanac of American Politics," notes in The Weekly Standard that in the 1950s welfare statism advanced while Eisenhower, Churchill, Macmillan, Adenauer and de Gaulle - not a liberal on the list - were heads of government. Today, liberals lead governments rightward. They do so because memories of the material hardships of the 1930s have faded and now "the recalled bad times are the 1970s." Then government was hubristic and incompetent, tolerated or sanctioned much pathological behavior (crime, illegitimacy, welfare dependency) and unleashed inflation that penalized virtue (thrift, industriousness).
However, the welfare state does express, in part, an ethic of common provision - the idea that some of life's risks should be socialized - and conservatives cannot prosper by preaching that this ethic is categorically unethical. Furthermore, Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute reminds The Weekly Standard's readers that conservatives cannot distill conservatism's aspirations into the word "freedom." They cannot because their principal anguish, which they struggle to transmute into a governmental agenda, concerns an insufficiency of virtue revealed by the uses Americans make of their vastly expanded freedom from the restraints of government or social stigmas.
Conservatives often become conservatives because they are alarmed by the encroachment of the state on the sphere of individual sovereignty. But that sphere must have boundaries. And conservatives sometimes need to be reminded that conservatism is a political philosophy: It concerns collective aspirations and actions.
Regarding which, The Weekly Standard's most pregnant piece, by Eliot Cohen of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, notes that the Founders neither envisioned nor desired "feeble government." Cohen warns against "mindless opposition to the state" and wonders, for example, whether conservatives who decry liberal history textbooks are willing to spend adequate sums to acquire and protect Civil War battlefields.
Much of conservatism's oppositional agenda has been fulfilled (opposition to communism, to irrational regulation of entire industries - airlines, trucking, etc.). Important work remains, such as opposition to racial preferences. But, now: What is conservatism for?
Let the conservative rethinking revolve around two questions and a challenge. The questions are: What do we love when we love our country? What do we wish for when we wish for national greatness? The challenge is for conservatism to find a place in its pantheon for three great nationalists - Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt.
Hamilton understood the role of an energetic national government in facilitating individual striving. Clay fired the nation's imagination (including young Lincoln's) with a program-the "American system" - for using national exertions (tariffs, "internal improvements") to nurture the social solidarity that is a prerequisite for patriotism. And from trustbusting to canal building, TR used invigorating strenuousness by government to foster the national thinking necessary for a citizen's sense of identity in a continental nation.
Here, then, is a third question. Twenty years ago many of today's conservatives rallied 'round keeping control of the Panama Canal. But would such conservatives have built it in the first place?