Con Air

Politics and policy.
Oct. 26 1997 3:30 AM

Con Air

What the Right's fighting about.

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From the halls of the Heritage Foundation to the shooting ranges of the National Rifle Association, you can hear the clang and the clatter of right-wing infighting. In the Senate, Trent Lott faces a constant barrage of accusations that he has sold out. In the House, defenders and plotters of last July's attempted coup remain in a state of high paranoid alert. The Christian Coalition is struggling with the departure of Ralph Reed and a scandal over the abuse of its tax-exempt status. The editor of the American Spectator fired the publisher, apparently for asking too many questions about how the magazine spent grants from the far-right Scaife Foundation. At the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. just sacked his editor, John O'Sullivan, for reasons as yet unexplained. It's now nearly impossible to find a conservative institution not in some sort of turmoil.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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These conflicts aren't all ideological. They're about power, money, status, and various admixtures of these factors with politics. But all are symptoms of the conservative movement's current state of embattlement. Since the Gingrich revolution went sour in 1995--and in a larger sense, since the party began feuding over George Bush's tax increase in 1991--conservatives have been a tribe lost in the wilderness. With no common program and no forceful or even universally acceptable leader, factions assert themselves with growing nastiness. As the many sides scuffle, their only shared sentiments are contempt for Bill Clinton and nostalgia for the unity they once embraced under the Holy Reagan Empire.

These days, it is Democrats who seem to have absorbed Reagan's lesson about the value of submerging differences for the sake of victory. Republicans, meanwhile, seem to have studied under the querulous Democrats of George McGovern's era. They're more interested in kicking and gouging each other than in taking on the enemy. Look at what should have been their crowning achievement. This year, the Republican Congress finally won an ostensibly balanced budget. But it failed to get much credit for it, in part because of bitter denunciations of the deal from the House radicals who like to be known as the "Hezbollah." The big political event this summer was the successful effort by one kind of anti-government Republican--Jesse Helms--to prevent another kind of anti-government Republican--William Weld--from becoming ambassador to Mexico. Social conservative leader Paul Weyrich recently made the cover of the New Republic as a Republican Robespierre who is destroying his party in a mad quest for conservative purity. Without elevating these often petty struggles into a war of "ideas," it may be worth asking: What are these people ripping themselves up about?

In essence, they are fighting about what has been their most fundamental internal difference since the reign of Franklin Roosevelt--the modern role of the federal government. The good news is that conservatives are debating the question of what Washington should and should not do more openly, and with a greater degree of realism, than they have for some time. The bad news is that the honesty and realism are relative.

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T he breakthrough is that some conservatives now are willing to question the party dogma that a big and powerful federal government is inherently oppressive and evil. This glasnost was first visible in a column titled "What Ails Conservatism," by William Kristol and David Brooks, that ran in the Wall Street Journal last month. Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and Brooks, a writer for the same publication, argue that the government bashing that carried Republicans to congressional power in 1994 makes a lousy governing philosophy. "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?" they ask succinctly.

In place of demands for diminishment and devolution, Kristol and Brooks propose "a return to national greatness." They urge Republicans to eschew Jeffersonian libertarianism and to take up the nationalist tradition of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Theodore Roosevelt. (The only name missing from their genealogy is that of Herbert Croly, one of the founders of the Progressive Movement who first put this American nationalist tradition together.) The liberal overtones of this synthesis are not surprising when you consider where the National Greatness cons come from. They represent a merger of the shrunken remnants of two formerly powerful firms: the Rockefeller Republicans and the New York neoconservatives. Both groups have long wished for conservatives to do what William Bennett and John DiIulio Jr. recommend they do in the new issue of Commentary: make peace with the New Deal and get on with their lives.

The national-greatness line has been bitterly attacked by two other kinds of conservatives who were always hostile to the neocons--libertarians and populists. Libertarians like Dick Armey and Phil Gramm argue that enlarging freedom, by which they mean shrinking government, is the only valid goal of Republicans. Populists, who see the greatness cons as an elitist menace and as a moderate one, have different objections. Though they themselves support government regulation in the moral sphere, populists hate the idea of national power, because to them, national means federal and federal means liberal. Libertarians and populists do share a political argument against big-government conservatism. Both think Beltway-bashing is conservatism's most effective organizing tool and rallying cry.

There are some other conservative strains at large, such as the now totally mystifying cultural conservatism of Robert Bork. Bork was once a libertarian who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it interfered with the right of free association. He danced away from that view in a failed attempt to make it to the Supreme Court. In recent years, Bork has cast himself as a cranky pessimist. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal, he attacked both the greatness cons and their libertarian critics for being insufficiently gloomy. Both sides, he wrote, failed to focus on moral decay as evidenced by such problems as relativism and the "disastrous feminization of education," whatever that means. But a week later, Bork, in his old libertarian guise, wrote a piece in the New York Times that denounced his fellow moralist Bennett's criticism of liquor companies. Some conservatives now seem to have no ideology other than attacking all other conservatives.

To describe these debates is to make them sound more rigorous and intellectually serious than they really are. In practice, all conservative factions are still caught up in the free-lunch ethos of Reaganism. The greatness cons want to have their pro-government rhetoric and to eat their anti-government cake, too. The actual projects Kristol and Brooks call for to renew national purpose are things like privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and pushing for a voucher system of school choice. In other words, most of the activity they want their activist federal government to engage in involves dismantling the federal government. The greatness cons do want more federal government in the form of an interventionist foreign policy. But they disingenuously assume that we can have more for less than we're spending now. A bigger defense and more tax cuts. No sacrifice is ever asked of the public.

The libertarians have a more consistent philosophical position, but they offer the reverse hypocrisy in practice. They wallow in anti-government rhetoric as if Oklahoma City had never been bombed, but make no assault on the federal leviathan. Republicans like Gramm beat up the IRS and promise endless tax reductions while bringing home pork projects to their constituents. Conservatives may look as though they're finally debating the real issue. But unfortunately, the debate is mainly about how to posture.

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