Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2004 / 27 Kislev, 5765
The challenge four more years of the Bush administration presents to
conservatism's fundamental beliefs
William F. Buckley, Jr. was in town Thursday to discuss the future of
conservatism in a mock Firing Line with his son, the humorist and satirist
Christopher, for the Goldwater Institute. (Christopher wryly noted what an
honor it was to finally be a guest on the show, five years after it had
gone off the air.)
Conservatives are feeling pretty cocky these days, believing that the
political zeitgeist is at their back. But Bill Buckley's visit underscores
the challenge four more years of the Bush administration presents to
conservatism's fundamental beliefs.
Buckley is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential figures
in modern American conservatism, establishing an intellectual foundation
for a political movement popularized by Barry Goldwater and made triumphant
by Ronald Reagan. George Will has even gone so far as to denominate Buckley
as the most consequential journalist of our age.
But even that understates Buckley's importance. In a very real sense,
Buckley actually invented modern American conservatism.
Through his intellectual leadership, Buckley consolidated the disparate
themes that became modern American conservatism: anti-communism, free
market economics, limited government and a cultural perspective rooted in
religion and religious values.
One of the main pillars of Buckley conservatism was a limited role for the
federal government in domestic affairs.
George W. Bush openly professes to be a conservative. But rather than a
limited role, Bush favors an activist federal government, only harnessed to
serve conservative purposes.
The difference is clearest in the No Children Left Behind Act. For years,
conservatives have argued that the role of the federal government in public
education should be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Bush, in contrast,
successfully sought to expand the federal role in education, but to serve
the conservative purpose of accountability through testing.
Less clear, although becoming more discernable, are the changes Bush is
making in the conservative approach to foreign policy.
Pre-Buckley, the conservative instinct about foreign affairs was toward
non-interventionism. Under the Buckley consensus, the comprehensive threat
of expansionist communism justified the United States being very
aggressively and thoroughly engaged in international issues and conflicts.
Bush directly makes an analogy between the communist threat and the Islamic
terrorist threat, arguing that the latter requires as comprehensive an
engagement as the former.
But Soviet communism, certainly until the détente era, was clearly an
expansionist power. There's an insularity and isolationism to Islamic
terrorism that is insufficiently considered.
The Buckleys explored these differences in the mock Firing Line, and in an
interview preceding the event.
George Will flatly says that we smaller-government conservatives are
dinosaurs. And you get a sense of resignation in the air.
In the latest issue of National Review, the magazine Bill Buckley founded,
Ramesh Ponnuru argues that conservatives shouldn't press too hard on tax
reform. Success is doubtful, he maintains, and pushing for too much would
be bad for the cause.
When conservatism was still learning to walk politically, National Review
was hardly restrained by the art of the politically possible. If it were,
it would have had nothing to say, since nothing was very political possible
for conservatives in those days.
Now, there's a difference between how a movement in dissent engages and how
one that seeks to govern does so. But there's also a difference between
political pragmatism and abandonment of principle.
Politicians need to make tactical decisions about how to nudge policy in
the right direction. But the role of philosophical conservatives should be
to try to expand the ambit of the politically possible through persuasion.
Right now, the conservative movement has an insufficient ratio of
philosophers to tacticians.
Bush asserts that the security of the United States ultimately depends on
the spread of freedom and democracy, particularly in the Middle East.
But Buckley pointed out that acting on American idealism internationally
should be constrained by the need to act to protect ourselves. There is not
much such restraint in the Bush doctrine.
Buckley said in the mock Firing Line that, although he initially supported
the Iraq war, knowing what he knows now, he wouldn't have. As someone who
opposed the Iraq war then based on what he knew then, in large part Bush's
unconstrained regional ambitions, that's welcome company.
I asked Bill Buckley whether, in his opinion, George W. Bush was a
Buckley made a distinction between being conservative, which he said Bush
was, and being "a" conservative, in the sense of himself and Barry
Goldwater, which he said Bush wasn't.
Much of the future of modern American conservatism depends on whether that
distinction can be preserved over the next four years.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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