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Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 1999 /29 Elul 5759

David Brooks

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One Nation Conservatism --
AT FIRST BLUSH, the Republican presidential field doesn’t exactly overflow with new ideas. Steve Forbes updates the free-market policies and themes of Jack Kemp’s 1988 campaign. Gary Bauer’s campaign echoes the social conservatism of Pat Robertson’s 1988 run. Elizabeth Dole reprises the Main Street Republicanism of Bob Dole’s 1988 and 1996 efforts. And Pat Buchanan recycles the working-class populism of his own 1992 and 1996 campaigns.

Nonetheless, alongside these well-established lines of Republican thought, there are two newer approaches struggling to break through. If you listen carefully, you discover George W. Bush and John McCain are running campaigns that sound unlike any others in recent GOP history. The candidates themselves don’t seem fully aware of the implications of what they are saying, but together, Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism and McCain’s New Patriotic Challenge are steps toward a fresh vision for the Republican party. Indeed, if you meld the core messages of the two campaigns, you get a coherent governing philosophy for the post-Clinton age.

The free marketeers and the religious conservatives have been singing their tunes for a while. But the Bush and McCain campaigns emerged in response to the events of the 1990s: the rise of Third Way triangulators on the Democratic side, the waning salience of the culture war (as revealed, for example, by the public’s tolerance of the Lewinsky scandal), and the collapse of the Gingrich revolution. That means they are new in tone as well as substance. The older conservative strains were formed in an era of liberal dominance. Conservatives were reacting against the growing welfare state and the liberationist movements of the 1960s. The older conservative strains, therefore, have a confrontationalist mentality: Polarize the debate, attack the liberal elites. But in the 1990s, liberalism is no longer dominant; the sixties is something that happened a generation ago. This decade has been a period of ideological mush and muddle. So temperamentally, the new conservative approaches are not as confrontational as the old ones.

The new strains reflect a much less polarized view of the role of government. In the era when liberal social programs were on the march, Ronald Reagan could say that government was the problem, and in 1995 Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey echoed that view. But welfare reform is the biggest domestic policy development of this decade, championed by people like Republican governors John Engler and Tommy Thompson, so social policy no longer looks so menacing. Both Bush and McCain criticize the excessive anti-government zeal of the 1995 congressional Republicans. George W. Bush recently attacked “the destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose than “Leave us Alone.’” That phrase—that government should “Leave Us Alone”—was the rallying cry of the Gingrich revolutionaries. Meanwhile, John McCain notes that a “healthy skepticism” about government has turned into “widespread cynicism bordering on alienation.” Instead of telling people that government is evil, McCain reminds them that public service is “the highest calling.”

Both Bush and McCain believe in conservative governance. Both seek to use government in circumscribed but energetic ways. “Government must be carefully limited, but strong and active,” Bush says. The two candidates, however, emphasize activism in different spheres. George W. Bush seeks to restore the power of local and intimate authority—the authority of parents, neighborhood, charity, and local government. Bush says the next task of welfare reform is to build up the religious and community institutions that can touch people on the profoundest level. Bush vows to dedicate $8 billion in his first year in office to expand tax incentives for charitable giving, increase drug treatment, federally fund after-school programs run by community groups, establish “Second Chance” homes for unwed teenage mothers, and offer federal grants for private anti-poverty efforts—an activist agenda. Furthermore, he wants to use government to target specific areas of need. He calls for programs to aid the 1.3 million American children who have a parent in prison.

If Bush fails to fully develop his Compassionate Conservatism, it may degenerate into a tepid form of noblesse oblige: a few tax breaks so that rich people will give a little more money to help poor people, a lot of gauzy, Thousand Points of Light rhetoric. Two leaders of the civil society movement, the Bradley Foundation’s Michael Joyce and William Schambra, highlighted this danger in a memo to Bush adviser and Indianapolis mayor Steve Goldsmith last winter. “It conjures up readily for its critics a kind of foolish, mushy, sentimental soft-heartedness that suggests a readiness to return to the days of well-intentioned government hand-outs, which made the giver feel good but did little for, and even harmed, the recipient.”

Already, Compassionate Conservatism points toward something much more radical: an across-the-board effort to revive responsible citizenship. Conservatives have not worried much about the decline of citizenship over the last few decades. With their bias in favor of private-sector activity and against public-sector activity, many conservatives have even looked benignly on the decline in voting rates. It’s a good thing many people aren’t voting, conservatives argued; it shows their lives are not overpoliticized.

But in the 1990s, the danger is that America might become underpoliticized. People might withdraw into the private contentment of their lustrous McMansions—which would be bad not only for those left out of the current prosperity, but for the McMansion dwellers as well. Active citizenship, Tocqueville observed, inculcates certain virtues that are necessary to any great democratic nation. Getting involved in public and political endeavors forces people to develop broader judgment, sacrifice for the greater good, hear the call of duty, and stand up for their beliefs. In other words, the promise of a fully realized Compassionate Conservatism is not merely that Faith Based Foundation X has a higher success rate than Public Welfare Agency Y. It is that working for the general good through voluntary organizations—instead of leaving such functions to professional state agencies—gives people the opportunity to govern themselves. School choice doesn’t just yield higher test scores. It is also good for parents, because it gets them involved in running their kids’ education, rather than surrendering that responsibility to bureaucrats.

Bush seems to realize this. In an education speech in Los Angeles on September 2, Bush argued that state governments should play an active role in setting out standards and tests. “We test because informed parents become more involved,” Bush declared. Further, he suggested that Title I money should be made available to parents who have children in failing schools. They could take this money, up to $1,500, and spend it on tutoring, on private school tuition, or to transfer to a better public school—whatever they choose. The emerging theme is clear: The modern bureaucratic welfare state weakens citizenship. Compassionate Conservatism will mean something to the extent that it renews citizenship and rejuvenates self-government.

Another problem with Compassionate Conservatism is that it is so modest. It might be an adequate governing idea in Switzerland or Colombia or Canada. But America is not like those countries; it is the world’s leading power as well as the world’s exceptional nation. When Edmund Burke praised the “little platoons” of neighborhood and town, he said they were merely “the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.” A person running for the presidency of the United States of America can’t be content to be alderman or even governor to the nation. He has to possess a governing philosophy that connects citizens to higher national aims and that organizes American behavior around the world.

This is where John McCain’s campaign makes its contribution. If the Bush campaign promotes limited but energetic government on the local level, the McCain campaign has articulated a philosophy of limited but energetic government on the national and global level.

The core speech of the McCain campaign was delivered at the Johns Hopkins University commencement last spring. “The threat that concerns me is the pervasive public cynicism that is debilitating our democracy,” McCain declared. Skepticism about government, he continued, has turned into a biting contempt for public life. And this cynicism doesn’t lead people to want to scale back government, as many Republicans used to believe. Instead, it just causes them to detach themselves from public life and active citizenship. Cynics look on outrageous scandals that disgrace our democracy with bemused detachment. Standing aloof and considering themselves superior, they oppose change of any kind, even efforts to reform or cut back the very things that disgust them. The only politics they respond to is Bill Clinton-Dick Morris-style maneuvering, which is petty and sentimental on the surface but corrupt and selfish at its core.

“Now we have a new patriotic challenge for a new century: declaring war on the cynicism that threatens our public institutions, our culture, and, ultimately, our private happiness,” McCain said at Johns Hopkins.

The first task, he continued, is to reform the institutions that no longer make us proud. McCain is unabashed about his support for campaign-finance reform, feeling that government can never inspire public confidence as long as politicians are caught up in the money chase. He proposed reforming the Social Security trust fund by taking it off budget so Congress canít raid it. He proposed reforming the tax code, to reduce the loopholes that reward corporate donors. In August, he lambasted his fellow Republicans for larding their tax bill with special breaks for favored donors.

“We need to be a little less content,” he continued at Johns Hopkins.“We need to get riled up a bit.” In a speech in Kansas earlier in the spring, he matched his reform activism at home with his own brand of democratic activism abroad. Other candidates sometimes seem to pretend that America is not the world’s sole superpower. They treat American supremacy as something that will go away if you ignore it long enough. And in this they are right. But McCain embraces American might, believing that it gives us the opportunity to better promote our interests, roll back rogue nations, preserve international order, and advance the cause of democratic self-government around the world. As he demonstrated during the Kosovo crisis, McCain, more than any of the other Republican presidential candidates, believes in using American military might to advance America’s democratic ideals and punish outrageous dictators who threaten peace.

The danger in McCain’s New Patriotic Challenge is that it might dissolve into a sour Ross Perot-style reform effort, motivated more by populist resentment than by a genuine effort to restore luster to public life. And the second flaw is that it may be a little too grand. For better or worse, the American people this decade are primarily interested in restoring local authority and reestablishing the intimate structures that have been torn by the social disruptions of the past quarter century. The McCain campaign speaks confidently about global affairs and reform on the national level, but it speaks less confidently than the Bush campaign about repairing the fabric of family and local community. It risks being out of step with a nation that, at this moment, distrusts grand talk and grand projects.

In the political arena, George W. Bush and John McCain are now rivals. But if you look at their policy agendas, you quickly realize that theirs are complementary visions. One primarily addresses the needs of the family and community, and the other the needs of the nation and the world. But they share the traditional conservative belief in responsible citizenship, uniting Americans. Both defend politics and civic activity from the tide of anti-political fervor that is sweeping the country. Together, they make a coherent vision, which might be called One Nation Conservatism.

That phrase has been used elsewhere with various meanings. But it is apt here. In his speech on Compassionate Conservatism, George Bush went out of his way to remind his listeners that we have a duty to assist those left behind by the current prosperity because all of us are part of the same nation. “These are not strangers,” he said. “They are citizens, Americans, our brothers and sisters.” Bush is right to imply that in an era of decentralization and market segmentation, America risks dividing along class, cultural, and ethnic lines into tribes, each with its own parochialisms, problems, and affirmative-action sinecures.

And John McCain is right to remind us that it is our public institutions that bind us together. We Americans did not become one nation because our ancestors were once members of the same tribe or kingdom, or because we have some blood-and-sweat connection to this soil. We are united by the Declaration and the Constitution of the American Founders. We are united by the system of government they established and the ideals it embodies—so how can we love our country if we hate its government? McCain hopes to restore confidence in that system of government, both at home and abroad.

If you follow these two campaigns to their logical conclusion, you arrive at a One Nation Conservatism that marries community goodness with national greatness. It starts with a series of proposals to eliminate the chunks of the modern welfare state that smothered civic activism. It replaces that old system with something else: a burbling civic life. It accomplishes this through education vouchers, seed grants for charter schools, charitable tax credits, grants to religious and other institutions, Social Security privatizationóall of which encourage people to govern themselves.

Then it restores faith in government with an aggressive reform agenda: banning ‘soft money’ from election campaigns, revamping welfare-state programs such as Medicare to give citizens more control over their lives, simplifying the tax code, and cutting corporate pork in order to give citizens the sense that the government works for them, rather than for the corporate titans with the best lobbyists.

It champions a series of measures designed to remind American citizens of their common bonds. It revitalizes our transportation network, which has always bound us together. It nourishes the parks, forests, and preserves that are our common heritage. It reforms the nation’s culture policy, so that museums and arts institutions that accept taxpayer dollars are more likely to explore what it means to be American than they are to nourish alienation and multicultural parochialism.

Finally, it promotes an energetic foreign policy–because Americans will never devote themselves to democratic self-government at home if they do not see themselves ardently championing democratic self-government abroad.

No party is worth supporting if its goals are wholly negative, just cutting and dismantling institutions. No party is worth supporting if it cannot distinguish the parts of the state that foster self-government from those that crush it. And no party is worth supporting if it is wholly materialistic; if it seems to be interested in nothing more than building up its supportersí bank accounts. The Republican party may be learning this. It may be on the verge of absorbing the lessons of its recent mistakes. Out of the present quiet and seemingly nonideological presidential campaign, there may emerge a vigorous One Nation Conservatism that will connect a revived sense of citizenship with the long-standing national greatness Americans hold dear.

David Brooks is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


09/09/99: Goldsmith's Secrets of Success
08/31/99: Class Warfare in the GOP
08/26/99: America's Leading Conservative
08/20/99: The Case For Censorship
08/19/99: They Say D'Amato
08/13/99: The Agony of Not Being George W. Bush
08/12/99: Iowa Gothic
08/0699: Preschool in the Nanny State
08/04/99: Body Slam
07/30/99: End of the Leave-Us-Alone GOP
07/28/99: Madeleine Albright's Vendetta
07/22/99: Bill Clinton, Historian
07/20/99: The Terrorist Next Door
07/16/99: The Empress of the Empire State

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