With Bill Clinton's concession that "the era of big government is over," American conservatives won a stunning ideological victory. Yet, even as conservative ideas are in the ascendancy, the parties and politicians that represent them are in serious trouble. In the United States, Britain and France, right-leaning candidates have been routed in the most recent elections by more moderate centrists.
The mood at the recent International Conservative Congress in Washington was accordingly pessimistic. Sponsored by various right-wing think tanks and magazines, the conference explored the question: Why are conservatives failing politically everywhere, and what can be done to revive the successes of the Reagan era?
William Kristol and David Brooks, both of the Weekly Standard, urged conservatives recently to abandon their anti-government rhetoric and support more ambitious federal initiatives that could give Americans a renewed sense of "national greatness." In a different vein, William J. Bennett and John J. Dilulio, in Commentary, called for a downsizing of the federal government, delegation of many of its functions to state and local governments and a revitalized private sphere of businesses, churches and philanthropies to assume the task of a "new reconstruction" of civil society.
If conservatives seek to duplicate Ronald Reagan's success, they might ask: How might Reagan come down on this question?
Reagan's agenda was focused on three themes: limiting the size of government, anti-communism and traditional values. Each seems to have given rise to a distinctive faction on the right. There are balance-the-budget conservatives, national-greatness conservatives and cultural conservatives. All invoke the name of Reagan, but their efforts to replicate his successes are not likely to succeed, because none seems to understand fully what the former president was all about.
The budget balancers envisioned themselves completing the Reagan revolution. But they miscalculated by targeting popular entitlement programs. In the 1980 campaign, Reagan pledged to reduce "waste, fraud and abuse" in federal programs but he did not propose to eliminate a single one. Government spending grew at about the same pace under Reagan as under his predecessor. Reagan's substantive emphasis was always on lowering taxes to accelerate economic growth, thereby limiting the size of government relative to the size of the economy.
The national-greatness conservatives, as represented by Kristol and Brooks, make their peace with big government. They ask: "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?" While approving of measures such as welfare reform, Kristol and Brooks advance a vision of a lean but robust federal government that would not shrink from taking on grand new projects that would vindicate "the greatness of the American experiment."
These conservatives are responding, in large part, to the absence today of the kind of unifying patriotic vision that Reagan articulated so well in the 1980s. Yet, Reagan's call to arms was based upon the existence of the genuine threat posed by Soviet missiles.
What is striking about Kristol and Brooks' vision is its lack of content. For months, the Weekly Standard, which Kristol edits, has been striving to rally conservatives to oppose the government of China with the same vehemence with which they resisted the Soviet Union. The Chinese rulers, like the tyrants of the old Politburo, do not hesitate to persecute dissidents to maintain their hold on power, yet the Chinese have embraced Western-style capitalism, liberalization seems to be proceeding rapidly and the country poses no obvious threat to Americans or U.S. interests.
Other proposals for national greatness at least have the benefit of harmless triviality. Political scientist Eliot A. Cohen calls for a new project to "acquire, protect and maintain Civil War battlefields." Brooks has suggested that America again could become great by building national buildings and monuments. Sad to say, one recent construction is the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, a monstrosity that houses several government agencies whose existence Reagan opposed throughout his political career.
Perhaps the most interesting response to the plight of modern conservatism comes from the cultural reformers. This camp, led by Robert H. Bork, contends that the most serious problem facing the country is not political but moral. In Bork's view, the American people have been corrupted by liberal permissiveness.
Many cultural conservatives caution against looking to government for answers. If the American people are the problem, changing their minds and behavior is the only solution. What is needed is a "remoralization" of America, argues historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Bennett and others promote cultural renewal through public sermonizing and support for local initiatives, such as church programs to teach parental responsibility.