The lobotomy treatment is to cleanse every previous verity, including Ronald Reagan as the advocate of limited government, and to reprogram conservatism as descending from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal through Reagan to its high point under the George W. Bush presidency.
This so-called reform conservative project began with a 2014 Commentary magazine cover story by former Bush appointee Peter Wehner and his associate Henry Olsen, has received constant repetition in Washington Post columns by Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, and is now to culminate in Mr. Olsen’s forthcoming book, titled The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.
The theme will be popular in progressive media circles. Bringing Reagan down to the level of an unpopular George W. Bush and promoting the latter’s record for the Republican future will appeal to Democrats seeking recovery from the last election. As for conservatives, they should know that Reagan did admire FDR but regularly criticized New Deal excesses; just read his “A Time for Choosing” speech that made him into a national figure.
I have already critiqued the reformist Reagan-is-a-liberal thesis, but the idea of modeling the conservative future on President Bush requires a further response.
Mr. Gerson has had the most prestigious perch imaginable at the Post, representing conservatism in the pages of the nation’s most influential political newspaper. He appears a very decent person but seems unable to control his animosity toward not only President Trump, but toward all “anti-government” conservatives, such as Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. In his book Heroic Conservatism, he indeed denotes the difference between Reagan and Mr. Bush as the former believing in limited national government and the latter in effective national government.
Following the election, Mr. Gerson became particularly incensed by a conservative writer “dismissing the only two-term Republican president” since Reagan as simply “a religious-right figure,” calling that appraisal “absurd.” He then listed the accomplishments that make Mr. Bush the ideal conservative: promoting economic growth and tax limitation policies, “compassionate and creative social policy,” No Child Left Behind, faith-based social services, ethnic and religious inclusion, comprehensive immigration reform, defense of American Muslims after 9/11, an internationalist foreign policy and war against terrorism, a worldwide Emergency Plan for AIDS relief, and a “tolerant version of traditionalism based on moral aspiration rather than judgement.”
What united this vision was “compassion,” although Mr. Gerson added: “I really don’t give a damn what adjective is applied to distinguish this type of reform-oriented conservatism,” but any vital future conservatism must include vigorous plans for economic growth, job training, “a sincere appeal” to rising ethnic minorities, a vigorous war on terror, global economic and health development, concern for families and character development, democratic values informed by faith, civility, and human development.
While there are certainly aspects of this program that would be recognized by many as being conservative, the tone is all wrong, with several plainly un-conservative under almost any other rendition. Take the No Child Left Behind Act. First of all, it was co-authored with Sen. Teddy Kennedy, who certainly was not any conservative’s idea of wisdom regarding education, and President Reagan co-authored no bills on such subjects with him. Reagan not only wanted to eliminate the Department of Education entirely but was constantly promoting education as a local responsibility.
The Bush-Kennedy education Act compassionately set its goal as all American students becoming “proficient in math and reading by 2014,” increasing spending by 99 percent. Barack Obama even placed $7 billion more into its School Improvement Grants power after 2010 to meet the goal, plus $4 billion more in Race to the Top grants. The Department of Education just posted the results of these federal programs: test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment were no better for schools targeted in the programs than those who did not receive funds or special programs. Is this compassion or empty promise?
Or we might ask, what is proper compassion on immigration? Reagan was compassionate and favorable to immigration but was critical of the Kennedy-supported chain migration provisions, as was Mr. Bush. But Mr. Gerson was relentless in criticizing President Trump for wanting to limit family migration, while, as Post on-line columnist and former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen noted, Mr. Trump actually was compassionate in supporting exceptions for so-called “dreamer” young immigrants, and in promoting a 2007 proposal to allow illegal immigrants to return briefly to their country of origin, “touchback” there, and then receive expedited approval for re-entry back into the U.S. Is this heartless? It was endorsed at the time by The New York Times.
President Bush was especially compassionate with spending. Mr. Gerson does not mention it in his list, but Mr. Bush added a whole new entitlement program for prescription drugs when entitlements were already exploding national debt. While the new Medicare part D turned out to be less expensive than he thought when Mr. Bush signed the bill, it ended up to be much more expensive than Obamacare. Its unfunded liability is now estimated at an incredible $9.4 trillion. Mr. Bush also presided over doubling Federal Reserve debt trillions, well above any previous bank balance levels.
Well, isn’t more debt compassionate conservatism? Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan estimates that such debt is the major cause of all the present gloom about future wealth and jobs that is so upsetting Americans today. After extensive data analysis of bank data, he found that entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps are crowding out savings for the future investment needed for prosperity. Since 1965, while entitlements have increased from five percent to fifteen percent of the economy, savings have dropped from twenty-five percent of the economy to eighteen percent, explaining why the economy continues to stagnate.
Not all Bush appointee reformers are so defensive. Indeed, in his recent book, The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin diagnoses America’s ills today as an overwrought “nostalgia” for the past by all political persuasions. The Right is melancholy for the 1950s, or against the New Deal, or for Reagan; or presumably for some, Bush. The Left is a bit more progressive with its nostalgia rooted in the countercultural 1960s. Conservatives look back to William F. Buckley Jr, Tom Wolfe, and Ronald Reagan. The Left looks back to John Dewey, Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, Benjamin Spock, Herbert Marcuse, Allen Ginsberg, and Hillary Clinton.
Time has passed all by, Dr. Levin argues. America has moved from conformity to either Right or Left consensus to rampant diversity; that is, people today do not agree upon any vision. The U.S. has shifted from conservative cultural agreement on marriage, sexuality, religion, and patriotism and from progressive agreement on Great Societies, one-size-fits-all policies, and trust in centralized government. Today, Americans are fractured over all these beliefs—a situation aggravated by an economic stagnation unable to achieve past levels of growth.
Dr. Levin targets radical individualism: “me” above all else—both in free markets and liberal lifestyles, as the problem, especially its effects on the more vulnerable lower classes. His solution is to have this diversity sort itself out into community enclaves and let each group follow its own proclivities. Forcing one national standard coerces and encourages resentment and conflict. It is now necessary to tolerate “a variety of outlooks” and settle disputes at the lowest social level possible, beginning in families, and extending to communities, to secular and religious voluntary associations, to states and, for a few necessary functions, to the nation—a principle of subsidiarity.
A truly vital nation needs “human sized” institutions of various forms to “help the whole see the good” and then build up to some truly agreed-upon national solidarity on a limited number of matters to play its proper “supporting role” rather than forcing a single vision. Decentralization can draw people together into a virtuous rather than a manipulated freedom from some center of wisdom. In fact, Dr. Levin concludes, national public policy cannot do much to form a true local community, but it can do less harm to their development and leave room for them to solve local problems through face-to-face interactions that are more likely to lead to compromise.
It will obviously be very difficult to move in the direction set by Dr. Levin. Formulating one national solution and forcing it on the other half has been the easier solution for both Left and Right for too long; indeed, for the Left it is the essence of the administrative state ideal that has infused progressivism from the New Deal through to Obamacare. Some on the Right, like Shelby Steele, welcome “Mr. Trump’s special charisma,” which undermines the Left’s proclaimed moral superiority—a superiority that is based upon its wars on poverty, affirmative action, and political correctness, all of which have actually harmed their supposed beneficiaries but which have allowed the Left to sustain its dominance of power. The precipitous decline in trust for national government has awakened some progressives, and a few years of President Trump might even teach progressives the value of decentralization.
It will likewise be difficult for conservatives, especially those like Mr. Gerson still yearning for the “bold use” of national government “idealism and eager purity” that motivated the Bush Administration. Some nostalgia may be inevitable for conservatism, but the Bush centralization continued by Barack Obama has crashed in failure economically, and politically under Donald Trump, and provides no way forward.
Reagan understood the central issue for modern times. As early as 1964, he called the “power of centralized government” the “very thing the Founding fathers sought to minimize” and derided the idea that “an intellectual in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Early in his tenure, he said that decentralized federalism “was the secret” to America’s past success. He told conservatives that the way forward was to reduce Washington spending, not primarily to save money but to turn power back to the states and the people.
If one needs further help coping, Dr. Levin is the right modern clinician.
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