Archive for Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Conservative philosophy takes a turn

March 2, 2005


President Bush's inaugural address wasn't the only important speech given in Washington this winter. The other one, delivered by Karl Rove at this month's annual Conservative Political Action Committee convention, drew scant attention -- but may be of equal significance.

Rove has long thought of himself as a political philosopher as much as a political consultant. And in his remarks the other day, the new White House chief of staff for policy argued that the new conservatism was a broad movement and not, like the conservatism of old, a narrow opposition to the prevailing liberalism of the time; forward-looking and not, like the conservatism of old, reactionary.

This tells us many vital things, among them: Today's conservatism thinks of itself as a creed of and for the common man, not as the creed merely of uncommon common sense. It thinks of itself as being on the offensive, not on the defensive. Today's conservatism operates as a mass movement of doers, not as an elite slice of thinkers. Most of all, the second movement of the conservative movement no longer defines itself as the reverse of liberalism.

Liberals thrown off balance

Indeed, liberalism's crisis today is that it is in the awkward and completely unfamiliar position of defining itself as the opposition of this new conservatism: against President Bush's muscular foreign policy of pre-emption, against the president's determination to make his tax cuts permanent, against the White House's drive to create private investment accounts as a part of, and perhaps ultimately to replace, Social Security.

The new world order isn't like the old conservatism of Robert A. Taft, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. They were men who, despite their high elective office, thought of themselves at the periphery of politics, struggling for the chance to prove that they could be mainstream. Of them, only Reagan prevailed, and when he left Washington in 1989 he was not fully sure that he had won more than a battle, not quite the war. George W. Bush will feel no such hesitation in 2009, or so he and Rove believe.

Why is this important? Because it affects not merely the content of conservatism but also the conduct of conservatives. Because it provides hints of the nature of politics that the new conservatives will prosecute. And because it adumbrates the style of politics that will be practiced in the nation in the Bush years.

When conservatives believe, as Rove put it in his speech, that "conservatism is the dominant political creed in America," they are likely to feel as liberals did in the 1960s and 1970s: that they are on the right side of history and that their opponents are hopelessly in the thrall of a discredited ideology. This is why Democrats are so dispirited in the capital today, and why so many of them do have such a deep sense of hopelessness. In American politics, only one ideology can be confident at once.

Confident conservatives?

But for all this conservative confidence, not all conservatives are confident. This apparent contradiction grows out of what may be contradictions within the conservative movement itself. Think of it as the flaring of the subconscious of conservatism. For the old conservatives aren't so sure -- of lots of things.

They're not so sure, to start, that conservatism truly has prevailed. Like Sen. John F. Kerry, who argues from a different vantage point and a different motivation, they say that a switch of a few tens of thousands of votes in Taft's old state of Ohio would have transformed this confident crowd of conservatives into hand-wringers, full of second thoughts about Bush, the war in Iraq and big-time deficits.

They're not so sure that Bush, for all his talk of conservatism, has the temperament of a conservative. In Iraq, on taxes, on Social Security, the president seems to them to be more a risk-taker, a high-roller, than a conservative. Some of his colleagues on the right aren't sure, moreover, that the president is in the right. They're especially troubled about the Social Security gambit; conservatives, after all, are supposed to like social stability, not social upheaval, and the prospect of unhappy poor and older people is unsettling to a creed that finds comfort in social contentment.

But it isn't only the instability, which the new conservatives seem to court so assiduously, that troubles conservatives of yore. Rove's vision of conservatism as a forward-looking creed may be great rhetoric, but, in truth, conservatism has been rooted in the past, sometimes, as in the time of Edmund Burke, even as a struggle against modernity, and it has said so not with reluctance but with pride.

The old conservatives, after all, looked to the past, not only for precedents but also because it provided lessons in human behavior and social organization. They were drenched in respect for the culture and were determined not to disrupt it. They were careful, respectful, formal, above all aware of the difficulty of life and political strife.

The new conservatives don't possess these sensibilities. Look at the differences: The new conservatives think all things are possible. The old conservatives think all things are difficult. The new conservatives plunge ahead. The old conservatives act with prudence. These are different beings altogether.

New conservatives in control

Right now the new conservatives are on the ascendancy, and the new conservatism is in control -- in the White House, in the House, in the Senate. They are, as Rove posits, a broad movement, self-assured, optimistic.

This is a new posture and profile for conservatism, unlike that of anything Americans witnessed in the last century, when the conservatism of Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan was apologetic rather than apostolic.

If nothing else, these new conservatives, heirs to an ideology that believed political truths were rooted in the old verities, are themselves living a radical departure from their own creed. They, unlike any conservatives before them, believe there is something new under the sun.

-- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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