The Death Throes of Conservatism

Glenn Greenwald has written a lengthy review of my book. I'm grateful for it and share his amazement that Rich Lowry can actually say the following with a straight face:

In recent years, we have watched a Republican Congress disgrace itself with its association with scandal, with its willful lack of fiscal discipline, and with its utter disinterest [sic] in the reforms that America needs. And at the same time, we watched a Republican President abet or passively accept the excesses of his Congressional party and, more importantly, fail to take the steps - until perhaps now - fail to take the steps to win a major foreign war ...

So we need to figure out a way how to make conservative policy and principles appealing and relevant again to the American public, and we need to do it together.

What you mean "we"? Doubtless, Lowry will be able to scour his own writings and magazine to find some evidence of his Tcscover_39 own token opposition to Bush's attack on conservatism and mismanagement of a vital war over the past four years. But the record is also clear that Lowry never faltered in backing this president and the current Republican party whenever it mattered -  long after the grotesque abuse of conservatism had became obvious, and long after the shambolic war-management was exposed.

Greenwald also wants to argue, however, that my own version of "conservatism" has never existed in America, and has no relationship to the conservative movement in reality. Money quote:

Sullivan's principal argument that the Bush presidency never adhered to conservative principles is true enough, but the same can be said of the entire American conservative political movement. That is why they bred and elevated George Bush for six years, and suddenly "realized" that he was "not a conservative" only once political expediency required it.

Greenwald points to Reagan's deficit spending, his courting of the Christianist right, the law-breaking of Iran-Contra as fore-runners of Bush "conservatism." Money quote:

The pornography-obsessed Ed Meese and the utter lawlessness of the Iran-contra scandal were merely the Reagan precursors to the Bush excesses which Sullivan finds so "anti-conservative." The Bush presidency is an extension, an outgrowth, of the roots of political conservatism in this country, not a betrayal of them.

Greenwald has a point, but it is by no means a slam-dunk. His strongest arguments are on Iran-Contra and the deficit. I remember Iran-Contra well, because I was a young geek at TNR and witnessed the fervent debates in the magazine at the time. My view was that the Iran-Contra deal was wrong, illegal Bushesalbertopozzoligetty_2 and stupid (and wrote editorials on those lines). I was pro-contra, but not in favor of illegal executive shenanigans to fund them. Yes, some conservatives were far too comfortable with executive law-breaking back then. But many weren't. And to reduce Reagan's Cold War coup de grace to the Iran-Contra affair is to miss the point. The defeat and peaceful implosion of the Soviet union remains an achievement - fusing the passion of Reagan with the prudence of the first Bush - that conservatives remain rightly proud of.

On Reagan's deficits, the bulk of it was due to ramped up defense spending - spending that, after the suddent defeat of the Soviets, helped pay for itself in the 1990s. Still, I differed even then, and was more of a Thatcherite, believing in fiscal rectitude as the mark of responsible government. There were many conservatives in that position. The first Bush did a great deal to shore up that legacy, and Gingrich-Clinton helped it along in the mid-1990s. None of this compares to the staggering increase in both defense-related and non-defense discretionary spending under Bush and the Congress in Bush's presidency. Reagan opposed Medicare, period. Bush put it on steroids. Can you imagine Reagan saying, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move?" Can you imagine him federalizing education policy and increasing education spending by over 100 percent in four years? Can you imagine him signing a transportation bill with over 6,000 earmarks in it? Inconceivable.

Reagan did play to the religious right. But it was a minor variation in a larger piece of music. The man won 49 states, red, blue and everything in between. California was in his column twice. He never abandoned the libertarian aspects of the conservative coalition; and his appeal to evangelicals was largely about resisting the tide of judicial over-reach, and reassuring them that they too would be "left alone." The notion of constructing a Republican party on the foundation of Dixie and appealing on explicitly religious grounds as a "born-again" president was not Reagan's cup of tea. It was more Carter than Reagan, in fact - which is why it is unsurprising that a key Bush intellectual, Michael Gerson, was once a fervent Carter supporter.

It may be that my idealized form of conservatism - small government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, strong defense - is not to be found in pristine condition in Rovemandelnganafpgetty_3 history. I concede that upfront in the book. It may be that my Thatcherite lineage and English origins made me miss some important and darker aspects of American conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s. But it may also be that conservatism was a victim of its own success - and subsequently went on an avoidable over-reach that many conservatives are only now regretting.

Conservatism, in other words, could have gone in many directions in the new century. That it embraced bigger and bigger government, massive entitlement growth, indefinite infringement of habeas corpus, legalization of torture, massive long-term debt, federal trampling of states' rights, pork-barrel corruption and half-assed, half-baked war-making was not inevitable, and not indistinguishable from other, far more coherent paths in the conservative past.

Bush and his allies made a choice to betray conservatism. And they have come to regret it sooner than they might have thought.

(Photos: Getty Agency.)