Dead Right: The Fall of the Conservatism of Hope and the Rise of the Conservatism of Fear.
Sigh. A dozen years after the moon landing, Ronald Reagan came to power, and conservatives had their big chance. But we blew it. That could have served as the subtitle to David Frum's excellent book, Dead Right, but the one he put on it will do: "The Fall of the Conservatism of Hope and the Rise of the Conservatism of Fear."
This is a brilliantly argued, wonderfully readable and into the bargain a rather witty book. And it is, by gum, an important book, a 205-page reality check on the future of Republican politics. Republicans, and the conservatives who court them, have been in denial ever since David Stockman started warning about the deficits. The result is an ideological Yugoslavia, with Pat Buchanan leading the Croats and Ollie North at the head of the Serbs. At the rate it's going, Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour ought to consider siting the '96 convention in Sarajevo.
How - oh, how? - did we get ourselves into this mess? Frum provides the answer on page 204, but since this isn't a John Grisham novel, I'm going to give away the ending. It won't ruin your enjoyment; Frum is so good he manages to make wonk reading exhilarating, almost page-turning. The answer is that "we [the conservatives] adapted to them [the American people]."
If this sounds appallingly elitist, let us now proceed backwards to page one to see how Frum arrived at his conclusion.
Reagan came into office promising, among other things, to balance the budget. And here we are with these deficits the size of the budgets of some countries. As then-Vice President Bush's speechwriter (1981 to 1983), I wrote a lot of gargle about how we could absorb these, uh, revenue shortfalls - or whatever camouflage grease I was applying to the d-word in those days - but my fingers always felt a little dirty after lifting off the typewriter. In private, I would go in search of conservative wise men and ask, in a hushed voice, Why are we doing this? Do not worry, I was told, by people whom I had heard extolling the virtues of government thrift for decades: The deficits aren't that bad, relative to GNP. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Back I went to the typewriter to inveigh against Walter Mondale, and yet I had that... un-fresh feeling. Something seemed to me to remain profoundly, tectonically wrong.
And something was wrong. "For a brief and wonderful moment," writes Frum, "supply-side economics held out the hope of limiting government in a way that offended nobody. Alas, that part of the supply-side vision was quickly falsified by events." Faced with these overwhelming, theory-refuting (or, pace Bush, voodoo-confirming) numbers, Reagan stared into the eyes of the beast and flinched. We would grow out of the deficits, he said in that way of his, if he addressed the d-thing at all, and then would motorcade off to give another speech about the magic of the marketplace, the Evil Empire, and those awful Colombian drug barons.
Well, the ineluctable truth of the matter is that Reagan failed to do the dirty, rotten, lousy work of conservatism. He failed to cut spending, failed to brake the growth of government, failed to tell the truth: We're spending too much on Social Security, Medicare, entitlements, UDAG, the whole schmear. Why didn't he? Maybe he was smarter than the conservatives who voted for him, at least in this sense: Maybe he understood that for all his rhetoric, Americans basically like big government, Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits, farm and mohair subsidies, all the oinky meat at the bottom of the barrel. But if that's so, was he lying to us about cutting spending and shrinking Uncle Sam?
Frum's book is an unsettling litany of promises broken and unkept. "Despite all the caterwauling about Reagan's supposedly savage budget cuts in 1981, not one major spending program was abolished during the Reagan presidency." He only did away with one spending program, CETA; and that was immediately replaced with the Jobs Training Partnership Act, sponsored by one Senator Dan Quayle (co-sponsored by Teddy Kennedy). Honestly, it's enough to make you weep.
It gets worse. Reagan's 1983 Social Security tax nullified the much ballyhooed 1981 Kemp-Roth Roth tax cut; indeed, families at the median income level actually had their taxes rise between 1981 and 1984.
Defenders of Reagan like to blame it all on Bush's politically disastrous) 1990 tax increase. But as Frum points out, more than half the (Kemp-Roth) tax cut was lost between 1985 and 1989. Moreover, "If it's not honest to blame the loss of the tax cut on George Bush, it's even worse to blame the chronic overspending that made the tax cut unsustainable on a profligate liberal Democratic Congress. Of course liberals and Democrats are profligate. That's why God makes conservatives and Republicans - to stop Democrats from spending the nation into bankruptcy. But, through the 1980s, the conservatives failed to do their job."
All this sad, bottom-line arithmetic has left conservatives literally speechless. Conservatism is at its most eloquent when, as an early National Review editorial nicely put it, it stands athwart history yelling "Stop!" By the end of the eighties, the Evil Empire lay in ruins (for which Reagan and conservatives can justifiably pat themselves on the back; the commies sure didn't surrender to Anthony Lewis), so the problem became, What are we going to be against now?
Reckless government spending? Uh... what else you got?
Medicare? Er... well, as a result of Reaganera policies, the cost of Medicare rose by an average of nearly 12 percent a year between 1980 and 1993, swallowing more than I I percent of all federal revenues. Medicare, more than any other program, unbalanced Reagan's budgets; worse, it drove up all medical costs, causing employers to tighten up on benefits, which in turn deepened voter anxiety. "If Reagan had understood a little more clearly the full implications of conservatism's can't-get-something-for-nothing wisdom," Frum writes, "Bush might still be pitching horseshoes on the White House lawn."
What about economic risk-aversiveness? Can we be against that?
Reality check! Reagan's sunny ideology in favor of the independent businessman as salt-of-the-earth eventually led to reckless deposit insurance and savings and loan policies that, in the first instance, turned everyone - including certain prominent Democratic congressmen - into "loan whores," and in the second, effectively nationalized 40 percent of the mortgages of American home buyers. The result of these cockamamie policies was Treasury banging a tin cup against the gate on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the webbing of vast new security nets underneath - businessmen! That muffled shriek you hear is Calvin Coolidge groaning in his grave. How ironic that as Reagan so effectively warred against communism abroad, he was enabling economic socialism at home.
Battle Hymn of the Republicans
Don't misunderstand Frum. There's still plenty to hate about you dreadful liberals. Your brilliant welfare policies have more or less destroyed the black family, with illegitimacy rates now approaching 70 percent; and nice going there with affirmative action, which has polarized things to a fare-thee-well, enabling racism on both sides, as well as costing the economy, by one estimate, four GNP points per year. Your obsession with multiculturalism has helped to make American universities a laughingstock, and their graduates illiterate. I could go on. Point is, you can wipe that smug smile off your Chardonnay-stained chins. But to return to the self-flagellation in progress, we had the chance to stop you, and we didn't. So what are we left with, issue-wise?
At this point, Frum's book moves into three chapters that ought to be required reading for anyone who thinks that the future of conservatism lies in the hands of Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, or Pat Buchanan. Frum calls these three and their camps, respectively, the Optimists, Moralists, and Nationalists.
It's tempting, after digesting Frum's fine examination of Kemp, Bennett, and Buchanan, to call them "Hear No Evil," "Speak Against Evil," and "Evil," but that runs the risk of (slightly) misrepresenting Frum, and I don't want to let my prejudices get in the way of his more precise eviscerations. Suffice it to say that if the future of my party lies with these three, then make mine vanilla. Kemp's disposition is as sunny as that of his former marionette, Reagan. (Recall that supply-side was Kemp's, not Reagan's.) He is therefore Reagan's natural successor, which, given the record, ought by itself to set off the sprinklers. The irony - boy, does this book teem with irony - is that Kemp proved himself all too able a Reagan man. That is to say, he talked right, and spent left. Reagan was going to abolish the Departments of Education and Energy. Kemp, mad in pursuit of fuzzy, half-baked Great Society Phase 11 notions of making welfare mothers into Republicans by giving them deed and title to their rat-infested public housing hovels, swelled HUD's budgets by 50 percent in four years. And is anyone out there in the inner city better off than they were four years earlier? Hello? Hello? For that matter, does anyone still believe Kemp's smooth asseverations that we can grow our way out of underclass illegitimacy with economic expansion rates of 4-5-6 percent? George Will doesn't. In the end, Frum observes, Kemp "seems fated to be the James G. Blaine of the twentieth century: the plumed knight of the Republican Party who somehow never quite makes the historical cut. He is the end of something rather than the beginning of something."
Of the man who began the eighties as an obscure college professor and can now charge $25,000 per speech, Frum wittily observes that, "It is hard to decide whether Secretary [Bill] Bennett was among the most or the least successful of President Reagan's cabinet appointees." His ideas about conservative educational standards have now become part of the national dialogue, and you gotta love someone who gives the National Education Association such a hard time, but "few cabinet secretaries can have made as little personal difference to the daily operation of their bureaucracy. Even Bennett's admirers concede, as the Heritage Foundation did in 1989, that |Bennett accomplished little to make reforms part of the legislative framework.'"
Why was this so? Because - emerging theme here - he was too busy making speeches to pay attention to the nitty-gritty dirty work of government. And as Frum rightly points out, "a speech about the family is not the same as cutting off the subsidies that promote the disintegration of families."
We come now to Pat Buchanan, the third in this tricky troika. As anyone knows who went running for the medicine cabinet and the Prozac during Buchanan's bile-and-brimstone 1992 Republican convention speech, Buchanan is the front man for the Conservatism of Fear. Here we have the paranoid style in conservative politics, with a large scoop of anti-Semitism. Frum draws a straight line from the pre-World War II America First movement to Buchanan's isolationism (except in the case of the formerly Hitlerite Croats, whom, go figure, he would like U.S. troops to aid), with Israel now playing the manipulative, warmongering role that Britain once played.
All this we already knew. What is surprising, and even amusing, in a pathetic sort of way, is what a liberal Buchanan turned out to be the first time he ventured beyond the Beltway he professes to so despise in search of actual, grubby votes. As a presidential candidate in New Hampshire, attacking President Bush's spendthrift policies, Buchanan could bring himself to name only three specific budget cuts he would make as (shudder) president: half of the congressional pay raise ($6 million); eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts ($165 million); and ending foreign aid ($13 billion). The total U.S. budget that year was $1.5 trillion, "an amount equal to the entire gross domestic product of united Germany. From that vast ocean of money, fed by roaring rivers of unnecessary and destructive spending, greasy with floating blobs of waste, Buchanan could bring himself to blot up rather less than I percent." Well, bear in mind, the man did train under Nixon.
Stumping awkwardly at a New Hampshire factory, Buchanan endorsed protecting American lumber workers against. . . Canada. "Protectionism," Frum writes, "is a way for conservatives to show solidarity with the fellow-Americans, especially blue-collar fellow-Americans, without explicitly endorsing the redistribution of wealth."
As for Buchanan's more pungent views on homos and the dusky hordes, Frum views those in the following, interesting context: "Nationalist conservatism simply imports left-wing identity politics into a new context. If the rights of blacks, gays and Hispanics were to be asserted, why not those of middle-aged Irish Catholics or white Southerners?"
They have one thing in common, Kemp, Bennett, and Buchanan: In the final analysis, they're all talk. They all give great, red-meat speeches that bring the crowds to their feet - then it's off to the next one. Without detracting from their admitted oratorical skills, it's fair to say giving a speech is easy; it's the plumbing that's hard.
Where does this leave us? To fret about the religious right? While the menacing Christian hordes have struck terror into the hearts of Sidney Blumenthal and Anthony Lewis, Frum's chapter, "The Pseudo-Menace of the Religious Right," makes a good case for his conviction that we are safe, for the nonce, from Pat Robertson and his holy rollers. "There is no religious right," Frum ventures, "not, at least, as the term is commonly used." The non-conservative press is certainly doing its best to convince everyone that the Republican Party has been seized by body-snatching Baptists, but stop, take a deep breath, consider: If that is the case, why did Pat Robertson finish such a dismal fourth in 1988? The numbers, says Frum, simply do not add up to real electoral power:
While enormous numbers of Americans, upward of 50 million, describe themselves as |evangelical' or |born again,' those terms are so capacious as to be useless. The number of white Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and charismatics, who together form the potential political base of a religious right is not large: perhaps 15 million people spread out over some thirty states. There are twice as many black Americans.
But as long as we're on the subject, the Irreligious Left (I'm talking to you, People for The American Way) really ought, somewhere, sometime, to acknowledge that they created this notional Frankenstein in the first place:
For thirty-five years, beginning with the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning school prayer, through Jimmy Carter's campaign to deny tax-deductible status to religious schools whose enrollments did not match the racial composition of the surrounding area, and up to the National Endowment for the Arts' grants to artists who made blasphemous use of Christian themes, the political authorities have poked and insulted religious people in the name of one liberal cause or another. When the authorities encountered resistance - feeble and localized as it generally has been - liberal-minded people have found it all too easy to think, in the words of the old French proverb, "cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l'attaque, il se defende." ("What a wicked animal; when attacked, he defends himself.")
Finally, Frum discerns a nice conceit: "Spend any time listening to the sermons of Pentecostals and Baptists, and it strikes you that they think of God very much in the same way that Great Society liberals thought of government: a distant, benevolent agency that showers goodies upon all those who ask, without demanding anything very much in return - except for the occasional campaign contribution."
The larger problem, he says, is that the post-Reagan conservatives have thrown in the towel on the important issues (Social Security, welfare) and have gone after cultural issues. This is an abdication of the high ground. Welfare "reform" ought to have been on Reagan's agenda, not Bill Clinton's. (Which isn't to say he'll do any better, but good luck to him.) Conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich seem to believe that we're living in the end-game period of the welfare state, that it's going to self-destruct soon and that then will be the time to do something about it. Not good enough, says Frum; conservatives ought to be working on a plan now instead of stepping back from the plate. America is already so nervous that last time around 19 million of them voted for Ross Perot, whom Frum calls the most dangerous demagogue to emerge in the country since Huey Long.
But to act, as opposed to making speeches, takes courage, and from the record it is not at all clear that conservatives possess this quality. Of the failure of what he dammingly calls "the Reagan interlude," he says that "Conservatism was never supposed to be a sunny political ideology, or an easy sell. It was always a doctrine for the tough-minded. . . And as we have discovered the uncomfortable truth that [the security-demanding American people] are not with us, we have adapted to them."
So it wasn't such an elitist thought after all, was it?
The theme that runs through this rather urgent book is the same as the one actress Bette Davis had embroidered on a pillow in her house: "No Guts, No Glory."
There in a downy nutshell is the story of conservatism in the 1980s. In the end, Ronald Reagan did not have the courage of his convictions. You could say it on one of those T-shirts: MY DAD GOT A SECOND TERM AND ALL WE GOT WERE THESE LOUSY DEFICITS. We need to be honest with ourselves, says Frum, if we're to end the denial and present ourselves credibly in 1996.
Unfortunately, there is nothing in the records of front-runners Kemp, Bennett, or Buchanan to suggest that they are the men to do this. Sometimes, in my hopeful wakings at 3 a.m., I think to myself that what this country could really use is a man, or a woman, who, upon taking the oath of office as president of the United States, would then pledge in the inaugural speech that followed not to seek a second term. And then I go back to sleep.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1994|
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