Not doing the right thing

Conservatism needs a rescue, says ex-lawmaker

Buckley (left) and Reagan, exemplars of an earlier breed of conservatives. Buckley (left) and Reagan, exemplars of an earlier breed of conservatives. (Associated Press/lou krasky)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By James A. Peyser
April 6, 2008

Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great
American Political Movement Got Lost
- and How It Can Find Its Way Back

By Mickey Edwards
Oxford University, 230 pp., $21.95

Conservatives are having a midlife crisis.

The modern conservative movement in America began to emerge alongside the baby boomers in the early 1950s, with the publication of William Buckley's "God and Man at Yale," Whittaker Chambers's "Witness," Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind," and the founding of The National Review (again by Buckley). Barely a decade later, the conservative upstarts shocked the aging GOP Brahmins by winning the 1964 Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater. Goldwater's crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson slowed the rising conservative tide but did not stop it. Out of the ashes of the failed Goldwater campaign rose a new standard-bearer by the name of Ronald Reagan. Although it took four election cycles to get his name atop the GOP ticket, eventually Reagan captured the party and the country for the conservative cause.

The movement is now well into middle age, having been in power for more than 25 years. As they have grown and governed, conservatives have drifted away from some of their bedrock principles and alienated some ardent acolytes. Among the disaffected is Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, who has written "Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost - and How It Can Find Its Way Back." Edwards teaches at Princeton and is a vice president of the Aspen Institute, following more than a decade as a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Edwards believes that true conservatives - like the ones who rallied behind Goldwater - have been crowded out by an ever more heterodox collection of castoffs from the Democratic Party, who once supported the likes of Governor George Wallace and Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Specifically, Edwards writes that neoconservatives and the religious right have wrecked the conservative movement by driving it away from its core beliefs in individual liberty and divided government, in favor of an activist, mostly sectarian, social agenda, and an imperial presidency bent on global adventurism.

The greatest villains in Edwards's story are George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich. According to Edwards, Gingrich destroyed the bipartisan collegiality of Congress by ruthlessly pressing GOP colleagues to toe the line in his all-against-all war to win a Republican majority. When Bush took office, this heightened sense of party loyalty meant that the Republican-controlled legislature was now a handmaiden to the executive. After 9/11, Bush took advantage of a supine Congress to seize unprecedented, and to Edwards's mind, unconstitutional powers - to disastrous effect, most notably in Iraq.

To "reclaim" conservatism, Edwards wants first to restore the primacy of the Constitution, and its emphasis on individual freedom and limited government based on three autonomous and equal branches. Second, he argues for prudence and incrementalism in all things, from fiscal policy to foreign affairs. And finally, Edwards calls for cleansing the conservative movement of all religious (especially fundamentalist Christian) influences.

Applying this three-point plan leads Mickey Edwards to take policy positions that John Edwards would love. He inveighs against the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. He stands behind federally protected abortion rights and the right of states to sanction gay marriage. He's wary of NAFTA and the influence of big business. And he's against the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Reclaiming Conservatism" is an angry cri de coeur from the libertarian wing of the conservative coalition, and its critique of the Bush administration's many unconservative actions is often dead on - if occasionally overheated. The book's greatest flaw is its exaggerated claim that the wellspring of the American conservative movement is Goldwater and his distinctively Western brand of rugged individualism. As Edwards acknowledges, modern conservatism was already taking shape before Goldwater became a national political figure, and its intellectual sources stretch much deeper into history. Writers like Buckley, Kirk, and Chambers drew their inspiration from Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman and political philosopher who valued both liberty and order, and who famously defended social traditions and longstanding civic institutions as bulwarks of a stable and just society. Limited government and individual liberty were central to this worldview, but they were by no means dominant - even after Goldwater arrived on the scene. As a result, there has always been conflict among conservatives between those most concerned with freedom and those most concerned with order and cultural stewardship. By and large this has been a healthy tension that has served conservatives well.

Instead of expelling the neoconservative and religious-right interlopers, as Edwards seems to want, conservatives should focus on redefining their movement to mend the growing internal breach and establish a firmer basis for effective governing, post-Bush. Taking the Constitution seriously is step one, and Edwards deserves great credit for putting this document at the center of his plan. But the Constitution is primarily about how government should be run, not what it should do. It is not enough for conservatives to say that government should do nothing or act cautiously. In the face of consistent pressure from the left to expand the scope of government to suit its purposes, such an approach would lead at best to an inexorable, albeit gradual, retreat.

James A. Peyser is a partner with NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit that supports educational entrepreneurs nationally. He is a former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

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