Season of Conservative Sloth

What could be more appropriate than the man who most contributed to the rise of modern American conservatism to proclaim it attenuated—and upon his 80th birthday at that? It was William F. Buckley, Jr., of course, classy as always. He truly was the founder of our movement and we honor him for it.

Age has not dulled his wit, his civility or his equal readiness to tell the truth even if it hurts. “I think conservatism has become a little bit slothful. In the absence of [its earlier] challenges, there were attenuations…[that] at this point haven’t been resolved very persuasively,” opined Buckley about the state of the movement today. When prodded further by Wall Street Journal assistant editor Joseph Rago whether the conservative movement will undergo a revival as it did earlier under his leadership, he replied “I don’t think there is any way to avoid it.”

His pessimism about the present state of the movement he founded (but not its eventual revival) extended to what he agreed was his “greatest accomplishment,” the founding of National Review magazine in 1955. He modestly only took credit for harmonizing its content—“I brokered it”—among “an extraordinary mix” of contributors in an “open laboratory of unhampered thought” that produced modern conservatism as the by-product of publishing a magazine. As the editor noted: “At its finest, National Review seethed with controversy and creative energies, its pages largely given over to analyses of competing philosophies and politics, balanced by critical introspection.”

No one could accuse National Review of seething with controversy today. For a man so dedicated to the correct word, slothful fits perfectly, and for the rest of us too. For “conservatism,” said Buckley, “except when it is expressed as pure idealism, takes into account reality.” While his magazine today praises President George W. Bush as the conservative icon, Mr. Buckley bluntly says “Bush is conservative but he is not a conservative,” a profound difference. In reality, he was not elected “as a vessel of the conservative faith” and while the president leans right he does not do so consistently. What else could the man whose most philosophical book was titled “Up From Liberalism” say about the president who presided over the largest expansion of welfare state government and entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty? Yes, Bush has been mostly socially conservative and he did try to reform Social Security; but he also nominated Harriet Miers and his Medicare prescription drug benefit alone added an unfunded liability 50 percent greater than that of the entire bankrupting seniors-retirement program.

Domestic discretionary spending increased under President Bush by double that under Bill Clinton, which made him not conservative but the biggest domestic spender of modern times. While inflation rose by only 12 percent during his term, government administration increased by 32 percent, welfare by 39 percent, health by 42 percent, community development by 71 percent, housing and commerce by 86 percent and education—which Ronald Reagan tried to abolish in his first term--by an incredible 99 percent! The bloated 2005 highway bill cost $295 billion, an increase of 35 percent over the previous bill, with 6,371 special interest “earmarks,” while President Reagan vetoed one in 1987 for having only 152 earmarks. By contrast, President Bush has not vetoed a single spending bill in five years. He even signed a campaign finance act he said was unconstitutional, hoping the Supreme Court would perform his conservative Constitutional obligation for him, which as luck would have it, did not.

The closest National Review magazine comes today to passion is its support for the war in Iraq and in what it calls Bush’s “twilight struggle” against terrorism. In an editorial just last month, the editors reviewed the realist foreign policy views of former national security chief under President George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft. The former general expressed his reservations regarding the possibility of democracy in the Middle East by saying “The bad guys are always better organized.” He called Lebanon’s recent so-called democratic revival “something we have to worry about.” And he concluded “I’m a realist in the sense that I’m a cynic about human nature.”

The current editors concluded their analysis by asking: “Snowcroft wants us to be hopeless and insecure. Any takers?” Note that the issue for them is not whether he is correct but who wants to feel hopeless and insecure—putting feelings before truth or reality, which were not considered at all in their analysis. This is a radical turning from Mr. Buckley’s thinking about human nature, realism and conservatism. Indeed, in the interview, Buckley declared the war on terrorism “detached from national dimensions” and requiring new ideas.

More important, Buckley declared the war in Iraq is “anything but conservative. The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous.” He was careful to add: “This isn’t to say that the [Iraq] war is wrong, or that history will judge it to be wrong. But it is absolutely to say that conservatism implies a certain submission to reality; and this war has an unrealistic frank and is being conscripted by events.”

The point is not to disparage President Bush or even the war in Iraq. It is to say that conservatism has indeed been attenuated during the Bush presidencies and conservatives must face up to that reality if Buckley is to be proven correct that it can be reinvigorated for the future. Any reform must start with a realistic rather than slothful view of the current season. A revival requires turning one's back on the attenuation of recent years and getting back to basics as did William Buckley in the 1950s. Since it might just take as long to re-create it as it did at the beginning, we might as well begin now, as our number one resolution for the approaching new year.

Donald Devine. Editor.


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