The phenomenon of popular movements of protest succeeding and then being swallowed up by the Establishment is not a new story in American history, but the fate of “conservatism” in the last decade or so gives a remarkable case study. Not long ago, after ages of liberal dominance, conservatism seemed to be in the ascendancy both intellectually and at the grassroots level. Somewhere between the election of 1980 and now, a vast popular demand for reform was captured and emasculated by party politicians and literary spoilsmen, so that conservatism has ended up as nothing more than a vague rhetorical label for a very slightly modified form of Liberal Establishment.
These reflections are ignited by the sad fate of two erstwhile fighting conservatives, Jack Kemp and William Bennett. Both these gentlemen were youthful (as national politicians go), energetic, and articulate. Both have ended up in petty administrative posts in a “moderate” Republican administration—posts from which they cannot possibly draw any credit. In fact, I will bet a bound volume of, say, the last good year of National Review (1968) that they are politically dead.
That Kemp accepted the post of Secretary of HUD and Bennett that of “Drug Czar” speaks well for their honorable desire for public service. It speaks poorly indeed for their political judgment. In fact, only a very slight and healthy bit of paranoia would suggest that they have been deliberately tricked into corners where they could be finished off as rivals and critics of Bush. Can one detect the quick and dirty hands of Mr. Atwater and Mr. Baker at the bottom of this smooth and barely noticeable coup?
Maybe so or maybe not. We won’t know for a long time, maybe never. The media don’t notice intraparty dirty tricks (quite as common as the interparty ones) because they would take too much work to ferret out, and they are really only interested in dirty tricks against liberals. If neither Kemp nor Bennett can possibly emerge from the present posts except as weaker public figures than they were, then cui bono? The party operatives have disarmed youthful, energetic, articulate, and potentially troublesome figures, and we are left with the Vice-President, who is a handpicked man and who is, well, youthful. Not long ago there were half a dozen solid aspirants to the leadership of “conservatism” in the Republican Party. Now there are no conservatives at all, just Republicans.
It is a shame to see useful men destroyed by their own virtues. Both of them have accepted the major premises of the Liberal Establishment, which they have attacked only on marginal and instrumental questions. Both have been fairly popular with the media, which is a certain sign that they are not too serious a threat to the Establishment. But they had the virtue of standing for something.
Mr. Kemp seems an honorable man, no small accomplishment for someone who was a denizen of the House of Representatives for so long. His arm-waving invocations of 19th-century egalitarian mythology disgust conservatives, but they energized the Republican electorate, or at least three percent of them. (When a Kemp-for-President rally was held in my very conservative area, no one showed up except some fraternity boys looking for free beer, and two very rustic libertarians from the Pee Dee Swamp.)
The appropriate thing for Mr. Kemp to do was to go back to New York (or even his native Southern California, where earnest superficiality would be an asset) and run for senator or governor. He would have lost but gained credit. There must be some strange defect in judgment in a free marketeer who takes on a government boondoggle in the hopes of transforming it by the spirit of enterprise. (His assumption seems to be that the spirit of free enterprise can be created by government subsidy.) Surely every public figure in Washington on Kemp’s level knew the HUD scandals had to break soon. Completely guiltless of wrongdoing, his name will hereafter be indelibly associated with a scandal from which he cannot possibly gain any credit, especially after his naive and premature defense of his predecessor.
(Since HUD exists totally and entirely for the purpose of bribing contractors, white collar “experts,” local politicians, and the more clever and less scrupulous members of minority groups, how are we to distinguish the illegal graft that is supposed to have taken place from the legal graft that goes on as a matter of course?)
Mr. Bennett, for all his eloquence and wit, has fallen into the same trap. Does he or anyone really believe that the drug-taking portion of the American public can be educated into giving up their hobby with exhortations to “democratic values”? There are only two ways that drug-taking will be stopped: effective local enforcement against users, with swift, long, and certain prison terms; or the return of a very muscular form of Christianity to the hells of the streets. Neither of these things is going to happen. There is no way Mr. Bennett can win his war, and he will go down as a failure who met none of his promises.
In a sense both of these gentlemen deserve their fate, but it would have been much better if they had been overcome by superior ideas rather than by political operatives utterly devoid of idea and principle.