One-Trick Party 

Why the American Right can’t move on

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
Photo: AP/Wide World

It would be nice to think that it’s finally over — that with last week’s verdict, the Republicans will finally stand down in their war against Bill Clinton. After all, it’s not as if the yearlong jihad of Ken Starr, and then the House managers, ever altered public opinion: The Los Angeles Times post-acquittal poll showed 65 percent approval of the verdict and 30 percent disapproval, precisely the same figures on the Clinton Question that we’ve seen since the case first broke. After all, the ratings of the House Republicans plummeted after they pushed through a partisan impeachment, and those of their Senate counterparts took a dive after they voted to depose witnesses. No party ever had more reason to change the subject than the Republicans do today.

But I bet they won’t. Or, rather, I bet they can’t.

To be sure, those Republicans concerned about winning elections want nothing to do with it. The party’s presidential front-runners, Texas Governor George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, managed to navigate through the season of the trial with barely so much as a comment (a remarkable achievement at a time when the media focused on nothing else). But not all Republicans are concerned about winning elections, and even among those who are, there are some — Bush’s and Dole’s underdog rivals, for instance — who are likely to question the front-runners’ credentials precisely because they stayed so mute.

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GOP presidential candidates Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle say they will run on traditional values, on "character." (You thought maybe Quayle was running on intellect?) They must mobilize the Republican Right against their squishy-centrist rivals, and how better to do that than to take those rivals to task for their silence at a time when real Republicans stood up for morality, whatever the consequences? "A serious Republican contender for the presidency not talking about this issue [i.e., impeachment] is impossible," Jonathan Baron, Quayle’s communications director, told the L.A. Times. "This is a defining issue. This is an enormous issue for the Republican Party."

And that’s just the presidential hopefuls. When we turn to the other quadrants of American conservatism, the debate on "Who Lost Impeachment?" has already begun. Writing on The Wall Street Journal editorial page, former Reagan wordsmith Peggy Noonan contrasted the House managers’ valor to the moral relativism of the Republican senators, who "did not seem to approach their work in a way that betrayed moral engagement." The meaning of the acquittal, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol somewhat more circumspectly noted, "has got to be debated over the next two years." And for William Bennett, probably American conservatism’s leading public intellectual, that meaning is abundantly clear: The American people at the end of the century lack the moral standards that guided their forebears. The public’s support for Clinton’s acquittal, Bennett said last week, was "an ignoble moment for a great people."

Indeed, the clearest index of the current crisis of American conservatism may be the fact that Bennett — a writer on our culture wars, a critic of secular humanism, an apostle of neo-Puritanism — is its leading public intellectual. Conservatism’s leading intellectuals used to be such thinkers as economist Milton Friedman, who extolled the virtues of the market, or Whittaker Chambers, who inveighed against communism, or William Buckley Jr., who covered the waterfront of conservative crusades. Today, intellectual conservatism is identified chiefly with culture warriors such as Bennett or Robert Bork or David Horowitz, all refighting the ’60s, while popular conservatism is identified above all with the Christian Right.

Which explains a great deal about why the Republicans pursued impeachment to its bitter end: Going after Bill Clinton for his sins of the flesh, and his transgressions of the law in order to cover up those sins, was a perfect and nearly complete expression of contemporary conservatism. Consider, after all, the litany of causes with which conser-vatives once defined themselves: There was anti-communism, the glue that united the 20th-century Right. There was the deficit, a permanent fixture of the economic landscape, which permanently had to be scaled down. There was the constant clamor to reduce taxes, and a corollary clamor to deregulate business. There was government itself, crying out to be reduced in size. There was welfare, which redistributed the tax dollars of working people to the shiftless. There was the need for a more punitive approach to crime — longer sentences, more prisons, more executions. And finally, there was the imperative to reassert traditional moral codes, and the family structures that nurtured them.

Just to look at this list is to understand why conservatism at the end of the century has so little to say. For politicos who defined themselves as both defense hawks and deficit hawks, the elimination of the Soviet Union and the deficit has proved profoundly disorienting. Just as confounding has been Bill Clinton’s re-centering of the Democratic Party: Now the Democrats are the party of cops on the beat (and the Republicans the party of gun nuts). Now the Dem-ocrats have jettisoned welfare and defend only those government programs that have rock-solid support, like Social Security, Medicare and schools. Now the Democrats have deregulated business as though they were Republicans. And where there are still pockets of Democratic resistance to such causes as free trade, the public is clearly on those Democrats’ side.

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