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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.
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.
As the Clinton presidency enters its final two years, the only remaining causes by which Republicans and the Right can define themselves are tax cuts and moral traditionalism. And tax cuts ain’t what they used to be: Precisely because tax dollars don’t go to welfare (few ever did, but it was the thought that counted), precisely because Clinton has counterposed a defense of popular entitlement programs to the Republicans’ tax-cut mania, and precisely because the economy is doing well and people don’t feel nearly as overtaxed as they did in the late ’70s, tax cuts rank low on the public’s list of priorities. In poll after poll, reducing taxes draws about half the support of such Democratic favorites as saving entitlements and funding education.
But tax cuts and moral renewal are the only conservative chess pieces that haven’t been altogether removed from the board. And of the two, it’s moral renewal that animates all the right-wing passions that used to be spread across a broader array of transcendent causes.
So, will the intellectuals and pols and foot soldiers of the Republican Right now turn away from the passions that fueled impeachment, from their crusade against Bill Clinton, from their long march against the ’60s? Of course not. They have nothing else to turn toward.
One measure of how hard it will be to redirect the Right is the Right’s own analysis of why the American people failed to support Clinton’s removal from office. In countless soundbites and articles, conservatives have concluded that the public stuck with Clinton because the economy was doing well and because the public’s judgment had been corrupted — or “demoralized,” to cite Bill Bennett’s dual-meaninged adjective.
Now there’s a considerable irony here. Bennett and Horowitz and other Right polemicists have long inveighed against the Left doctrine that says that “the personal is political,” that subjects language and personal conduct to a range of “politically correct” criteria. More often than not, their critique of the Left’s neo-Puritanism has resonated with vast segments of the public — characteristically, because the public is determined to draw a line between private and public conduct.
But the idea that the personal is political didn’t begin with feminists in 1970. If anything, it has a rather traditional, and authoritarian, pedigree. For the original Puritans, after all, the personal was both political and biblical. And what the conservatives ran up against in their war on Clinton was the same deeply held “relativism” — that is, an insistence on drawing a line between public and private spheres, a moral code that allows for life’s complexities — that leads the American people to reject the excesses of “P.C.-ism” on the other side of the spectrum. To millions of Americans, I suspect, the cultural stereotypes of, say, Rush Limbaugh’s “femi-nazis” on the left and the traditionalist cultural scold (say, Ken Starr) on the right have a good deal in common: Both seek to conform personal conduct to standards that the public views as too rigid for private life. Neither recognizes a private sphere where transgressions do not carry the weight of public crimes.
Which is to say, the cultural Right has become the doppelganger of the cultural Left — more precisely, the very segment of the cultural Left that it invites the public to ridicule. That’s not all that the cultural Right has become, of course. Its assault on the hollowness and hedonism of popular culture is frequently on the mark, though its analysis of the hollowness and hedonism of popular culture — which consistently fails to interconnect the erosion of moral values to the rise of consumer capitalism and the triumph of market values — is historically illiterate. (The first exception that proves this rule is Pat Buchanan, whom the rest of the Right shunned when he suggested that traditional relations were undermined by market forces no less than by moral relativism. The second exception is the pope, whose attacks on the spiritually corrosive aspects of capitalism are never picked up by the same cultural Right that is otherwise delighted to quote him.)
Thus the plight of American conservatives at century’s end. Their animating issue is a neo-Puritanism that estranges them from two-thirds of the American people. Their intellectuals have set out, not to cultivate other issues, but to explain what’s wrong with that two-thirds of the American people. Their activists and standard-bearers will still seek to make their perspective the one that defines the Republican Party. (Thus John McGraw, the vice chair of the California Republican Party, recently said that “the most important issue” for the party “by far is the abortion issue.”) Their repertoire has been catastrophically reduced to this one song only, and however grating it is on the public’s ears, they are plainly determined to sing it.