Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Rethinking Republicanism

Mixing a new message for the GOP.

By Daniel Casse

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Congress has closed up shop for the year. Fred Thompson's campaign -finance hearing wound down weeks ago. The mutiny against Newt fizzled. Janet Reno nixed the idea of an independent counsel. Campaign-finance reform never got off the ground. A balanced budget agreement was reached six months ago. The president himself is a lame duck, reduced to moderating town meetings where the subject is race and dissenting views are kept to a minimum.

It would be fair to say that, for some time, our nation's capital has failed to generate a single interesting, provocative, or even sustained debate about politics and the future of the country. Even the possibility of another showdown with Sadaam Hussein evaporated into a polite, negotiated settlement. Diplomatic conflict resolution--zzzzz--triumphed again.

American politics seems exhausted. Political brawls, accusations of faithlessness, angry fights over principle, rumbles left and right, heated class warfare--all of these conflicts that were once the essence of political debate have been swept aside by the spirit of nonpartisan cooperation. Both Democratic and Republican pollsters have discovered in their focus groups that voters don't like "conflict." Americans, the pollsters assure us, hate to see politicians "bickering." As a result, elected officials studiously avoid any controversy or unfamiliar ideas that will cause a focus group to disapprove.

In the age of Dick Morris and Bill Clinton, this is what politics has become. Winning a strong "favorable" rating with a focus group has become the highest aspiration of a modern politician. Going against the grain is a political no-no.

Yet suddenly in the midst of this era of bipartisan bliss, an old-fashioned political feud has broken out over the notion of "national greatness." What makes this particular fight both interesting and unexpected is the fact that it does not cross party lines. It is restricted to the tiny but influential factions of the intellectual conservative Republicans.

The debate began inadvertently when the journalist David Brooks published "The Case for National Greatness" last summer in the iconoclastic conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, where he is a senior editor. In it, Brooks presented a vision of politics that sounded not at all like the Republican boilerplate of balanced budgets, smaller government, and more prisons. Instead, he argued for restoring a sense of grand purpose to politics, including great national projects such as the Library of Congress, public parks, and other cultural monuments that would enhance American civic life.

Party guys David Brooks (left) and William Kristol envision a Republican agenda that sounds more like Teddy Roosevelt than Pat Buchanan

For the remainder of the summer, Brooks' article was politely dismissed as an intellectual curiosity piece. No campaign manager called to talk about it. No senator entered it into the Congressional Record. No one mentioned it on This Week, Meet the Press, or the Capital Gang.

But in September, the case for national greatness took on a harder, political edge. In an incendiary Wall Street Journal piece co-authored by Brooks and William Kristol, the editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, the pair advocated a new agenda for conservative governance. They called for a leader who would break up the Social Security monopoly, voucherize the public school system, promote national scientific research, and champion a more ambitious and interventionist foreign policy. Most notably, they encouraged an energetic chief executive who would not shy away from using the strength of government to enhance the culture and civility of modern life.

The new neo-conservatives

What gave the article its greatest punch was that it was less a thought experiment and more an assault on the prevailing wisdom of Republican politics. In a direct critique of their erstwhile political allies, Kristol and Brooks wrote: "By bringing together all the groups that shared this aversion [to liberal government], Republicans built a winning electoral coalition. But a government movement is more than an electoral coalition. Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine. And an American political movement's highest goal can't be protecting citizens from their own government. Indeed, in recent years, the conservatives' sensible contempt for the nanny state has at times spilled over into a foolish, and politically suicidal, contempt for the American state. A conservatism that organizes citizens' resentments rather than informing their hopes will always fall short of fundamental victory."

They went on to call for a new American nationalism. What they have in mind is neither the chest-pounding nationalism of Pat Buchanan nor the xenophobic nationalism of Big Labor and the protectionist Democrats. They envision conservative politics that embrace the aggressive, interventionist foreign policy of Reagan with the national institution building of Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt, undergirded by the moral suasion of Lincoln. The greatest danger to America, they argued, is the "complacent mediocrity and petty meddling of government." Yet unlike their fellow conservatives, Kristol and Brooks insist that a true conservative agenda cannot be based on despising government. "How," they asked rhetorically, "can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?"

The answer, unsolicited, came in the form of a Niagara of attacks from fellow conservatives and libertarians. "Big Government conservatism," sniffed Robert Novak in his syndicated column. "These conservatives view America's very creativity and exuberance as a cause for dismay," wrote Virginia L. Postrel and James K. Glassman in a Wall Street Journal article responding to Kristol and Brooks. New York magazine mocked the new agenda as "a kind of schizophrenic nanny politics that allows you to hate government and like it too." In the most inflammatory denunciation, Joseph Sobran, a firebrand of the Old Right paleo-conservatives, drummed Kristol and Brooks out of the conservative movement, arguing that the only difference between them and the Clinton status quo was "a little less welfare and a lot more warfare."

Clearly a nerve had been struck. At a large conservative policy conference in Washington in late September, Kristol found himself under attack from John O'Sullivan, the editor of National Review, the standard bearer of conservative journalism. After the debate, a reporter from The New Republic overheard a member of the audience muttering, "We've got to get rid of that midget Kristol."

Fighting words

At this point, all the fuss about the national greatness agenda may be more of a tremor than an earthquake in American politics. After all, the conservative movement has seemed to exist in a constant state of crisis since Reagan left office. One faction is always feuding with another. But this battle of ideas is precisely what has made Republican politics lively while Democrats have grown stale. Still, a few feisty opinion articles are not sufficient to make a political movement.

On the other hand, the exchanges over the proper role and scope of government breathed life into GOP politics, which has been moribund since the novelty of a Republican Congress wore off early in 1995. Indeed, the questions raised by the Kristol-Brooks thesis go far beyond the shopworn political dialogue offered by Clinton, Gingrich, Lott, and Gephardt. At the very moment when Democrats and Republicans are trying to push every government function out to the state capitals, these "national greatness" advocates are suggesting the federal government's responsibilities deserve closer scrutiny and reform.

And when most political pundits crudely lump every Republican politician into either a "moderate" or "conservative" camp, the pursuit of a national greatness agenda portends a new political cosmology. What is emerging is a political theory that links the urban renewal strategies of New York's mayor Rudolph Giuliani to the confident militarism of Margaret Thatcher and to the bully pulpit moralism of William Bennett.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this national greatness debate is that we may be finally emerging from the era of national bean-counting, in which every political argument is reduced to a budget argument. Today, the federal deficit--the "crisis" we talked incessantly about during the late '80s and early '90s--barely exists. Most budget experts predict the federal government will be running a budget surplus as we enter the next century.

The question for politicians becomes what to do now that our fiscal house is in order. Some will argue for a more slimmed-down government and tax cuts; others will argue for more social spending; still others will make the case for a top-to-bottom reform of the role and scope of government.

For his part, President Clinton seems content to pursue low-cost and low-risk solutions to address a variety of public anxieties: town meetings on race, crackdowns on deadbeat dads, a national program to put trigger locks on handguns, and so on. Whatever one may think of Bill Clinton's performance in office, it would be hard to argue that during his five years in office as president he has given Americans a great sense of national purpose.

In any case, he has left the field open for a more compelling national political debate. That is why, three years before the next presidential election, a handful of journalists and think-tank types arguing about "national greatness" in magazines and newspapers should be greeted as a sign of the country's political health. The only question is whether our political leaders will have the nerve to ignore their pollsters and jump into this raucous debate.

Daniel Casse, a policy advisor to the Lamar Alexander and Bob Dole presidential campaigns, is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington-based public policy communications firm. He lives in Nashville.

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