National Greatness

April 17 2002

George Gilder cast the GOP as “The Party that Lost its Head” in his 1966 postmortem of Goldwater’s defeat. But reports of conservatism’s demise were proved premature by the 1980 election of a man Gilder had called “the Party’s hope to usurp reality with the fading world of the Class B movie.”

When “extremism in defense of liberty” translated resolve to face down communism and rein in a government grown out of control, Americans rewarded Ronald Reagan with a landslide victory. And we grew to fill his vision, becoming that “shining city on a hill,” people who had a “rendezvous with destiny.” Government was a “giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity.” Abortion advocates were “people who have themselves been born.” Democrats believed “every day is April 15.” And Mr. Gorbachev tore down his wall.

On the foreign front, we knew our enemy, called it evil, and won the Cold War. At home, the differences between conservatives and liberals were stark, and elections depended on emphasizing that divide.

Those were the glory days Republicans recall at Lincoln Day dinners -- before the GOP truly lost its head.

Lured by the pollsters’ claim that there were votes to be mined in the middle, after Mr. Reagan departed, conservatives forgot how to read lips, and liberals lined up behind a New Democrat. Just twenty years after the Gipper rode to victory on the strength of his convictions, the major parties fielded candidates so similar that the contest became little more than a bidding war over prescription drugs and Head Start.

Apart from a tax cut, thus far only temporary, the Republican victor has done little to distinguish himself on policy. He chose Ted Kennedy as his education counselor, signed a campaign finance bill he doubts the constitutionality of, and now calls for spending increases that dwarf the Great Society. His Free Trade Area of the Americas and illegal immigrant amnesty leave no daylight between his agenda and Tom Daschle’s. His plan to quintuple AmeriCorps gives liberals more than Clinton dared.

Neoconservatives know compassionate conservatism isn’t built tough enough to propel them back to national prominence. Its internal flaw - the inability of limited government to ever outspend those philosophically committed to a superstate - renders it incapable. So they need an enemy - another Evil Empire. Republicans still differentiate themselves on defense matters, and the public overwhelmingly favors the GOP to run a war.

Target: Baghdad. A multiple choice of oil, terrorism, nukes, or all of the above seemed to satisfy national interest, and once the President drew an axis around the chosen foe, the issue became one of timing rather than debate. The Bush Doctrine promised that any who helped or harbored terrorists made themselves an enemy, and the warrior pundits began to believe they might get to combat another evil empire.

But then a suicide bomber turned Passover bloody. The Mideast powder keg exploded, and Saddam became back-page news. Initially, neocons thought they’d still get their war, that the Bush Doctrine would stand us squarely with Ariel Sharon against Yasser Arafat. But the President didn’t read their cue cards. Cowboy talk turned diplomatic, and the hawks have begun to squawk, for they’ve realized a bigger problem than the West Bank.

Quelling that violence has become the Administration’s top foreign policy priority, and in sharp departure from the national greatness playbook, the Bush strategy isn’t force, but negotiation. Therein lies the neocons’ problem, for if Powell and the President succeed, they lose.

Unless Saddam conspicuously aligns himself with terrorism or proves complicit in 9/11, marching on Baghdad is a risk too great. If the President has just achieved an Israeli-Palestinian peace, he will not destabilize the Arab world by declaring the Bush Doctrine again absolute and operative on Saddam. Add the pressures of reluctant Europe and rising oil prices, and the President looks more game than ever to walk from the neocons’ war.

And well he should. President Reagan breathed mission into his party by facing down the enemy that had set itself against us - not by wandering abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Similarly, President Bush distinguished himself when he rose to confront the terror that found us. Against that threat, his mandate remains. But he will not restore his party’s place through random war and tepid policy. Republicanism shines brightest when it’s focused without and principled within.

Ronald Reagan understood this. So too did the majorities that elected him. President Bush could yet prove his heir - or, like his hapless party, lose his head.

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