Confused Conservatives: The Worldwide Crack-up

Written by David Frum on Monday June 9, 1997

In Leo Tolstoy's telling of the story, Napoleon began the battle of Borodino -- the battle that doomed his hopes of conquering Russia -- exactly as he began every battle. He reviewed his men, gave them an inspiring speech, and sent them out to attack the enemy. In the past, the result had never varied: Eight hours later, his generals would return, flush with victory, and hail him as a genius. This time, though, something dreadful and unexpected happened. All the news that filtered back to him was bad. The enemy wasn't running away; French casualties were rising fast. Napoleon couldn't understand it. He hadn't done anything any different from what he had done before. Why wasn't it working? Why was everybody blaming him?

Okay, perhaps Tolstoy got Napoleon wrong. But surely he got the leaders of conservatism, in the United States and abroad, dead right. They are doing exactly what they used to do in the days when Reaganite Republicans and Thatcherite Tories won election after election. And yet from the front comes news of disaster after disaster. In last week's first round of the French parliamentary elections, the conservatives suffered their worst defeat since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. On May 1, the British Tories suffered their worst defeat since 1832. In the United States, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott -- the once combative leaders of the bold Conservative Opportunity Society -- have signed off on a budget-balancing plan that is in many ways worse than the one the congressional Democrats enacted in 1993.

It's baffling. It seems just yesterday -- it was just yesterday -- that the collapse of communism, the successes of Reagan and Thatcher and Kohl, and the emergence of Latin American leaders like Carlos Salinas and Carlos Menem were widely thought to have settled the big political questions once and for all. That tedious left-wing project, the search for a third way between liberty and central planning, appeared terminally discredited. French intellectuals wrote books lacerating themselves for their lack of faith in capitalism. The socialist chapter in human history seemed to have been
definitively closed.

Now, suddenly, the same old chapter seems to have reopened. Of course it's true that the politics of Britain, France, and the United States reflect local conditions and peculiarities. But, without over-generalizing, it's fair to say that in all three countries, voters are chafing at conservative attempts to reduce the role of government. In France, the government humiliated last week had tried to nip slightly the array of benefits provided by the state, in order to lighten the tax burden on employers and reduce the country's 12.8 percent unemployment rate. In Britain, Tony Blair capitalized on years of accumulating resentment of Tory moves (half-hearted and confused though they often were) toward a more competitive, more self-reliant society. And in the United States, the craven performances of Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich are a reaction to their sense of having barely escaped disaster in the 1996 congressional elections.

Optimists eager to believe that conservatives are, despite everything, winning can easily tick off reasons to hope that things are not as bad as they look. They can argue that the Right is losing electorally in large part because it is so dominant intellectually. Had Tony Blair campaigned as an old- style British socialist, committed to renationalizing industry and reimposing 97 percent tax rates, even John Major could have beaten him. Had Bill Clinton run in 1996 opposing the death penalty and the Pledge of Allegiance, he would have suffered the same fate as Michael Dukakis. And in France, the Left owed its victory to a completely non-theoretical defense of the status quo, rather than to any promise to -- in the words of its 1981 campaign slogan -- "change life."

Optimists might equally point out that the Right today is suffering nothing more serious than an outbreak of complacency after a long run of electoral success. At Notre Dame in the final minutes of the last football game of the season, the coaches send onto the field the seniors who were never quite good enough to play for a few minutes of glory before graduation. In the same way,  over-confident conservative parties have been playing their benchwarmers since 1988: While the Democrats and Labour were ruthlessly searching their ranks for the most adept, cunning, and unscrupulous candidates, the Republicans and Tories were charitably giving George Bush, John Major, and Bob Dole a final fling on the gridiron.

There is much truth in the optimists' account -- but not quite enough. People will vote even for a Bush or a Major if they can be convinced that the alternative is unacceptable. The urgent question for conservatives to puzzle through now is how it is that men like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair could make themselves acceptable, when Michael Dukakis and Neil Kinnock failed to. What, precisely, is "new" about the "New Democrats" and "New Labour"?

Back in the 1970s, the parties of the right bid for power by adopting clear, easy to understand policies. One knew what one was getting; there was nothing vague about either Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

The vagueness of Clinton and Blair is, however, legendary. After nearly five years of the Clinton administration, it's still not clear what Bill Clinton hopes to accomplish; one cannot even easily describe what he has accomplished. Blair is woolier still, denouncing the alleged greed and corruption of contemporary British society while praising the person -- Margaret Thatcher -- who made that society; offering sweeping visions of a radically different future (which he terms a "stakeholder society") while promising not to tax or spend one pound more than the Conservatives; and so on.

What Reagan and Thatcher thought was as clear as a newly washed window on a sunny day. By contrast, a small library has been streaming off the publishers' lists by authors doing their damnedest to piece together some coherent account of this new mid-Left. Many of these books -- such as E. J. Dionne's  They Only Look Dead, Will Hutton's The State We're In, and Martin Walker's The President We Deserve -- are ingenious. But then, they would have to be. Explicating the politics of Clinton and Blair is like trying to crack some lunatic IQ test that asks how many ham sandwiches it takes to build a new Chrysler, or what the color blue and the Great Wall of China have in common. There is no doctrine, there are no principles, there is nothing so sacred to New Democrats and New Labour that it won't be traded away if circumstances demand it. Unless politicians of the right come to grips with the new unpredictability, opportunism, fuzziness, and fiat self- contradiction of the new political Left, they will never prevail over it.

Conservatives have so far failed in this task. The Republican congressional majority in 1996 sent President Clinton three versions of a welfare-reform bill, confident that he would have no choice but to veto them all -- and inadvertently helped to reelect him when he signed the last of them. They thought they had trapped the president in 1995 after he committed himself to a balanced budget, only to see him wriggle out. They thought they could drive him away from his base with wedge issues like the California Civil Rights Initiative, only to be driven away from their own base instead. President Clinton has a trademark trick of professing to support something while covertly opposing it (like welfare reform) and professing to oppose something while covertly supporting it (like racial quotas). It's a technique Tony Blair has emulated. He's become even better at it than Clinton himself. And it's a technique that has outwitted politicians of the right again and again and again.

Victims of domestic battery are often described as suffering from "learned helplessness" -- a mental condition first diagnosed by an animal psychologist who submitted dogs to a radically unpredictable regime of treats and electric shocks, until finally the poor beasts no longer dared even to walk out the open door of their cages. Am I the only one who finds this a valid diagnosis of the Republican congressional leadership? The Republicans propose an increase in the Medicare premium $ 3 a month bigger than the premium the president proposes -- and zap! They pass a popular program of institutional reforms of Congress, only to have the president claim all the credit -- and it's zap! again. They promise big tax cuts and are denounced for busting the budget -- zap! -- give up on the tax cuts and then shake hands on spending cuts that are even bigger -- and zap! once more. By now, they are so traumatized that they have folded their paws over their eyes and are lying on the newspaper, whimpering. What remains of the Tory front bench is snuffling even more pathetically.

Conservatives faced with the New Democrat/New Labour challenge need to understand the ultimate cause of their opponents' ideological unpredictability. Politicians of the left face an unsolvable set of problems. They want to engage in redistribution at a time when the modern state has grown so large that every act of redistribution creates at least as many losers as winners. They champion egalitarianism in countries where those inequalities that remain are almost always the product of differences in individual achievement. They profess to care about health, education, and security in old age at a time when the failure of state hospitals, state schools, and state pension schemes is increasingly visible to all. They have shrunk their once-inspiring slogans to the simple mantra of "fairness" at a time when courts and bureaucracies are implementing "fairness" with quotas and special preferences that strike most people as manifestly unfair.

It's a truly desperate situation, one that calls for extreme cynicism in a would-be leader. Republicans often wonder where the Democratic Howard Bakers are; why no congressional leader in the president's party has yet broken ranks over his ethical conduct. Perhaps it is because Democrats understand their dilemma better than Republicans do. Howard Baker and the other anti- Nixon Republicans worried that their president's dirty methods were discrediting their cause. The Democrats understand that their leader's methods are indispensable to their cause. There's a scene in the movie The Battle of Algiers in which the charismatic French paratroop commander-who has been winning the battle by torturing civilians -- must face an angry room of French journalists shouting questions at him about his brutal tactics. He commands their attention with a wave of his cigarette. "I shall answer your questions, gentlemen," he says (I'm quoting from memory), "but first you must answer one of mine: Shall France keep Algeria? Yes or no." Silence. "Very well then. We are agreed." And so are the president and congressional Democrats agreed.

Clinton and Blair are fighting one of the great defensive battles of modern politics. They are trying to do something very similar to what the Tory politicians of the 19th century tried to do: preserve antique political institutions in a world that has lost faith in them. The other side has all the ideas. On their side, they have only the weight of inertia, the sentimental appeal of old slogans, the lure of the pork barrel -- and their own political skill.

Their strategy must therefore be a defensive one, as Clinton found when he introduced the one major domestic initiative of his presidency -- his health- care plan -- and was trounced. It calls for waiting for the bigger and more confident side to offer its plans and then sniping at them.

Conservatives bloodied by these guerrilla tactics will be understandably tempted to mimic them. That is what the Republicans have done all this spring. They ceded the president the initiative in the budget battle. They have launched a dozen little initiatives -- estate-tax relief here, the defense of Kelly Flinn over there -- rather than any single big idea. They have chosen to avoid losing rather than try winning.

Unfortunately, tactics of delay and evasion work much better for the party seeking to preserve the status quo than they do for the party that seeks to reform it. That's especially true when the anti-status-quo party is also a free-market party. Conservatives will never be able to outdo tricksters like Blair and Clinton in the competition to identify tiny, discrete electoral subgroups and stuff their beaks with money as a mother-bird does; they will never be able to position themselves on both sides of an issue like affirmative action, as Clinton has done.

What they need to do instead is identify issues where their opponent is to be found on both sides and force him to choose. (Whenever you catch Clinton straddling an issue, you can be pretty sure his own inclinations are at their farthest remove from public opinion -- after all, where public opinion is on his side, as with Medicare, he doesn't need to straddle.) Bob Dole was much mocked by the press for his observation of the California Civil Rights Initiative that "it's a good issue; it's a wedge issue." But, when dealing with slippery characters, wedge issues are indeed good issues, because they pose inescapable alternatives.

This is why the Republican leadership was wrong and the social conservatives were right in the contest over the highest-priority Republican tax cut. The leadership, out of a combination of supply-side theory and attentiveness to big donors, prefers estate-tax and capital-gains relief. The social conservatives have been arguing for a tax credit or tax deduction for parents with children at home. The trouble is that since few Americans are in much of a position to benefit directly from estate-tax relief or a capital- gains tax cut, those cuts must be defended in terms of their economic effects. And those arguments necessarily sound speculative to the voting public. There's nothing speculative about a per-child tax benefit, though, and it forces the issue that New Democrats and New Labourites want above all to avoid: more spending and more taxes, or less spending and lower taxes?

President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair both rail against what they term "false choices": "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was one of Blair's most repeated soundbites. So long as the public can be gulled into the delusion that politics is a matter of "both/and," the new politics of the center-left can flourish. It's the job of conservatives, facing the new leaders of the political Left, to teach voters that many issues -- and all of the most important ones -- are instead matters of "either/or." Either equality under law or affirmative action; either work or welfare; either punishment or therapy; either school choice or school monopoly; either high taxes or low. Luckily for the Right, it isn't only its increasingly timid leaders who thrust these choices home; it is sheer political reality. The new political Left has adopted as its most fundamental premise the hope that reality can be denied by a steady stream of vague political rhetoric. But mushy words cannot blind people to craggy facts indefinitely. Truth has a way of asserting itself, no matter how charmingly it is denied.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard