Wilfred McClay has tried to do three things in the first part of his new Commentary piece: 1) tell us that conservatism is still alive and kicking (which, I would note, is something that few conservatives themselves doubt); 2) the elections were not a repudiation of conservatism (about which almost everyone was agreed before McClay wrote his article); 3) George Bush is really some kind of a conservative.  To show this, he chooses different critics at random, taking on some from the Washington Monthly symposium at certain points, completely changing the subject in bringing in Phillips and Linker (the latter is not, as far as I can tell, someone who claims to be a conservative, at least not anymore) and then throwing in the ridiculous Andrew Sullivan just for laughs. 

Since the first two claims are fairly redundant, except as excuses for kicking conservative dissidents whom Mr. McClay seems to dislike at least partly because they are dissidents, that leaves the third bit as something of a new contribution.  The “Bush is really way more conservative than Reagan” article has become a type all its own, to which some of us will reply, based on Mr. Bush’s egregious record, “Obviously not” or, if we have no strong attachment to the myth that Reagan was a great conservative, ”So what?”  As it happens, Mr. McClay tries something a little different here.  His argument is, as near I can tell, “Bush is just as conservative as Reagan was when Reagan wasn’t being conservative.  So there!”

Before we get to that, let’s take a detour.  The first two arguments are not without interest.  After having asserted that the dissidents compare Bush to Reagan and find him wanting, even though Reagan himself was hardly a paragon of conservatism, he then tells us that the “querulous” Richard Viguerie (he of the “Time For Us To Go” Seven in Washington Monthly) used to criticise Reagan for his poor treatment of conservatives.  In short, Mr. McClay thinks he has hit on something by showing that conservatives like Mr. Viguerie found President Reagan to be insufficiently conservative in the 1980s (which he was) and today find Mr. Bush to be even less conservative than President Reagan, when all he has done is help confirm that the critics have been consistently opposed to Republican Presidents who either corrupt or abandon conservatism for their own policy ends.

Mr. McClay seems very concerned that we have all forgotten many things (lest we forget, lest we forget, he seems to be shouting at us):

Americans in general too easily forget such times of struggle and division, making them over into placid and uncomplicated memories. A bipartisan example of this creative amnesia occurred at the time of Reagan’s death in June 2004 and spilled over into that year’s presidential campaign. Television journalists and Democratic candidates alike repeatedly contrasted the idyllic spirit of unity at home and cooperation abroad that allegedly prevailed during the cold-war years under Reagan with the national disunity prevailing over the Iraq issue under Bush. Many Americans, even some old enough to know better, seem actually to have credited such ridiculous assertions.

We forget, too, that predictions like Joe Klein’s have been made again and again since 1981. We forget that the current charges of “theocracy” were thoroughly rehearsed in the Reagan years, when Reagan’s open support for the beliefs of evangelicals was passionately decried, and his affirmation of the veracity of the Bible was used against him (notably in the 1984 campaign) to suggest that he would recklessly seek to bring on Armageddon. And we forget that not only Reagan but every Republican President since Eisenhower has been solemnly adjudged a cretin by the national press during his time in office, only—even unto the supposedly irredeemable Richard Nixon—to be turned into a wise leader after his departure from power.

We also forget that the Reagan administration itself, far from being happily unified, was driven by internal battles between “pragmatists” and “ideologues,” conflicts that prefigured many of the policy battles of the present. And we forget that, outside the administration, Reagan got plenty of grief from his own Right as well. 

Of course, “we” don’t forget any of this, if by “we” he means conservatives opposed to Mr. Bush.  The telling thing about Mr. Bush is that he gets grief from conservatives for some of the same things that outraged conservatives when Reagan did them (e.g., amnesty) and that he has virtually no conservative accomplishment to his name to offset his terrible record on most everything else.  In other words, ”we” know that Reagan wasn’t terribly conservative, but “we” also remember that Reagan was a lot more conservative than Bush has ever been.   

As the recent nostalgia-fest surrounding President Ford’s funeral should remind us (lest we forget!), the deaths of former Presidents are becoming the occasions for collective forgetting and mass deception about what actually went on during the administrations of the deceased executive.  President Ford?  He was a national healer and champion of bipartisan compromise!  President Reagan?  We were behind him all the way!  No doubt in twenty years some people will look back on this administration as a period of eight years of solidarity and comity, but only because things will have become so much worse that Dobleve will appear wise and sane compared to the contemporary administration. 

There has perhaps been a little too much Reaganite nostalgia among conservative dissidents who should be feeling nothing so much as deja vu when they look at the Bush administration (oh, remember the good old days…when the neocons were gaining in prominence and we were giving amnesty to illegal immigrants!).  Nonetheless, it is not simply nostalgia that makes these people look back favourably on President Reagan and that also makes them find Bush to have governed in a far less conservative fashion.  They need only look at what Mr. Bush says and what he does to recognise that he has almost nothing in common with most people who call themselves conservatives.  By a more traditional conservative standard, he does not remotely qualify.

In fact, Mr. McClay essentially cedes the point about abandoning conservative principle: “Okay, sometimes principle has been abandoned, but it was always in a good cause!”  What standard, then, is Mr. McClay using to vindicate his “pragmatic” politicians who abandon conservative principle?  The standard of serving “broadly conservative ends.”  His ideas of what constitute “broadly conservative ends” are largely horrifying to behold.  Consider:

One such principle, according to some conservatives, is the limitation of executive power. But Thomas Jefferson, who himself held a strict-constructionist view of executive authority, violated that view in order to undertake the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation and made it a continental power. Abraham Lincoln made extensive use of executive authority, including the suspension of basic civil liberties, in order to prosecute the Civil War and save the Union. During the Eisenhower administration, the exercise of federal authority to enforce basic civil rights for blacks in the Jim Crow South righted a historical wrong that seems unlikely to have been righted in any other way.

There shouldn’t have to be any qualification that only “some conservatives” think limiting executive power is an important political principle, but unfortunately today that qualification is essential.  In any case, I cannot think of three examples better designed to prove the critics’ case.  In each case, we are faced with an arbitrary use of executive power that did some measure of damage to our republican and federal system of government.  In no sense can we say that the first two served “broadly conservative ends,” since the first contributed to the weakening of the Republic and the second to its destruction.  In the third, Mr. McClay invokes just the sort of justification that paves the way for every lawless tyranny: “righting a historical [sic] wrong.”  In abusing the powers of the executive, each of these Presidents contributed to different degrees to the corruption of the Republic and the consolidation of power in an abusive central government.  In the case of Lincoln, his arbitrary uses of power contributed to the permanent annihilation of the decentralised confederation of states and its replacement with an effectively unitary nation-state.  Nationalist can admire him for that if they want, but we should recognise that it is the action of a liberal revolutionary, a Red Republican like Garibaldi, and not the work of a conservative. 

With the expansion of the Purchase, the seeds of future centralisation and ruin of the Republic were sown.  While the New England Federalists who protested this were early opponents of a feared “slaveocracy,” they were also tapping into the very logic of Antifederalist and Jeffersonian critiques of the new federal government that a large Republic could not long endure.  They were proven right.  (The Republicans were preoccupied with acquiring vast tracts of arable land in the service of their agrarian ideal and were apparently insufficiently wary of the potential for future consolidation that territorial expansion would inevitably bring.) Territorial expansion appears good and proper to a nationalist, but it is not at all obvious that it is necessarily a “broadly conservative end.”

Comparing Mr. Bush’s happy democracy-talk with President Reagan’s unfortunate enthusiasm for the same, Mr. McClay asks:

If Bush has abandoned conservatism in saying such things and acting upon them, then what are we to make of Reagan?

Well, what “we” make of President Reagan is that he was unfortunately too enthusiastic about democracy but was never so foolish or wild-eyed as to think that America should be in the business of toppling other governments and installing democratic regimes around the world.  He never said idiotic things about ending tyranny around the world, and he never committed us to a large-scale war to advance such crazy notions.  President Reagan’s democracy-talk was mostly harmless and to some degree beneficial insofar as it served as an inspiration and an example to other nations to fashion their own democratic governments without much help from anyone else.  Much of the democracy-talk is forgiveable because President Reagan rarely let it overtake his assessment of what was in the national interest, and he usually did not identify the promotion of “freedom and democracy” with the national interest.  To the extent that he did, and to the extent that neoconservatives were involved in the pushing foreign policy in that direction in his administration, President Reagan made grave mistakes, not least by setting precedents that could then be used by more radical and less intelligent men later on. 

As for the second part of Mr. McClay’s article, readers will already know what I think of references to the national identity being based in “principles and propositions” and the idea that a country “stands for” something.  This talk is like nails on the chalkboard for me.  Perhaps when I have more time (and when I finally stop cringing), I will be able to say more about that.