Over at his Ideas blog, Ricochet member Conor suggests tea partiers not get carried away with Bill Kristol’s brand of national-greatness populism. Kristol, Conor warns, is too implicated in the free-spending, big-government conservatism of George W. Bush to be trusted by the tea parties in his call for “bold” and “fundamental reforms.” It’s true that Kristol’s an odd bedfellow for anyone waving a Gadsden Flag, but stranger things have happened. I want to push back, Conor, at your basic claim, which is that the tea party should have nothing to do with Kristol and his ilk.
At the outset I must agree that anyone even remotely sympathetic with the tea partiers is likely to associate Kristol, as you do, with the greatest excesses of the Bush administration. (Even establishmentarians who have no use for tea are apt to do the same.) But we paint with too broad a brush if we leave out the ambivalence felt toward W by right-of-center Americans, everyday citizens and opinion leaders alike. Having just spent some time with a goodly number of representative folks on the right, I can attest that it’s just not possible for mainstream people on the right to reject George W. Bush or his legacy whole cloth. Nor is it possible to fully embrace them, either. Some suggested to me that Bush’s first term was significantly better than his second; any way you slice it, Bush’s legacy remains ambiguous, and, from a tea party perspective, Kristol’s does too.
So I feel like there’s more to be said than what you caution against when you write:
Mr. Kristol is calling on the Republic Party to do something radical without saying what, or even seeming to care. His column is a rhetorical blank check, and while Tea Partiers can be forgiven for desiring a radical change away from President Obama’s domestic agenda and America’s fiscal profligacy, another prudent tenet of their populist, quasi-libertarian movement is a healthy suspicion for signing over to political parties blank checks for radical change.
There are a couple of things at work, here. The first is pure politics, the second more a matter of theory. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the tea partiers do not wield decisive political influence in establishment Republican circles — for instance, in Congress. It is also well-known, I think, that Republicans have some work to do if they are to make good on a recapture this year of one or both houses of Congress. Finally, despite all the ups and downs of the Bush administration and its aftermath, Bill Kristol retains precisely what the tea partiers lack, and offers precisely what Congressional Republicans want most: ideological pull. On the right, Kristol and his ilk form a sort of bridge between deeply disaffected tea partiers and the officeholding Republican establishment — not an easy job, to be sure, and one that requires — especially at this moment — an ability to go heavier on the rhetoric than on policy. That’s not because policy’s unimportant. Exactly because it is important, Republicans, going into the midterms, need to muster up a coherent vision of what they’re going to do with a legislative majority and why.
The fact is, such a vision is out of reach unless tea partiers, establishmentarians, national greatness conservatives, and constitutionalists can find a way to put their collective weight behind a few key themes and objectives. Since it doesn’t surprise me that Kristol recognizes this, I find it predictable, not astonishing, that he would publish an exhortation this month calling on establishmentarians and tea partiers to forge ahead together in a bold new way.
Which brings us to the theory. Many to the right of center take their political bearings from the Hamiltonian founders and the early Republicans — that is, from the party of trade and the party of industry. But just as many take their bearings from the Madisonian founders and the mid-era Republicans — from the party of civic republicanism and the party of civic pride. On the one hand, an approach grounded in the vigor of powerful government and powerful business; on the other, one founded in the virtue of small government and small business. Reconciling these two visions — making them work together and educate one another — has always been the task of the modern Republican party. In what I will leave to others to call “a very real sense,” it has always been the task of the American statesman.
Alas, Republican politicos and conservative statesmen have come up against an implacable foe: progressivism. For progressives, Hamiltonian vigor and Madisonian virtue alike are too narrow to be truly good or great. Rather than being merely powerful, government and business must be big — the better to work in permanent ‘partnership’ for the perfection of public virtue. From Wilson to FDR to LBJ to Barack Obama, the progressive project has been as crystal clear as it has been persuasive — despite its remarkable consistency in meeting great promises with even greater failures. The dream of the Great Society, complete with Great Projects run by a Great Bureaucracy ruled by a Great Leader, is a powerful one. As national greatness conservatives learned from the West’s best classical liberals, democracy unleashes great passions but also encourages a base appreciation for material pleasures and mere comfort. As Tocqueville warned, democracy’s drift toward soft despotism could loose the springs of action and deprive a once-vigorous, once-virtuous people of their vigor and their virtue. Progressivism promises deliverance from that democratic dystopia — in the dual form of hope and change.
Conservatives know better. But in order to be able to say better, to promise better, the allies on the right must topple the allure of the progressive dream while balancing their own judgments of theory and practice. It is a tricky business, prone to error, but it is a necessary task. And it is the one to which Bill Kristol is presently applying his efforts. Hamiltonians like Kristol (and David Brooks) are sure that vigorous government and vigorous business are good, but big government and big business united in pursuit of progressive ends are bad. I cannot say I disagree with them — especially to the extent that they agree only a Madisonian recommitment to the virtues of small government and small business can restore the vigor that they seek and that America needs.
I’ve had my disagreements with Kristol over the years, and I, like others, have sternly criticized compassionate conservatism for slipping too quickly into a progressivist mode. But where you claim that “[o]ur national greatness lies in Constitutional designs that limit our government’s ability to seize ever-greater power during times of crisis, not in the willingness of our citizens to demand that politicians of either party save us from crisis by being sufficiently radical in their response,” I must counter that it lies in both. We are losing both our vigor and our virtue, and the progressive aim to restore them through the supposed perfection of both in a centralized administrative state is one I know we both abhor. That makes for a crisis, like it or not.
If Bill Kristol would like to pitch in with a broad, multifarious, center-right alliance against the march toward that regime led by Obama and the Democrats in Congress, I have little doubt there is a place in the ranks for him. As for who will lead that alliance — well, I don’t doubt either that it’ll be someone who hasn’t stood center stage on the right for the past ten years. That’s change I can believe in. How about you?