The myth of the good conservative

Flickr / Beverly & Pack

Presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan dedicate the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991.

Article Highlights

  • For liberals, the good conservative always existed yesterday. @JonahNRO

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  • Today, of course, the 1950s is the belle époque of reasonable conservatism.

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  • Again and again, the line is the same: I like conservatives, just not these conservatives. @JonahNRO

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  • The idea that Reagan’s problem today would be his moderation is quite simply ridiculous. @JonahNRO

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For liberals, he always existed yesterday.

My daughter learned a neat rhetorical trick to avoid eating things she doesn’t like. “Daddy, I actually really like spinach, it’s just that this spinach tastes different.”

Democrats and the journalists who love them play a similar game with Republicans and conservatives. “Oh, I have lots of respect for conservatives,” goes the typical line, “but the conservatives we’re being served today are just so different. Why can’t we have Republicans and conservatives like we used to?”

Q: What kind of Republicans are extremists, racists, ideologues, pyschopaths, radicals, weirdos, hicks, idiots, elitists, prudes, potato-chip double-dippers, and meanies?

A: Today’s Republicans.

“The Republican Party got into its time machine and took a giant leap back into the ’50s. The party left moderation and tolerance of dissent behind.” So reported the Washington Post’s Judy Mann — in July of 1980.

Today, of course, the 1950s is the belle époque of reasonable conservatism. Just ask New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, or, for that matter, President Barack Obama, who insists that the GOP is in the throes of a “fever” and is displaying signs of “madness.” It’s his humble wish that the GOP will regain its senses and return to being the party of Eisenhower.

Today’s intellectual conservatives, likewise, are held against the standard of yesterday’s and found wanting. New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus wrote a book on “the death of conservatism” a few years ago (inconveniently, right before conservatism was dramatically revivified by the Tea Party, which helped the GOP win historic victories in the 2010 elections), in which he pined for the conservative intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, the Tanenhauses of their day were horrified by the very same conservative intellectuals. Within a year of William F. Buckley’s founding of National Review in 1955, liberal intellectuals insisted that the magazine’s biggest failure was its inability to be authentically conservative. The editor of Harper’s proclaimed the founding editors of NR to be “the very opposite of conservatives.” Liberal titan Dwight Macdonald lamented that the “pseudo-conservative” National Review was nowhere near as wonderful the old Freeman magazine.

Again and again, the line is the same: I like conservatives, just not these conservatives.

As far as I can tell, there are competing, or at least overlapping, motives for this liberal nostalgia for the conservatives and Republicans of yesteryear. Some liberals like to romanticize and glorify conservatives from eras when they were least effective but most entertaining. Some like to cherry-pick positions from a completely different era so as to prove that holding that position today is centrist.

But whatever the motivation, what unites them is the conviction that today’s liberals shouldn’t cede power, respect, or legitimacy to today’s conservatives. Hence when compassionate conservatism was ascendant, liberals lamented that the GOP wasn’t more libertarian.

When, in response to the disastrous explosion in debt and spending over the Bush/Obama years, the GOP enters a libertarian phase, the same people who insisted they’d love Republicans if they became libertarian are horrified by their “social Darwinism.”

The latest twist on this hackneyed hayride is the renewed caterwauling about how Ronald Reagan couldn’t even get elected today.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush reignited the topic by lamenting how Reagan couldn’t be nominated today because the GOP has become too rigid and ideological for even the Gipper. I think Jeb Bush is one of the best conservative politicians in the country, but this was not his best moment. Assuming Mitt Romney gets the nomination, here are the GOP nominees since Reagan left office: Bush I, Dole (Gerald Ford’s running-mate in 1976), Bush II, McCain, and, finally, Romney — the Massachusetts moderate the Tea Party spent much of the last months lambasting as, well, a Massachusetts moderate.

Look at all those crazy right-wingers!

Looking at that record, any rational person would conclude that Reagan couldn’t get elected today because the party has become too liberal.

Of course, the reality is more complicated than that. But the idea that Reagan’s problem today would be his moderation is quite simply ridiculous.

Look where G. W. Bush’s moderation got him: denounced as a crazed radical by much of the liberal establishment, despite having run as a “compassionate conservative” and, once in office, expanded entitlements and worked closely with Teddy Kennedy on education reform.

Right on schedule, Dubya is now entering the rehabilitation phase.

It’ll be some time before liberals bring themselves to say, “I miss George W. Bush.” But already the New York Times is proclaiming that Bush represented “mainstream conservatism,” unlike today’s Republicans, of course.

As always, the problem with conservatism today is today’s conservatives.

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