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Setting the Conservative Standard

By David S. Broder
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Under the editorship of Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard has become one of the most consistently rewarding political journals. It is a place you can go for a predictably conservative view on certain issues, from the wisdom of the U.S. intervention in Iraq to sustaining the life of Terri Schiavo. But it is also on occasion a portal for the debates that are roiling the governing majority.

In its 10th anniversary issue, now on the stands, Kristol invited a number of its regular contributors to answer: "On what issue or issues (if any!) have you changed your mind in the last 10 years -- and why?"

Some proudly said they had not wavered in their policy beliefs -- no matter what the consequences. Scholar Robert Kagan, a passionate advocate of war in Iraq, said the judgment he made in the mid-1990s was right -- and was shared by a large number of prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Madeleine Albright: Get a new regime in Iraq.

He quotes from Thucydides the words of Pericles to the Athenians in what he calls "the difficult second year of the three-decade-long war with Sparta." The great orator said, "I am the same man and do not alter, it is you who change, since in fact you took my advice while unhurt, and waited for misfortune to repent of it."

With equal certainty, author P.J. O'Rourke expresses another tenet of modern conservatism -- its distrust of government. "Politics is evil," he wrote. "God has made us free men, sovereigns of our own affairs, and sole experts on minding our own business. We are endowed with an individual capacity to improve our understanding, better our circumstances, and laugh at Howard Dean. The purpose of conservatism is to guard the sovereignty and get out of the capacity's way."

But others clearly demonstrate second thoughts about what they have seen since the Republicans took over Congress in 1995 and the White House in 2001. Irwin M. Stelzer, the director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, said that for him, the lesson is the yawning gap between the declaration of policy and its implementation. "The Bush foreign policy, based on protecting America by encouraging the spread of democracy, and by taking the fight to the terrorists is, in conception, terribly attractive," he wrote. But "the failure to provide our troops with the proper armor, a problem that persists to this day; the unwillingness to back tough talk with sufficient troops; the inability to keep the lights on and the air conditioners whirring in Baghdad" -- all that has shaken his confidence.

Similarly with economic policy, Stelzer said. "Again, the right policy: tax cuts in the face of a recession, and long-term cuts to stimulate risk-taking and work. . . . But, oh, the implementation. When . . . additional revenues streamed into the Treasury's coffers, they were not used to restore balance to the federal budget. Instead, a spendthrift Congress and a veto-shy president proceeded to squander the proceeds, and more, on bridges to nowhere and subsidies for -- get this -- rich corn growers and profit-laden oil companies."

And Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor of the Weekly Standard, voiced an even deeper disillusionment, arguing that the seeds of conservative decay were sown in the very moment Republicans took over Congress and the publication for which he works was born.

As long as conservatism was simply striving for power, it was intellectually honest, he said. It found its journalistic voice through William F. Buckley's National Review, which disdained and delegitimized kooks of all kinds and managed "to maintain some kind of threshold of intellectual seriousness."

But, Ferguson said, "[t]he Republican takeover -- which is to say, political success -- dealt the mortal blow. Conservative institutions, conceived for combat, have in power become self-perpetuating, churning their direct-mail lists in pursuit of cash. . . . The current story of Jack Abramoff's lucrative self-dealing, involving as it does such movement stalwarts as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, may seem lunatic in its excesses, but . . . [t]he point is the ease with which the stalwarts commandeered the greasy machinery of Washington power. Conservative activists came to Washington to do good and stayed to do well. The grease rubbed off, too."

Similarly, he argues, what was once a coherent philosophy of government "is increasingly a creature of its technology. It is shaped . . . by cable television and talk radio, with their absurd promotion of caricature and conflict, and by blogs. . . . Most conservative books are pseudo-books: ghostwritten pastiches whose primary purpose seems to be the photo of the 'author' on the cover. What a tumble!"

We don't know where conservatism will be on the Standard's 20th birthday, 10 years from now. But the rumbles of an important debate can be heard.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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