Those who are saying that there is confusion among American conservatives are correct, and the reasons for this are obvious for the most part. The old saw about the public corporation's annual report is relevant: it is compared to the bikini, revealing much that is interesting and hiding all that is important.
The easiest way to handle American politics is always by personalizations. Thus it is said of Barry Goldwater that he anthropomorphized U.S. conservatism during the early '60s. Everything about him, not excluding his face and certainly not excluding his manner, was the amiable but jut-jawed conservative rejection of Eastern Seaboard Liberal Republicanism. We had a candidate who would go to Florida to preach against Social Security, to Tennessee to question the claims of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to West Virginia to argue against the depressed areas bill. He lost very big, but the historians who proceeded to write off not only him but his movement (for instance, Richard Rovere and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) lifted their heads from the sand only just in time to catch . . .
Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a more skillful politician than Goldwater, and he ran in a more auspicious season. By the time Reagan was going at full throttle, Nelson Rockefeller had been beaten as a Republican presidential aspirant, and Lyndon Johnson had presided over an unsuccessful war his moderate Republican successor, Richard Nixon, had not been able to conclude successfully. The hiatus gave the American people a president from Georgia who was ambiguous where he should have been resolute and resolute where he should have been ambiguous.
They are saying now that there is no clearly anointed successor to Goldwater-Reagan, and in this respect observers are correct. But they are correct in ways not entirely discouraging to conservatives. As Jody Powell put it last Sunday on TV, they see much that is clearly conservative in the policies adopted by George Bush and Bob Dole, the leading candidates, and most doggedly by Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson and Pete du Pont.
Now, Professor Schlesinger made a shrewd point along the line, which is that many Americans think of themselves as conservatives for so long as liberal policies are being practiced. There is no doubt that farmers enjoy subsidies, businessmen protectionism, the elderly Social Security and Medicare, the young federal aid to education. An argument can be made that this is why we visit upon ourselves the paradox so graphically displayed in November 1984 when 60 percent of the American people controlling the electoral vote in 49 states sent Reagan to Washington, while at the same time sending to Washington a House of Representatives 60 percent of whom belonged to a party officially opposed to the doctrines of Ronald Reagan.
That paradox can be celebrated in hypothetical disquisitions on the distribution of power. But, in the practical world, it is presenting the republic with problems so grave as to confront us with elemental disturbances. Any way you look at it, our foreign policy is a mess. We have no consolidated position on the question of whether Nicaragua can be permitted to become a member of the Warsaw Pact. And we have a Republican president for whose disarmament policies we find enthusiasm primarily among Democratic officials. The INF Treaty is one of those searing mythogenic symbols: its floor leader in the U.S. Senate is Alan Cranston, with whom it is safe to say that the president who signed the treaty has just about nothing in common.
What then of the conservative agenda in the months ahead? Who can articulate it?
The guess, from this cockpit, is that no one can do this charismatically in 1988. What is needed is the crystallization of a demand for generic reform. The chief executive needs to command the presumptive loyalty of Congress in pursuit of rational foreign policy objectives. The anarchy in Congress needs to be tamed by decisive party discipline and by a bipartisan war against vested-interest, lowest-denominator politics. The revalidation of the notion that a moral line can be drawn between right and wrong needs to survive an assault that such lines cannot be drawn under the First Amendment.
That probably will require us to muddle our way through the next period -- to hit bottom, as they say about alcoholics, before the need fully gestates to rise again.