Since the 1950s, when the conservative movement coalesced out of many exasperations, conservatism has been on a long march, transforming itself from an ideology of protest to a philosophy of governance. Another small step in that direction is Sen. Orrin Hatch's decision to act on the fact that Ozzie and Harriet are as gone as tail fins.
Hatch represents the most Reaganite state (Utah voted 78 percent for Reagan in 1980, 68 percent in 1984). His is high-octane conservatism. Thus it is a large straw in a strong wind that he has introduced a plan for enlarged federal involvement in the provision of child care.
His proposal does have a conservative cast. The federal role would be primarily as expediter, removing some tax and insurance obstacles to private provision, and stimulating local initiatives and diversity. It stresses that child care is necessary to enable many people (more than 6 million families are maintained by single parents) to work rather than receive welfare. But the most significant aspect of Hatch's proposal is that it represents a conservative's coming to terms with some important social -- and political -- facts.
The baby boom generation has had scads of babies and has gone to work in record numbers. Woman boomers have been continuing a postwar trend. Between 1950 and 1981, the participation of mothers in the labor force tripled. Between 1970 and 1981, 40 percent of the increase of women in the labor force were women with children, many of them motivated by the desire to protect their families from that decade's plague: inflation.
Today, necessity drives two-thirds of working women, the two-thirds who are single, widowed, divorced, separated or have husbands earning less than $15,000 a year. More than 33 million children under age 17 -- more than 9 million of them under age 6 -- have working parents. By the year 2000, women will make up 47 percent of the labor force. Between now and then, women will constitute 60 percent of new entrants into the labor force. Says Hatch: ''While I personally believe that children benefit much more by having full-time parents, I realize that it is wishful thinking to expect a significant return to 'Ozzie and Harriet'-styled families.''
Politics, too, is changing, and in related ways. Horace Busby, a political analyst, argues that young adults today, unlike those of other recent generations, have no memories of heroic politics, particularly of successful, larger-than-life presidents. Today's young adults see politics not as an arena of apocalyptic concerns, but as an agenda of local, often family, exigencies -- education, long-term care for elderly parents, day care for children. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) calls such issues ''warm fuzzies.''
Warmth is now the necessary political temperature. Feelings are for talking about these days. Busby notes the tendency of today's presidential candidates to talk about their personal hardships and sufferings -- Dole on his war wounds, Bush on the death of a child, Gephardt on a son's cancer, Dukakis on his wife's episode of drug dependency.
This tendency contrasts markedly with the veil of reticence and stoicism that cloaked FDR's infirmities as a paraplegic and Kennedy's chronic back pain from a war injury. Candidates have detected the electorate's desire for ''feeling and sensitive'' leaders. (Joseph Biden says that alarm bells rang in the heads of senators when Robert Bork, asked why he wanted to be on the Supreme Court, said it would be ''an intellectual feast.'' This suggested to senators a sensitivity deficiency.)
''Warm fuzzies'' are big in local politics. For example, a San Francisco law requires, and a Los Angeles proposal would encourage, downtown developers to include child-care space in new buildings. Child care may be becoming a quasi-entitlement for the middle class. This is a natural consequence of the fact that for both men and women, first marriages are occurring later than ever. Many people are becoming parents in their 30s, when they are well into careers they are reluctant to interrupt.
Nationally, the politics of ''warm fuzzies'' can help Republicans. Democrats already have a compassion surfeit. Blacks, especially, regard Republicans as having hearts of coal. Only 17 percent of blacks think Republicans care about their problems. But only 41 percent of blacks now classify themselves as ''strong Democrats,'' down from 55 percent in 1984. Eighteen percent of blacks aged 18 to 29 call themselves Republicans. The time is ripe for Republicans to identify with ''warm fuzzies,'' as Hatch has.
The aging of the baby boomer is causing the gentrification of conservatism. That means that conservatism is warming up, at least to the idea that social programs can serve conservative ends, social and political.