Apparently, America cannot be the world's policeman. Political quarrels in distant lands are none of our business. Apparently, our nation is "on the verge of catastrophic decay" because we've been ignoring the problems of the poor. Major new government initiatives are called for. These are not sentiments culled from the 1972 McGovern campaign. These are "new ideas" being trumpeted by America's conservatives. To which the proper response is an exasperated, "Now they tell us!"
McGovern said, "Come home, America." Patrick Buchanan now writes, "America is coming home." He recommends, as part of a "new nationalism," the withdrawal of all our troops stationed abroad and a general indifference to the fate of foreign nations.
Irving Kristol confesses that he has achieved that indifference. The struggle between "a Mr. Doe and a Mr. Taylor" in Liberia gives him "a sense of numbness." Ethiopians starve as brutal Marxists duke it out, but "one's fund of compassion for suffering peoples all over the world is limited," and "we have no national interest there." Godspeed to the Burmese struggle for democracy, but Burma has been undemocratic for decades, "and the American people seem not to have experienced any trauma."
What has changed? The answer is the collapse of communism. But this raises other questions. What was the Cold War about? Was it only about protecting the physical security of the United States? If so, was the gargantuan military effort of the past half-century entirely necessary? After all, we are a continent nation with nuclear weapons.
And weren't the liberals unarguably right about, say, Vietnam? The only Americans threatened by the Viet Cong were the ones we sent there. The antiwar argument was that this distant nation's fate was none of our business, or at least beyond our reasonable power to affect. Exactly what Kristol now says about Burma.
On the other hand, if the Cold War was about something more, about promoting American values in the world, why has that mission ended with the collapse of communism? Democracy is far from triumphant around the world, but Kristol and Buchanan say we should no longer care. Indeed Buchanan goes farther than liberals ever did, attacking what he calls "the Democratist temptation, the worship of democracy" as "a false god."
Despite the "come home" rhetoric, liberals were never isolationists. Their objection was not to foreign entanglements per se but to bloodshed and war. By contrast the new conservative isolationism seems to revel in bloodshed but resent the entanglements. Just when the world seems really ready for some of the gooier aspects of internationalism--global environmental cooperation, free-trade zones, etc. -- these guys want to hole up.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Housing Secretary Jack Kemp want conservatives to launch a big new war on poverty. Nothing like the collapse of communism is available to explain this domestic-policy turnaround. It's just that despite Republican control of the White House for 18 of the past 22 years, it seems that the problem has not been licked.
Gingrich's line of bull is a bit vague. There is some wonderful malarkey about a triangle with "basic American values" on the bottom and "technological progress" and "entrepreneurial free enterprise" up the sides. But distilled, arduously, to its essence, Gingrich's idea is that private and local government efforts should replace the federal "bureaucratic state." He, for example, is offering poor third-graders in his district two dollars for each book they read this summer.
Kemp's essence is even more elusive. He certainly has no objection to national-level efforts. In a single Wall Street Journal article (June 12), he endorsed half a dozen expensive new federal initiatives. The only thing that might be labeled "conservative" about Kemp's laundry list is his refusal to say where the money will come from.
This laughable flaw is the unifying thread in "bleeding-heart conservatism." Is there a crisis of the underclass? Is giving third-graders two dollars a book a sensible response to it? If so, why should it depend on a publicity-seeking congressman with some extra PAC money? What about all the third-graders in other districts?
To be sure, new approaches to America's social problems are needed and welcome. Gingrich's and Kemp's ideas, to the extent they aren't simply hot air, are what used to be called "neoliberal": market-oriented, anti-bureaucratic, and so on. But what has blocked these ideas for the past decade has been far less the liberal establishment than conservative opposition to any major national initiative (other than vacuous volunteerism) to address any social problem (other than drugs).
Obviously Gingrich and Kemp, if not Kristol and Buchanan, realize that conservatism has been missing something that voters are beginning to want. If conservatism now stands for an active and specific concern for the poor, and a positive distaste for military adventurism, that's real nice. But the ideological bait-and-switch is annoying.