A CRITIQUE OF PURE NEWT
12:00 AM, Sep 18, 1995 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
In th,e, United States at this time," wrote Lionel Trilling in 1950, " liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact"t that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation ... "Times change. Forty-five years later, in the world of practical politics (as opposed to the otherworldly outposts of academia), nothing but conservative ideas are in general circulation.
As Michael Dukakis learned, no candidate for president can win under the label of liberal. As Bill Clinton has learned, no president can govern as a liberal. On what grounds are both parties contending these days? Tax cuts, welfare reform, "family values," shrinking government, controlling immigration, curbing racial preferences, building prisons, adding cops, even balancing the budget by a fixed date. The other party has adopted every one of these goals, some more ingenuously than others, and for good reason. Bill Clinton's frantic repositioning towards the center is the sign of an astute politician who knows when the ground of debate has shifted. And on every issue except possibly abortion it has.
The problem for conservatives, however, is that while the new national consensus is decidedly, undeniably anti-liberal --the word can hardly be spoken without disdain or embarrassment --it is not yet conservative. There is no new conservative consensus. Instead we have a field of several conservatisms in serious contention -- Christian Coalition social conservatism, Nixon-Dole traditional conservatism, Cato Institute libertarianism, Buchanan's reactionary populism (nativist, protectionist, anti-"finance"-capitalist) --and no one to adjudicate between them.
And now, a new entrant in the Viield, authored by Newt Gingrich it does not so much adjudicate between the factions as try to transcend them with a new forwardlooking, indeed futurist, vision.
Having brought about, by extraordinary tactical skill and strategic vision, the most remarkable conservative victory since World War II -- potentially far more significant than Ronald Reagan's --Gingrich has set out to endow it with theory.
To Renew America (HarperCollins, 260 pages, $ 24.00) is the attempt, a grander attempt than his critics have given him credit for. Nonetheess, the book fails.
There are two possible views of the meaning and mission of the conservative upheaval of November 1994. Isaiah Berlin drew a famous distinction between negative liberty (being left alone) and positive liberty (the "truer" freedom of finding and fusing with some higher purpose). Using this terminology, one might call the first conservative vision "negative":
Its purpose is to, if not abolish, then delimit, deflate, defund, radically reduce the welfare state. Leave the people to their own devices and virtues, unencumbered by the lumbering, grasping, interfering state, and they will flourish as of old.
Dick Armey makes this the centerpiece of his less celebrated, though quite substantial, book outlining the goals of the new conserv- ative majority. The Freedom Revolution, the House majority leader's entry in the Bible-of- conservativerevolution sweepstakes, even gives this goal a number: Cut the federal government in half. Today it takes 22 percent of GNP; it should take no more than 11 percent.
'Cutting even a fraction of that is very ambitious mission, one that could take a conservative Congress a generation to achieve. Indeed, the newest conventional wisdom --that the conservative revolution of November 1994 has " stalled" --is based on the alleged disappointment that the Republicans have not, since November 8, brought about a significant transformation of the welfare state. This after halfa year in power, against the opposition of the executive and with only tenuous control of the Senate. The very expectation is absurd, a merely clever way of damning conservatives by holding them to an impossible standard.
Yet even given the magnitude of the task and the decades required, there is a deep feeling among conservatives that this vision of merely delimiting the state is too, well, negative; that a mini-welfare state, a reformed --even radically reformed --version of the status quo, is simply not enough for conservatism to offer; that without a broader, more "positive" vision, conservatism will fail because it will fail to inspire.
Enter Gingrich and To Renew America. The book is unsystematic, but its underlying vision is easily discerned. It is positive. It is visionary. It is optimistic. It is non-divisive. And it does not hold up.