The Magazine

CONFUSED CONSERVATIVES

Jun 9, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 38 • By DAVID FRUM
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In Leo Tolstoy's telling of the story, Napoleon began the battle of Borodino -- the battle that doomed his hopes of conquering Russia -- exactly as he began every battle. He reviewed his men, gave them an inspiring speech, and sent them out to attack the enemy. In the past, the result had never varied: Eight hours later, his generals would return, flush Contributing editor David Frum is the author of What's Right. with victory, and hail him as a genius. This time, though, something dreadful and unexpected happened. All the news that filtered back to him was bad. The enemy wasn't running away; French casualties were rising fast. Napoleon couldn't understand it. He hadn't done anything any different from what he had done before. Why wasn't it working? Why was everybody blaming him?


Okay, perhaps Tolstoy got Napoleon wrong. But surely he got the leaders of conservatism, in the United States and abroad, dead right. They are doing exactly what they used to do in the days when Reaganitc Republicans and Thatcheritc Tories won election after election. And yet from the front comes news of disaster after disaster. In last week's first round of the French parliamentary elections, the conservatives suffered their worst defeat since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. On May 1, the British Tories suffered their worst defeat since 1832. In the United States, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott -- the once combative leaders of the bold Conservative Opportunity Society -- have signed off on a budget-balancing plan that is in many ways worse than the one the congressional Democrats enacted in 1993.


It's baffling. It seems just yesterday -- it was just yesterday -- that the collapse of communism, the successes of Reagan and Thatcher and Kohl, and the emergence of Latin American leaders like Carlos Salinas and Carlos Menem were widely thought to have settled the big political questions once and for all. That tedious left-wing project, the search for a third way between liberty and central planning, appeared terminally discredited. French intellectuals wrote books lacerating themselves for their lack of faith in capitalism. The socialist chapter in human history seemed to have been definitively closed.


Now, suddenly, the same old chapter seems to have reopened. Of course it's true that the politics of Britain, France, and the United States reflect local conditions and peculiarities. But, without over-generalizing, it's fair to say that in all three countries, voters are chafing at conservative attempts to reduce the role of government. In France, the government humiliated last week had tried to nip slightly the array of benefits provided by the state, in order to lighten the tax burden on employers and reduce the country's 12.8 percent unemployment rate. In Britain, Tony Blair capitalized on years of accumulating resentment of Tory moves (half-hearted and confused though they often were) toward a more competitive, more self-reliant society. And in the United States, the craven performances of Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich are a reaction to their sense of having barely escaped disaster in the 1996 congressional elections.


Optimists eager to believe that conservatives are, despite everything, winning can easily tick off reasons to hope that things are not as bad as they look. They can argue that the Right is losing electorally in large part because it is so dominant intellectually. Had Tony Blair campaigned as an old- style British socialist, committed to renationalizing industry and reimposing 97 percent tax rates, even John Major could have beaten him. Had Bill Clinton run in 1996 opposing the death penalty and the Pledge of Allegiance, he would have suffered the same fate as Michael Dukakis. And in France, the Left owed its victory to a completely non-theoretical defense of the status quo, rather than to any promise to -- in the words of its 1981 campaign slogan -- "change life."


Optimists might equally point out that the Right today is suffering nothing more serious than an outbreak of complacency after a long run of electoral success. At Notre Dame in the final minutes of the last football game of the season, the coaches send onto the field the seniors who were never quite good enough to play for a few minutes of glory before graduation. In the same way, over-confident conservative parties have been playing their benchwarmers since 1988: While the Democrats and Labour were ruthlessly searching their ranks for the most adept, cunning, and unscrupulous candidates, the Republicans and Tories were charitably giving George Bush, John Major, and Bob Dole a final fling on the gridiron.