Don't Mourn, Organize
11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By PETER COLLIER
ONE IMPORTANT LESSON is that conservatives underestimated Clinton from the beginning. We assumed that he was just a clever parvenu, a cheesy charisma merchant who would make a couple of tries to implement a sixties program and then fold. In fact, he turned out to be a streetfighter who can take a punch; a great communicator unhampered by commitments who understands uncannily the quirks of this era and has made himself into a sort of postmodern, antimatter Reagan.
We should have learned by now that he is better than we are at arranging the correlation of forces and far less finicky than we about bathing in someone else's political bathwater. He made those raids on the conservative agenda not just out of desperation. There was a sort of diabolical brio in it: Capture the flag.
We have learned that he has one remaining vulnerability, a vanity really -- and this is the desire to be loved by history, as well as by blacks and women, and to be ranked above the other third-raters who have occupied the White House. And since revenge is a dish history serves cold, we have one last and definitive opportunity to mark him. We should make the Clinton Studies of the future a final battleground.
What should we do? Don't mourn, organize.
While there are rumors of war in Washington, the real thing goes on in neighborhoods and communities, and our side is holding its own in the fight for civic renewal. Some see this as a long twilight struggle, but every day there are small victories in schools and churches and organizations that work to give people back the autonomy and personal responsibility the Left stole from the last generation. Our side seems finally to have unpacked the metaphor of the culture war: This is not a clash of massed armies, but house-to-house fighting.
What we do now should be compatible with this movement. We should certainly refuse to allow conservatism to be defined at its fringes. Otherwise we allow to rise to the top of our agenda reparative therapy for homosexuals and other such sectarian ecstasies. If we adopt the term "compassionate conservatism," it should not be because we like feeling good about ourselves, or simply because we hope the phrase encapsulates a winning electoral strategy in 2000. Then these would indeed be weasel words intended to make us ignore the existence of race preferences, for instance, just so we could appear to occupy a dead center.
Instead, we should be compassionate conservatives not just because we believe our program will make the poor and oppressed smarter, but because we believe it will win them their manumission from the liberal plantation, where they have been enslaved for so long. We should make it clear that for us, feeling their pain is not simply gestural politics. This may be difficult. We are very good, for instance, at stating the free-market arguments for school choice, the libertarian principles that make it a wise approach with such significant social economies. But the primary reason we should be for choice is that we want to give poor black kids -- members of the underclass, which is the American social crisis that dares not speak its name -- a way out of the dead-end schools where the liberals indenture them to waste their minds and lose their lives.
What we should do is pose stark choices, not just in fiscal and philosophical terms, but in human terms, that show the actual casualties of the Left and give people a reason to believe we care.
Peter Collier is the co-author of Destructive Generation.