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The Heart and Soul of Conservatism

Think Tank Transcripts:The Heart and Soul of Conservatism

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient ofthe Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and brining hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. The battle for theRepublican nomination appears to have ended, but a different struggleover the nature of conservatism rages on. Which ideas will flourishin the Republican Party? Which vision might capture the imaginationof Americans?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus areChristopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Instituteand chief of the deregulation activity in the Reagan administration;John Judis, senior editor of The New Republic and author of 'WilliamF. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives'; David Brooks, senioreditor of The Weekly Standard and editor of 'Upward and Backward: TheNew Conservative Writing'; and Bill Kauffman, author of 'AmericaFirst: Its History, Culture and Politics.'

The topic before this house: the heart and soul of conservatism.This week on 'Think Tank.'

Conservatives have been on a long roller-coaster ride in theRepublican Party. In 1960, conservatives had to fight hard even toget a seat at the table.

BARRY GOLDWATER: (From videotape.) We are conservatives. Thisgreat Republican Party is our historic house. This is our home. Let'sgrow up conservatives. Let's, if we want to take this party back --and I think we can some day -- let's get to work. (Cheers.)

MR. WATTENBERG: And work they did. By 1980 under the banner ofRonald Reagan, the GOP became a predominately conservative party.Reagan balanced a three-legged coalition of economic conservatives,social conservatives and anti-communists. But when Bill Clinton wonthe 1992 presidential election, the roller-coaster plummeted. Someconservatives feared that their movement had wilted before it hadfully blossomed.

But in 1994, not just Republicans, but mostly conservativeRepublicans were richly rewarded at the polls. More recently,conservatives were brought low again. First, their Contract WithAmerica was stalled by President Clinton's veto pen. Then came thespectacle of a self-inflicted blood bath during their primariesearlier this year.

LAMAR ALEXANDER (Former Republican Presidential Candidate): (Fromvideotape.) You should run for governor of Washington or wherever youlive, and then you'd have that kind of experience.

PATRICK BUCHANAN (Republican Presidential Candidate): (Fromvideotape.) Lamar, the Japanese do not practice the unfair trade. Ifyou believe that, Lamar, I don't know what you smoke down there inTennessee.

STEVE FORBES (Former Republican Presidential Candidate): (Fromvideotape.) You voted for tax increases the board.

SEN. ROBERT DOLE (R-KS) (Republican Presidential Candidate): (Fromvideotape.) Not rate increases. No, no.

MR. FORBES: (From videotape.) Now, Senator.

SEN. DOLE: (From videotape.) Don't malign my integrity here.

MR. FORBES: (From videotape.) Well, it's a typical Washington game-- SEN. DOLE: (From videotape.) Oh, yes.

SEN. FORBES: (From videotape.) -- where you say you're againsttaxes, yet you sometimes vote for tax cuts. When no one's looking,you for tax increases. MR. WATTENBERG: Still, Republicans may be justone election away from winning the whole shooting match -- the WhiteHouse, the Congress, the governors and state legislatures along witha sympathetic Supreme Court. What a time to have an identity crisis!Today there are supply-siders and budget-balancers, socialconservatives and economic conservatives, country clubbers, BibleBelters, libertarians, paleo-conservatives, neo-conservatives,opportunity society conservatives, and civil society conservatives,internationalists and isolationists, bootstrap conservatives,compassionate conservatives, Main Street conservatives, Wall Streetconservatives. The funny thing is each faction expects to run theshow.

The first question. Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.Christopher DeMuth, what are we talking about? What is conservatismas you see it?

MR. DEMUTH: If conservatism is any one thing today it isanti-governmentism. It's the repository of all the hostility anddistrust that many Americans feel toward big government for manydifferent reasons. And it's the glue that holds together the socialconservatives and the economic conservatives.

MR. WATTENBERG: David Brooks?

MR. BROOKS: I'd say the glue is the common idea that something waslost in the cultural revolution in the 1960s and we should go backand rediscover what was lost. The differences between conservatism iswhen it was lost. The 1950s, the 1920s, the 1860s -- those are thedifferences.


John Judis?

MR. JUDIS: I don't think you have conservatism now that unitesevery one of the different factions, and I'd say that the main tworight now are a kind of pro-business, Tory conservatism based inWashington and a more populist, nationalist, socially conservativeconservatism that's based outside the Beltway.


Bill Kauffman?

MR. KAUFFMAN: I don't think I'm a conservative of any stripeactually. What I am, and I don't think I fit into the conservativemovement, is Jeffersonian, an upstate New York regionalist, and anisolationist -- a believer in an America of small, self-governingcommunities and regions with maximum amount of personal liberty and aminimum amount of interference from Washington and New York.

MR. WATTENBERG: Your book is called 'America First.' That is PatBuchanan's slogan. Did you support the general tenor of the Buchananmovement?

MR. KAUFFMAN: To some extent. I think what Buchananism showed, andwe owe him a debt. Essentially there is no conservative movementanymore. We've seen over the last five, six years this interestingcoalescing time and again on major issues -- NAFTA, GATT, the Mexicanbailout, the Gulf War, radical campaign reform. We find like --populists like Buchanan; Ross Perot; Jerry Brown, who ran a verysignificant campaign in '92 -- coming together in what is alwaysreferred to as a strange alliance. Well, at some point I think thisbecomes a natural alliance. And the glue that holds these peopletogether, I think, is a belief that decision-making ought always tobe at the most local and decentralized level possible. You know --MR. WATTENBERG: That's what Chris was saying -- anti big government-- and yet you would not agree with staying out of the Gulf War anddoing all the things that Bill Kauffman just talked about.

MR. DEMUTH: That's correct. There are many different factions inconservatism today in the Republican Party, and what conservatismwill become, I think, will be defined by practical events at thispoint. The New Deal coalition was made up of Dixie-crats and blacksand unionists and many groups that had many deeply conflictinginterests. It came to stand for security, which in the context of theGreat Depression was enough, providing Social Security, and that ideabecame the glue that held that party together and helped them smoothover many, many differences.

Now, if the Republicans -- a conservative Republican Party shouldgain a lasting, durable political coalition, what conservatismbecomes will be defined by the particular events that come up and thedecisions that are made. Conservatism in America for the past 30years has been an opposition movement. The New Deal lasted a longtime. Simply being against big government could last for a long time.The only thing the Republicans have dismantled so far is theInterstate Commerce Commission. It's 100 years old, so in a sensethey have 100 years of work to do.

MR. WATTENBERG: John Judis, what do you think about that? Is thismovement lacking something it favors?

MR. JUDIS: I think you saw that during the Bush years. I mean,part of the problem in the Bush years was the end of the Cold War,and the Cold War had been the essentially unifying point for allconservatives. But I think what you also saw in the Bush years wasjust the problem you're posing -- what to do, what a constructiveconservatism would look like. And you saw the beginning of these kindof looming splits between a kind of business and populism, questionsabout trade that emerged in the first Buchanan campaign in '92,questions about lobbyists. A lot of the Washington conservatives are,in effect, lobbyists.

MR. WATTENBERG: We should have had that in our list: the lobbyingconservative.

MR. JUDIS: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: K Street conservatives. God, I've got to writethat down.

MR. JUDIS: That's right. I think conservatism has a problemdefining itself as a positive movement, and it functions best whenthere's an opponent.

MR. WATTENBERG: David, you hang your hat at The Weekly Standard,which is a conservative standard-bearer -- a lot of youngconservative people we used to call 'baby cons.' They went throughthis, as you describe it, this enormous victory and elation after1994. Have these young, idealistic conservatives sort of beendeflated? Has some of the sanctimony kind of -- MR. BROOKS: Oh, wehaven't lost the sanctimony.

MR. WATTENBERG: Haven't lost our sanctimony. Right, right.

MR. BROOKS: I think what you have seen is something radical. Upuntil now, at least now in my lifetime -- MR. WATTENBERG: That's arenewable resource right there, right.

MR. BROOKS: Yeah, we've got a bottomless pit. Up until now,political and philosophical wisdom came with being on the cuttingedge. 'Always go further; never compromise.' Bush compromised in1990; that was a problem. So in this Congress the philosophy was'Never compromise; always be on the cutting edge.' Well, that was amistake. They should have compromised. So suddenly you have torearrange your entire political instincts. Instead of thinking alwaysbe on the cutting edge, always be brave, compromise is a failure ofcourage, suddenly you do have to think differently about politics.

MR. KAUFFMAN: You know, we're also breathing free air for thefirst time in many years, and it's a heady sensation. Conservatives-- most conservatives were attached what I would call the politics ofempire for half a century, and there was a sort of bipartisanconsensus at elite levels that just suffocated any debate overAmerica's rule in the world. I think what we're seeing now is it'ssplit into defenders of the empire, defenders of centralized control,and people who recognize, in the words of the great Kentucky poetfarmer, Wendall Barry, who is, I think, a leading light of this sortof new coalition, that the great danger in this country is from theplacelessness of powerful people. I mean -- MR. WATTENBERG: What doesthat mean? 'Placelessness'?

MR. KAUFFMAN: Well, let me -- I'll talk about populism for asecond as an example. It has a good side and a bad side. The goodpart of populism is when it's grounded in the particular. A HenryJames' character had a line, 'Patriotism, like charity, begins athome.' A good populism is that, you know, William Jennings Bryan inhis 'Cross of Gold' speech said, 'Our is not a war of conquest; it isa war in defense of our homes, our families, our freedoms, ourcommunities.'

On the other hand, when you have a sort of a populism of rootlesspeople -- that is, sort of, you know, deracinated operatives -- whatyou end up getting is, you know, scapegoating of immigrants or Jewsor things like that, or you get an entirely phony and factitiouspopulism of the Newt Gingrich sort. I think it's illustrative thatGingrich in graduate school is said to have responded to someone whenasked, 'Where are you from?' 'I'm from nowhere.' That's verydangerous. We need people who are from places, people who want todefend those places, and people whose politics and way of looking atthe world comes from those places.'

MR. WATTENBERG: John, unlike David Brooks, you hang your hat atThe New Republic, which is sort of a liberal magazine, although itvaries from issue to issue. As you see the recent developments inconservatism, are liberals and semi-liberals saying, 'Aha, it's abouttime those guys got shot down' and 'They were too big for theirbritches' and 'It's really all over'? Or are people noting that,after all, Clinton has moved enormously -- and even the Democraticrhetoric. No one is going around saying, 'Let's raise taxes; let'shave more government.'

MR. JUDIS: Both.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right.

MR. JUDIS: You know, you have to separate questions aboutRepublicans and Democrats from questions about liberals andconservatives.


MR. JUDIS: You know, the question about the Republicans isdifferent from the question about conservatives, but they're similarin a way, because after the '94 election there was this tremendouseuphoria and this feeling that a realignment had occurred. Euphoriaat least among conservatives and Republicans. And I think among bothcamps now there's much more of a daunting realism that what happenedwas a tremendous change took place in the South that was long overduein effect, that we have a two-party system and it's probably tiltedtoward the Republicans. But as far as the rest of the country it'sreally up for grabs.

MR. DEMUTH: I think that there are going to be people that callthemselves conservatives that have very, very different views on whatgovernment ought to do in the future. But I think, if it is to be asuccessful political movement as a governing majority, it's going tohave to decide what it thinks of the idea of progress. I thinkpolitical movements take root in America. They identify themselveswith core political ideals that are widely shared. And the mostwidely shared ideals in America are liberty, equality and progress. Ithink the Republicans, the conservatives, are generally on the rightside of the liberty and equality issues today, and the Democratism,liberals, are starting to realize that.

But Republicans are very ambivalent about progress. David talkedabout recapturing what was lost in the '60s or '70s. Bill would liketo return to a much more stable-rooted society. It's a very differentview of the future than the supply-side, tax-cut deregulators thatare in another intellectual wing of the party.

MR. WATTENBERG: That would be the wing that you feel mostcomfortable with?

MR. DEMUTH: I feel comfort with both wings. I'm a little bit likeBill. I think that there are many opportunities for fusion here. ButI think that fusion has to be worked. I think that those who aresocial conservatives that are primarily fed up with governmentbecause of lousy schools, violent crime, undermining the family andso forth -- I think those ideas have to be attached to some vision ofthe future, rather than simply be an attack on crumby presentpolicies. MR. WATTENBERG: All right, Chis DeMuth, you mentioned theidea of fusion and what would happen in terms of a new government.Let's play a little game here. I'm be President Dole. In theelection, Dole was elected. A Republican Senate and House wasretained. You guys -- I'm the president. You're my Cabinet. You're mymajor advisors. I say, 'Okay, guys, what do we do?'

MR. DEMUTH: I think one should start with fundamental tax reform,entitlement spending reform, and deregulation, simply because thoseare the big things that the federal government does today that arecausing the most social harm.

MR. WATTENBERG: Mr. Secretary, what do you propose?

MR. BROOKS: Yeah, I'd be the secretary of education, and aftercalling for the elimination of my agency, I'd ask President Dole totalk about school choice. As a wise man once wrote, values mattermost. People -- MR. JUDIS: What a shameless plug.

MR. BROOKS: People care about cultural and moral decline. Whatmost conservatives care most about is re-moralizing society. Andthrough school choice, what you can do is unleash several differentapproaches in communities around the country of people trying to comeup with ways to enculturate young people, to introduce a commonculture that they and their communities can share with theirchildren. In America, we re-moralize society through education. Andso I think that's what he should do first.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Mr. Secretary Kauffman?

MR. KAUFFMAN: I'll tell you, but you won't listen. I woulddismantle the empire. I'd slash the war budget. I'd bring the troopshome. I'd abolish the vast majority of federal programs. I'd knockdown most of the edifices in Washington. And I'd devolve power towhere it ought to reside -- in communities, in individuals, inneighborhoods. And I think what you'd have then, and what is one ofmy great interests, would be a cultural reflowering of the Americanregions. I mean, one of the great -- our great enemy today is thishomogeneity, you know, that's -- you know, Billings, Montana, andNorthern Virginia have far too much in common. I mean, I'm in favorof individuated places and particularlistic cultures. And we're notgoing to get this until we -- you know, until we bulldoze Leviathanand return power to the most local level possible.

MR. DEMUTH: I'd like to point out an interesting differencebetween -- to me, between Bill and David. I like very much the ideaof school choice. I said a moment ago that I thought thatconservatism would flower if it got itself behind the idea ofprogress. I think that poor public schooling is something that isenormously irritating, agitating, to people across the politicalspectrum and the economic spectrum. It is an issue that unites thedifferent wings of the Republican Party, and it's got the Republicanson the right side of progress. Liberating people from the publicschool systems, letting them choose and improve the education oftheir children is something that is broadly popular and that theDemocratic Party has got itself in an odd political position where ithas to resist.

So I would be in favor of this sitting around with you,President-elect Dole, making this -- MR. WATTENBERG: President Dole.I've already been inaugurated.

MR. DEMUTH: -- making this an important part of your firstadministration.

But Bill would not. Bill would say school policy ought to be doneat the local level, whether it is public schools or vouchers or howwe finance it, Washington shouldn't have anything to say about that.And the idea of a national school choice program led by some nationaltax policies or requirements on the local level, Bill, who's a goodconservative, too, would find anathema. He doesn't want PresidentDole to have anything to do with it.

MR. BROOKS: It should be pointed out the debate we're seeing hereis a reenactment of something that happened in the '40s and '50s. Theconservatism of that era was the America First conservatism, veryregional, very isolationist. Bill Buckley and others came in andredefined conservatism and, according to some of those who camebefore, ruthlessly purged the previous sorts of conservatives. AndBuckley and, I think, most conservatives since have stood up fornational empire, if you want to use the word, but national greatness,national problems, at the same time devolving power away fromgovernment, shrinking the size of government, but not denying that weas a nation are -- we are importantly a nation, that our problemshave to be solved nationally.

MR. JUDIS: This strikes me more as a late 19th centurycontroversy, and the early progresses versus the later, because Ithink that what -- I think it really is very hard to go home again inthe sense that the economy itself is structured in such a way as tomake that kind of localism impossible. I think that there has to besome counterweight nationally and statewide to large, privateeconomic units. The question that we're going to have is how to doit, what to do, whether deregulation is the course, what -- I mean,how -- MR. BROOKS: Let me just say this is not primarily a country ofsmall communities. This is primarily a country of opportunity. Mygreat grandfather lived in the lower east side of Manhattan, a verytight, very model community -- newspapers, religion, everything. Assoon as he made some money, he moved out of there, because he wantedopportunity. He moved uptown. Ever since then, my family, and mostfamilies in this country, have move for opportunity. And that hasdestroyed community. And there's something to be lamented about that,but that is just the nature of America.

MR. KAUFFMAN: What has also destroyed community, though, John, isthe national government. I mean, my hometown, to which returnedseveral years ago, Batavia, New York, where I lived, in the 1960surban renewal, a federal program, you know, begun by the mostwell-intentioned liberals, came in and destroyed the four-block heartof my downtown. I mean, it wasn't, you know, some sort of rapaciousprivate developer who did this. It was the federal government. Idon't -- MR. JUDIS: I have no doubt about that.

MR. KAUFFMAN: I don't look to Washington as my protector.

MR. JUDIS: It's a question of how to do it, and it's not justWashington. It's your state government, too.

MR. DEMUTH: But, in fact, a lot of the tendencies of modern lifein the '90s are decentralizing. The big modern corporation is turningout to be much less of a threat to upstate New York than peoplethought 10 or 20 years ago. The structure of the corporation isbecoming radically decentralized. Huge layers of central corporatestaff are being eliminated. Computer communications technology hasmade it possible for people to be very, very productive in muchsmaller economic units than we've had in the past.

MR. WATTENBERG: A la Kauffman's prescription on -- MR. DEMUTH:Well, I think that there's a lot in, if I may call it,paleo-conservatism that is a little bit -- that has a romantic viewof the past and that is inconsistent, that is simply not in thecards. And it's inconsistent with a lot of the things that make rurallife wonderful today -- computers. You know, there are a lot ofthings that you couldn't have if you had that old-fashioned society.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's go around the room once quickly and see ifeach of you can give us a brief statement on what you all agree upand disagree upon.

Bill Kauffman?

MR. KAUFFMAN: I think Chris and I, and perhaps David and I, agreethat the central government is too large and overweening. I thinkJohn and I agree on the dangers of soulless multinationals and sortof a lobbying class in Washington that is the enemy of the Americanpeople.

MR. BROOKS: I think the thing we all agree on, and probably whichmost Americans agree on, is that the mid-century faith in socialplanning, social science, that you could fine-tune the economy, thatyou can plan society -- I think that's gone, and I thinkconservatives actually led the charge against that social scientism.

MR. DEMUTH: I agree with David most strongly, and I think that thechallenge for conservatives is going to be to continue to expandmaterial welfare widely shared, choice, but also engage the deeperargument what is this -- all of this wealth and choice for? What arewe to do with our freedom?

MR. WATTENBERG: Last question. A one-word answer, starting withyou. On election day, is it going to happen? Are you going to have anall-Republican federal government?


MR. JUDIS: Don't know. Sorry.

MR. WATTENBERG: Don't know.


MR. WATTENBERG: You don't know, or no?

MR. BROOKS: I think probably not.

MR. WATTENBERG: Probably not.


MR. WATTENBERG: I think the answer is yes.

Thank you, Chris DeMuth, Bill Kauffman, David Brooks, and JohnJudis.

And thank you. Please send your comments and questions to: NewRiver Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. We can alsobe reached by e-mail thinktv@aol.com or on the World Wide Web atwww.thinktank.com.

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.

'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, a recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow. Additional funding is providedby the John M. Olin Foundation, the Randolph Foundation and the Lyndeand Harry Bradley Foundation. END END

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