Political Hay

The Case for a Conservative

National Review goes Establishment Republican as movement faces 2012 election and the future.

By 12.27.11

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Did you hear the news about National Review?

Somebody dug deep into the archives and came up with a couple of the old classics from the days when William F. Buckley Jr. was sailing at the front of the conservative movement.

Who could forget that great 1964 cover story: Earth to Barry, illustrated by an astronaut-suited, helmeted and visored would-be GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, bug-eyed behind the trademark black-framed glasses, floating above the earth tethered to an Arizona cactus way down below. With the cover banner reading "The Editors: Against Goldwater." In which Buckley's National Review roasted Goldwater for his proclivity to shoot from the hip, his countless verbal miscues ("Let's lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin"), his seemingly perpetual addiction to applying minor ideological rigidities to major policy, giving liberals a chance to paint conservatives as extremist nuts.

Then there was that jewel of a cover story from January of 1980: "Acting Conservative: Reagan's Love Affair with FDR and Truman," the cartoon depicting a lecherous Reagan on bended knee to a demure, smitten GOP elephant wearing a bridal veil. Discreetly pinned to the underside of his wedding tailcoat were political buttons reading "Happy Days Are Here Again: FDR Forever" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Accompanied by the cover banner declaring "The Editors: The Case for Bush and the GOP Establishment."This one excoriated presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan for pretending to conservatism when he had voted repeatedly for FDR and campaigned actively for Truman. It scorched Reagan for his inattention to detail, his intellectual idiosyncrasies that let him blurt gaffe after gaffe along the lines of trees being responsible for pollution. And made a strong case that the time-tested wisdom of the GOP Establishment should have Republicans looking at smart, reasonable people like George H.W. Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole or John Anderson.

And perhaps best of all there was that famous column by National Review's current editor a mere five years ago titled "Run, Newt, Run," an admiring look at former Speaker Newt Gingrich and urging him to run for president in 2008.

Wait. Stop.

No, those first two stories were never written by William F. Buckley Jr. In fact, they never happened, period. Much less did his famous National Review flee the conservative field as the incoming missiles from the GOP Establishment (not to mention the rest of the outside liberal world) rocketed into the conservative camp in the days of Goldwater and Reagan. Buckley never picked Rockefeller or Scranton over Goldwater, and he chose his great conservative friend Reagan over the GOP Establishment favorite George H.W. Bush and the Establishment rest in 1980. Buckley was first, last, and always making the case for conservatism.

But in fact, yes indeed -- that third story mentioned? "Run, Newt, Run" -- a genuinely admiring 2006 story urging Newt Gingrich to run for president in 2008? That is not a figment of anyone's imagination. It was in fact written by National Review editor Rich Lowry and can be found right here.

Which leads to the obvious question.

When one picks up the current issue of National Review with its mocking cartoon cover of Newt Gingrich entitled Newt's World and a banner headline reading "The Editors: Against Gingrich," one wonders what happened to Mr. Lowry over the course of the last four years. How did Newt Gingrich, the man enthusiastically touted for the White House a mere five years ago by Lowry as having "reestablished himself as a party leader through sheer intellectual energy" -- become transformed into an arrogant intellectual nut whose "character flaws -- his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas made him a poor Speaker of the House."

If the latter assessment from NR is true now, certainly Mr. Lowry should have noticed all this in 2006. But, alas, apparently not. Meaning either Lowry was asleep at the switch in 2006 -- or something else has happened since that period at NR that mysteriously changed the perception of Newt Gingrich's performance in what was already by 2006 long ago history.

I don't mean to pick on Mr. Lowry here, or my friends at National Review. In fact, Andy McCarthy at NR made bold to dissent from his editors, and Thomas Sowell was on the pages of National Review Online differing from the editors as well.

But I do think Lowry and company have provided something to reflect on as we stand at the edge of the 2012 elections. Something that was touched on by our friend Brent Bozell in his reaction to the National Review anti-Gingrich editorial. And for those who came in late and are familiar with Mr. Bozell only from his regular appearances on Hannity discussing the latest findings from the bottom of the liberal media barrel as discovered by his great invention the Media Research Center, why and what Bozell said is important. He is both the nephew of NR founder William F. Buckley Jr. and the namesake son of Mr. Buckley's brother-in-law, himself a prominent conservative Founding Father.

Here's Brent's take on the NR editorial as reported by Newsmax:

"National Review's endorsement of Romney & Huntsman proves only that this is no longer the magazine of William F. Buckley Jr.," he posted on his page above a photo of Buckley and President Ronald Reagan sharing a laugh. "My uncle would be appalled."

Mr. Bozell, in fact, has done the conservative movement a great favor. Why? When you take out the deeply personal nature of his observation, what Brent Bozell is really doing here is making a cri de coeur for what would seem the obvious -- the need to make the case for a conservative president.

But he is also alerting us all to an important something else as well.

That something else is the eternal problem of generational hand-offs.

Perhaps the best and most famous illustration of this ageless problem at the moment is the death of Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple. What happens now to Apple? Can it survive? Will it thrive… or wither? In this case, it's too soon to tell. Perhaps a better example is the Ford Motor Company… still driving along almost 65 years after the death of founder Henry Ford. Here in Pennsylvania the brainchildren of two men long gone -- Henry John Heinz's ketchup and pickle empire (Heinz died 92 years ago) and the chocolate kingdom of Milton Hershey (Hershey passed away 66 years ago) -- are still thriving, gracing the kitchens and satisfying the sweet tooth urges of millions in America and around the globe.

But this isn't always the case. CNN, the grand idea of Ted Turner, was sold (perhaps now regretfully) by its creator to the giant Time-Warner, and is having a difficult go. When God summons Martha Stewart to decorate heaven, surely the stockholders of Martha Stewart Inc. will hold their breath.

So it is with all human creations. So it is with the conservative movement. So, in this case, is it with National Review.

What changed between Lowry's love for Newt in 2006 and NR's scorching, 2011 anti-Newt editorial effectively endorsing two liberal Republicans -- Romney and Huntsman?

What changed is exactly what Brent Bozell cited when he said "this is no longer the magazine of William F. Buckley Jr."

William F. Buckley Jr., the Steve Jobs of National Review, died in 2008. Two years after that Lowry column lionizing Newt Gingrich. And just over three years after the Great Man's death, out comes the NR editorial scorching Newt Gingrich for sins real and alleged. Sins that were all too vividly obvious in 2006 when Buckley was still very much alive -- but somehow escaped Lowry's attention.

Again, the point here is not for someone tucked in this corner of The American Spectator to wack Rich Lowry or the great and good people at National Review. They are too well liked and respected, and conservative-bashing isn't my thing. No, the point is something else.

Change has come to National Review. It was and is inevitable. The question is, what kind of change? And simply put, as Brent Bozell indicated, there is an uneasy feeling the change at NR -- as indicated by the Gingrich editorial -- is that William Buckley's defiantly against-the-wind conservative masterpiece has gone GOP Establishment. 

To underline the point was the previous edition's plea for Mitt Romney by NR's Ramesh Ponnuru. To his credit, an amused Ponnuru noted his own (clearly very perceptive) conservative brother-in-law's inquiry on learning of Ponnuru's Romney inclination: "I didn't know you were a Democrat." Actually, it's worse than even his brother-in-law suspected. Mr. Ponnuru, a strong NR voice, seems to have developed an affinity for Establishment Republicanism.

What should President Romney do about the EPA? Rather than move to eliminate it or radically restructure it, Ponnuru's answer (applied in response to a Michele Bachmann promise to do just that) is to tinker at the edges because "no conceivable Congress within the next eight years will allow it." The National Labor Relations Board? Keep that too. Rest assured, Ponnuru soothes, Romney will be "relatively restrained" in dealing with the NLRB. And so on. And so on. Unto Republican Establishment infinity.

If, as Newt Gingrich once said years ago, then-GOP Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole was nothing more than "the tax collector for the welfare state," Mitt Romney proposes to be the manager of the welfare state. (It is, of course, no accident that Bob Dole himself has now publicly endorsed Romney.) NR clearly concurs in this concept, effectively abandoning the Reagan Revolution in which Buckley played such a significant role. There is, after all, not much distance between the reality of the Republican Establishment instincts playing the role of the tax collector for the welfare state and the idea of being the manager of same.

Had Mitt Romney been president in the 1980s no one can possibly conceive (based on his now familiar, drearily cautious performance in two presidential campaigns) of statements from a President Romney that the Soviets lie and cheat or that they are an "evil empire." Had it been President Romney at the Berlin Wall instead of President Reagan the famous call to "tear down this wall" would have long vanished for good from Romney speech drafts when the bureaucrats objected, just as they repeatedly vanished from Reagan's text. The difference is that Reagan personally kept putting them back in-- and Romney himself, one suspects (in spite of recent comments that Iran is "evil"), would have taken them out. For that matter, the kind of people Reagan hired to write his speeches would never be hired in a Romney White House to begin with. Are you kidding? Too zany, don't you know. Too talk radio-ish.

Heavens, the other night on the O'Reilly show on Fox Mr. Romney couldn't even bring himself to call Obama a socialist. Evil Empire? Tear down this wall? Are you kidding? From the timid, Establishment, eager to please Mitt Romney? Not on your life would bold words like that ever escape his lips. Not now -- much less were he actually president.

And as a result…post a 1980s Romney Administration there is every reason to believe the Soviet Union would still be alive and well, the Berlin Wall still standing.

Which brings us to the real question here.

If one thinks of the modern conservative movement as, say, one thinks of Steve Job's Apple after his death or CNN after Ted Turner handed the reins to Time-Warner… what happens next? As one by one the modern conservative greats -- the Buckleys, Goldwaters, Rushers, Reagans, Kemps and so on go to their well-deserved rewards -- what happens to the movement they built or energized and now have left behind?

The answer, it would seem, is to rely on the old adage of Edmund Burke that what we are all about is a pact between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Which in terms of conservatives on the eve of the 2012 election means we should perhaps be viewing what's going on at National Review and in the campaign itself as the latest turn of the conservative page.

And since this forward movement has necessarily been somewhat querulous from the get-go, there's nothing to fear in realizing that the intellectual ferment passed through the generations from Burke to Buckley is what is really going on here. Now, as always, the ideas that fuel conservative thought need continual public discussion.

In fact, one of the leading conservative intellectual lights of today -- the man whose last book not only sat atop the bestseller lists for endless weeks with Buckley-like popularity but was waved in the air at Tea Party rallies -- is shortly to come forth with another blockbuster.

Yes, that's right, Mark Levin has been up nights in that famous bunker burning the midnight oil and come the middle of January Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America will debut, infuriating all the right people yet again. That last book, the bestselling and influential Liberty and Tyranny,has already made it onto the required reading list of at least one major university (American University in Washington, D.C.) where the book is taught by the Government Department's Christopher Malagisi to students as part of a course on "The Modern Conservative Movement in US Politics."

Levin's forthcoming study of the fateful links between tyranny and utopians will doubtless launch all manner of hot discussions as he purposefully examines utopian principles and their ultimate impracticality, not to mention the danger they pose to a free society.

So too, in another must read next year, will come The Death of Liberalism by The American Spectator's founder and editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.

Interestingly The Death of Liberalism, I learn from the author himself, contains a tale both curiously ironic and eerie in terms of foreshadowing the future rise of the American conservative movement -- and the decline of a liberalism that was in the very tumultuous political year of 1968 already beginning its slow slide from the dominant position of public favor it had held since 1932.

It seems that in the way back of the spring of 1968, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was on stage at Indiana University, in the middle of what became his tragic campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. This also being the middle of the heated Indiana Democratic presidential primary between Kennedy, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and LBJ's Vice President Hubert Humphrey, journalists abounded. On stage that day was the young student Bob Tyrrell, already the precocious founder of a one-year old fledgling conservative magazine The Alternative that would evolve into today's American Spectator. Speech concluded, Kennedy, besieged as always by frantic crowds and with no Secret Service protection, looked at Tyrrell and requested help getting off-stage and back to his car. The young Mr. Tyrrell, ever the gentlemen, guided Bobby Kennedy back through the maze of curtains to the proper exit and RFK's waiting car. Kennedy went to shake Tyrrell's hand -- and as he did so Bob Tyrrell slipped into the palm of the man who was the leading liberal icon of the day… yes… a Reagan for president button.

The tragedy, of course, is that a mere two months later Robert Kennedy, again looking for an exit from a speech, this time after a primary win in California, was guided straight into a back kitchen where his assassin waited. Which makes the Tyrrell story all the more eerie and ironic.

There in the middle of 1968 Indiana, brought together for a moment in time, was the past, the present and the future of American politics. There was the man who was the son of the one-time confidante and Ambassador for the ascendant liberal icon FDR, the brother of the martyred liberal hero-president JFK, seen at that exact moment himself as the future King of the new liberal Camelot. A mythical political kingdom that the media of the day presumed would go on, as Handel's Messiah proclaims… "forever… and ever… and ever… Hallelujah… Hallelujah." 

And who did fate put in his path -- as a momentary guide to ultimately not just his car but the real future he would never live to see? None other than the very young editor of the future's American Spectator -- replete with a Reagan political button. Brashly announcing by both his very presence and the button in his hand the conservative future Robert Kennedy would never live to see. Tyrrell's presence with his Reagan button effectively signaling liberalism was doomed to become an archaic, no longer viable political faith.

So from this outpost at The American Spectator as 2012 looms and the arguments begin to fly, it would seem that in light of the NR assault on Newt Gingrich and the making of the case for Mitt Romney, it would be appropriate to make a different case altogether. A case many conservatives dead, living and unborn, to use Burke's formulation, would welcome.

That would be: The Case for a Conservative President.

So what would a conservative presidency look like? What is the Case for a Conservative President?

Yes, in fact, a conservative presidency would easily have room for the conservative ideas of the conservative Newt Gingrich (who has the vote ratings from conservative groups to attest to that conservatism) -- the application of outside the box creative thinking that NR mocks with its Establishment-style lampooning of Newt's World. Just the other day the Wall Street Journal, an occasional Gingrich critic, pointed out that of his zillion and one ideas that are being mocked "among the most undeserved targets is the former Speaker's concern about an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) attack.)" In other words, the price for brilliance may well be too many endless ideas -- but the mere fact of his ongoing intellectual fecundity can indeed focus attention on very serious and decidedly legitimate problems others simply don't even think to consider. Yes the typically Newtonian rhetoric about the judiciary has launched apoplexy. And has quickly sent Romney fleeing even as others rally to have the discussion, as Court watching activist Curt Levey did here, again in the WSJ.

And just as with the attacks on Ronald Reagan's depiction of the Soviet Communists as an "Evil Empire" or his firing of thousands of air traffic controllers, Establishment Republicans and others have rushed for the smelling salts, Romney predictably included.

But what's missed here is that serious conservative leadership demands bold thought expressed in bold language. It must move the discussion not only forward but put it on the table in bold fashion in the first place. Can this miss its mark on occasion? Yes, of course. But the public memory even today of Ronald Reagan is a direct result of his willingness to think aloud the thoughts others were too cautious or politically correct to voice. From the "Evil Empire" to saying, for example -- yes, I think the idea of space lasers (derided, lest we forget, as "Star Wars") is a good and workable idea. To saying yes -- we can in fact win the Cold War. To saying yes -- we can halt left-wing judicial activism. And in doing all this to accept the fact that the timidity and lack of intellectual creativity rampant in the GOP Establishment not to mention the liberal world would result in endless mirth, mocking and alarmed, scornful dismissal. This is precisely, it should be noted, how NR minus Buckley and the GOP Establishment is treating Newt Gingrich right this moment. 

Only the in the world of the GOP Establishment -- producer of losing candidacies from Dewey to Dole to McCain -- is the timid Romney's flip-flopping seen as saleable. But saleable for what? Winning? Then what? Does anyone seriously doubt the entire object of the Establishment's warm glow for Romney is just so one of their own can manage America? Effectively wasting a presidency to leave the country as it was found? Dragging the country along in a seriously depleted condition caused by an endless static statism? Not changing anything, just tinkering around the edges? This is at bottom what Bush 41 meant when he scorned Gingrich as a "bomb thrower." It should be noted that in violating conservative principles on taxes, after saying read my lips, it was Bush 41 -- yes, a genuine hero and good man -- who nonetheless got clobbered by Bill Clinton. Romney's self-identification with the Bush-Ford wing of the GOP is exactly what is giving him problems. No wonder this sends electricity through the nutty half-left, sometimes right world of Paulism populated by people who come across as cultists and chest-beaters, a movement where more prominent spokesmen deny or distort the facts of American history -- while others defend newsletters that reek of the worst traits in that history. 

Does the conservative movement really want to have as its most prominent public face someone whose idea of national security is to blame America first while defending the likes of the Wikileaker Bradley Manning? Really? Unfortunately the more the Establishment succeeds the more it feeds this worldview Michele Bachmann correctly calls "bizarre" and that Rick Santorum never, ever fails to attack head on. One could go on here about the wonderful conservative credentials of both Bachmann and Santorum, not to mention in case of a deadlock, the idea of those with names like Ryan, Rubio, and Jindal. But we digress. 

Fortunately, while all of this has been going, someone has already made the Case for a Conservative President. Made it, in fact, spectacularly well. Let's take a look:

Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?

Let us show that we stand for fiscal integrity and sound money and above all for an end to deficit spending, with ultimate retirement of the national debt.

Let us also include a permanent limit on the percentage of the people's earnings government can take without their consent.

Let our banner proclaim a genuine tax reform that will begin by simplifying the income tax so that workers can compute their obligation without having to employ legal help.

And let it provide indexing -- adjusting the brackets to the cost of living -- so that an increase in salary merely to keep pace with inflation does not move the taxpayer into a surtax bracket. Failure to provide this means an increase in government's share and would make the worker worse off than he was before he got the raise.

Let our banner proclaim our belief in a free market as the greatest provider for the people.

Let us also call for an end to the nit-picking, the harassment and over-regulation of business and industry which restricts expansion and our ability to compete in world markets.

Let us explore ways to ward off socialism, not by increasing government's coercive power, but by increasing participation by the people in the ownership of our industrial machine.

Our banner must recognize the responsibility of government to protect the law-abiding, holding those who commit misdeeds personally accountable.

And we must make it plain to international adventurers that our love of peace stops short of "peace at any price."

We will maintain whatever level of strength is necessary to preserve our free way of life.

A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers.

I do not believe I have proposed anything that is contrary to what has been considered Republican principle. It is at the same time the very basis of conservatism. It is time to reassert that principle and raise it to full view. And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these principles, then let them go their way.

In short…there it is.

The "very basis of conservatism."

The crystal clear definition of what a conservative president should be. A call that National Review's Mitt Romney seems repeatedly and at times spectacularly unable to answer. The mixed message Romney displays -- the "it's all in the data " approach of a Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover, the trouble with the "vision thing" (as Bush 41 called the same problem) are all on display in a recent Wall Street Journal interview

It is precisely the approach beloved of the GOP Establishment -- the dividing line between Reagan and Gerald Ford or both Bushes.

It is a call that sends shivers up Republican Establishment backbones. It is a call that Ron Paul specifically rejected when he resigned from the GOP in 1988 and ran as the Libertarian -- not conservative -- candidate for president.

Who was it that made this case? Who was it who, among other things, was unafraid to pin the socialist label on opponents in this talk? Yes, I know, it sounds like Rush Limbaugh, the man who in the eyes of millions is the real successor to William F. Buckley's legacy. Yes, it sounds like a Hannity radio or TV show or excerpts from a Levin monologue or book. It sounds, yes, like the trumpet once heard from the pages of the once non-Establishment Buckley-run National Review.

But in fact it was made by someone else. A someone else once viewed as simplistic, not very smart, prone to gaffes, extreme -- everything the Republican Establishment detests.

In fact, no one could better make the Case for a Conservative President.

The speaker?

That would be former California Governor Ronald Reagan, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference.

In 1975.

Ronald Reagan, the great friend and ally of William F. Buckley who became the gold standard for a conservative president. (And yes -- being human -- Ronald Reagan made a mistake here or there. The better for would be conservative successors to learn from.)

As conservatives come to grips with their own changing of the guard, at National Review, in the next Republican White House and for that matter at every conservative institution worthy of the name, it is perhaps worthwhile in that eternal ongoing Burkean dialogue between the living, the dead, and the unborn that someone somewhere always make the Case for a Conservative President.

Once upon a time Ronald Reagan did it.

And did it well.

Happy New Year.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.