Commentary Magazine


Washington Meets the New

In the wake of the Republican landslide, the liberal doyens of the Washington establishment, never much for gallows humor, find themselves able to laugh only weakly these days whenever the “denial-of-death” metaphor predictably appears in one or another piece of political commentary. The paradigm made popular by Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross—the progression from denial and rage to resignation and acceptance in the face of imminent death—hits a bit too close to home. For they understand that they must now find their way to a state of inner peace and to a final embrace of their fate. It is just that they are not quite there yet.

At the moment, the imagery they invoke—always self-referential and invariably ignorant of its true origins—remains sometimes Gibbonesque (the Visigoths are at the gates of Rome, about to sack the city; can it save itself?); sometimes Dostoevskian (anarchists, constrained by no known moral code, are engaging in seemingly random bomb-hurling; is this merely a political tactic?); sometimes unwittingly reminiscent of verses from their one and only undergraduate poetry course, “Yeats and Eliot” (things are falling apart; the center is not holding; is our world ending with a whimper, or a bang?).

Meanwhile, the Republicans are in a much different, and not particularly reflective, state. Instead, they are very busy. Their congressional victory, especially in the House of Representatives, has launched them into frenetic activity resembling nothing so much as a military campaign.

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Something comparable in spirit to 1994 occurred fourteen years ago when, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s first victory, the operation was directed toward the takeover of the executive branch. Inevitably, the “grunts” of that earlier campaign are far too feeble these days for real hand-to-hand political combat; most have been kicked upstairs to strategy and planning, if they are enlisted at all.

In their reflective leisure, like all old veterans, they have taken to telling tales of the time when it was their turn to hit the ground running or, better, to hit the beach and secure the foothold, while others parachuted behind the political enemy’s lines, the better to disrupt his operations, sow confusion, and prepare for his final envelopment.

It is easy to contrast that experience and its meaning to what is going on now. Perhaps the most critical difference has to do with a sense that these boys of ’94 have seized control of a federal government (or at least a major chunk of it) that is simply not the prize it once was, that there is no longer very much useful they can do with it now that they have it, and that even total success in the present and necessary endeavor of whittling it down to size will not be as heroic as the partial success of the prior campaign to bend it to at least one valuable purpose.

Admittedly, this sense of things may reflect only one former paratrooper’s inability to see the big picture, either then or now. But in 1980 my outfit had a very specific reason for wanting to seize control of “the state,” and that was to wage the cold war. It was obvious even to those of us who had been educated to see the growth of state power as malignant that we needed that power in order to wage that war. Indeed, the historians among us knew that the state had reached its awesome size primarily because of that very war, even if this was not where it spent most of its money.

Moreover, compared to our then-new Commander-in-Chief’s injunction that the cold war be fought to actual victory, and weighed against the prospect that the greatest conflicts of the century—between democracy and totalitarianism in politics, and capitalism and Communism in economics—might conceivably be resolved at last, other considerations simply paled.

In any case, my own unit, if it consisted of Republicans at all, had only newly-minted ones; but that was no disability in the foreign-policy realm, where the chief himself was far more Harry Truman than Robert Taft.

In this one respect, we boys of ’80 cannot be overly impressed with the hate-objects of ’94, for we took on the mighty Soviet empire. The EPA, OSHA, and FERC may be formidable foes, but they are not armed with nuclear weapons. (The Department of Energy, however, is so armed; it actually manufactures the things.)

On the other hand, the fact that circumstances have become less frightful has not led the boys of ’94 to self-indulgent giddiness or frivolity. Rather, it has propelled them into resuming a venerable, temporarily frozen, discussion in our country about the fundamentals of the political order and the philosophical, especially moral, basis of our civic affairs. This discussion promises to pay attention to great constitutional questions—involving the relations among branches of the national government, as well as the relations between the national government and the states.

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On this score, some of us, their more experienced—more jaded?—predecessors, have started to be concerned on behalf of the boys of ’94, not because we fear that they will sell out but because we have been trained to worry about what may happen to them if they do not. Drawing on our own experiences of a half-generation ago, we wonder why the new arrivals fail to see the threat that abides. And then the thought occurs that perhaps they have already realized something that has not yet dawned on us worry-warts: that there is no longer anything to fear or, at least, no longer anything like the fear that frequently constrained our own sense of possibility in the early Reagan years.

In those days, for all the outward brio, there was a deep apprehension that conservatives, although now enjoying political power, lacked the ability to confer true public honor (which, so our mentor, Aristotle, had taught us, was a thing that all men craved). This meant that many of us had, in large measure, a very practical dependency on the good opinion of assorted style-setters, trend-starters, and phrase-makers—all of whom were liberals, of course.

It was only prudent to keep a watchful eye on these people when careers could be interrupted, reputations destroyed, future livelihoods jeopardized—not to say subpoenas issued and grand-jury testimony compelled—if one were defined as of the wrong sort. Republican-controlled Senate and Reagan in the White House or no, one soon figured out who really could speak his mind and who could not, who would be dubbed “a person of principle” and who “an ideologue,” who “a man of unshakable conviction” and who just “mindlessly rigid.” The liberal system thus imposed its disciplines upon us, and relentlessly reinforced its bedrock idea that we were in Washington on its sufferance.

Far more than it cared then to admit, the Right—to borrow an engaging term from the contemporary Left—internalized its own oppression. Over time, it became very important for many conservatives to hint or insinuate that they were different from the “primitives” with whom they were associated. Such behavior often involved more than a little dissembling, and more than a little feigned jollity also, attributes one traditionally associates more with the slave than with his owner. And inevitably, as much great literature reminds us, what might have begun as self-consciously adopted behavior could gradually become habitual, until the man who once thought of himself as free actually came to manifest the mental habits and personal appurtenances of a slave. In the end, such a man started to honor himself for his ability to mislead his masters, thinking this behavior wonderfully clever rather than just merely debased.

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These are bad habits, as we all know, which is why we praise the Almighty for allowing the children of Israel to wander for 40 years in the Sinai wilderness. His theory was that the generation of men with the mindset of slaves needed to die off before the Holy Land could be properly recovered.

The symbolic symmetry between those four biblical decades and the four decades since Republicans last controlled the U.S. House of Representatives is, of course, too cute, especially since the Republicans had already been gradually transforming themselves along the way.

One could have noticed it in 1990, when in the House they rebelled against President Bush’s about-face on taxes, or when, to a member, they voted against President Clinton’s proposed budget in 1993; or in the summer of 1994, when the same members gradually shook off the accusations of “gridlock” by their self-appointed betters, and showed absolutely no compulsion to “cooperate.” By late 1994, even before their electoral victory, the younger ones were already talking back to television interviewers and, by the end of the year, they were positively uncontrollable, even by the moderators of the Sunday-morning broadcasts.

These new Republicans seem wholly uninfluenced by a desire to be among the “best and the brightest,” see no particular value in Yale University—especially since it is Yale’s law school, after all, which produced not one but both of the Clintons—and have never heard of McGeorge Bundy or William Bowen and, therefore, care not at all whether either one has heard of them. Nor do they seem to be lusting for the approval of liberal editorialists and other such reputation-makers. They prefer the praise of a radio talk-show host to the parties of a Georgetown hostess.

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All this may be yet another example of how tensions between the “culture” and the “polity” can resolve themselves. Fifteen years ago, the hostility between “activist conservatism” and “polite society” was bitter and pronounced. There is still much acrimony yet to come, but today the trend is clear. Slowly but surely, and to the increasing consternation of polite society, the struggle is to the advantage of the conservatives. It will be fun while it lasts.

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