With the defeat last week of New Hampshire's conservative stalwart, Sen. Bob Smith, in a Republican senatorial primary, it began to dawn on the Washington Post that American conservatism is changing.
In point of fact, the Post for once is correct, though the change in the American right hardly began last week. It's been going on virtually ever since the Reagan administration, if not before, but as the Post also grasped, the change is more or less culminating this year. ["GOP Departures Signal Arrival of a New Era For Conservatism" by Helen Dewar, Washington Post, September 16, 2002]
Not only will Mr. Smith take his leave from Washington but so will several other elder or aging statesmen of the political right—the seemingly eternal Strom Thurmond, who at the ripe age of 99 is retiring at the end of the year; Sen. Jesse Helms, once the left's favorite demon, who is also retiring; as well as the amiable Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
In their place, we have such pillars of iron as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who assures the Post that the conservatism of the present day is "not hard-edged; it's caring."
That was the gist also of the comment from another quote boy dredged up by the Post, Marshall Wittman of the Hudson Institute.
"The era of sharp-elbowed conservatism is over," Mr. Wittman glowed. "The hard-core social and economic conservatism has lost its edge." Today, in their place, you see, "we have big-government conservatives and compassionate conservatives."
And so we do. Whether they're worth having is another question.
The Post, of course, is absolutely delighted at the revolution the departure of Thurmond, Helms and their colleagues represents. The advent of a softer, gentler conservatism means that the undiluted liberalism espoused by the Post will be less likely to suffer resistance.
But the truth is that Mr. Thurmond has not sported a sharp elbow in decades, while even Mr. Helms' appendages seem a bit dull in recent years. (These days, he's supporting amnesty for illegal aliens and more government funding to fight AIDS in Africa.)
But however they may have mellowed, the end of the careers of these gentlemen does mean that the issues and principles they fought for will leave with them.
Anti-communism, abortion, racial politics and big government were the four-part framework within which the old right of these legislators flourished. The first, of course, is completely gone today and can make a plausible case of having won the Cold War. Abortion shows no sign of returning to the alleys, and the Supreme Court case that legalized it, Roe v. Wade, is unlikely to be reversed. Republicans themselves now slobber over racial pandering even more than the Democrats, and the GOP and its big brains have all but abandoned affirmative action and immigration. Small government and strict construction constitutionalism are largely moribund; the most conservatives today will fight for has to do with spending and taxes, not the actual scope of state power.
So the brutal truth is that the sharp-elbow crowd never accomplished an awful lot; American conservatism, as it flourished between the New Deal and the end of the Cold War, was pretty much of a flop, and now it's essentially dead.
But don't expect the compassionate, caring, Big Government conservatism that Sen. Brownback and Mr. Wittman (and the Post) are crowing over to do much better. What they mean is that they have managed to redefine conservatism into something more compatible with the liberalism whose dominance the right has failed to overturn and now has accepted.
It's not true, for example, that the conservatism of the Thurmond-Helms generation was less "caring" or less "compassionate" than the current crop. The right of that day certainly cared about and felt compassion for victims of real injustice—the millions whose "liberation" under communism liberals either ignored or lied about; the buckets of innocent blood shed by the thugs and killers for whom liberals felt so sorry; the lives and characters wrecked by the idiotic moral and social experiments in counter-culture that the left glorified.
What separated the "caring" and "compassion" of the right and the left is not that one cared and the other didn't but that they each had entirely different and conflicting visions of what justice is and who deserved what.
What has happened now is not that George W. Bush and lawmakers like Mr. Brownback have discovered that "compassion" is good but that they have accommodated themselves and their own concepts of justice to standards approaching those of liberalism.
In other words, we're not really any more "caring" or "compassionate" - we're just less conservative. [VDARE.COM note: Here at VDARE.COM, we call this phenomenon "Goldbergism" after its most (self-) publicized exponent.]
But it remains to be seen if the voters who elected men like Mr. Thurmond and Mr. Helms decade after decade have gone quite as dull in the elbows as today's soft right wants to think.
COPYRIGHT CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
September 19, 2002