Conservative History Isn’t All Shiny Apples

THE great Restoration statesman the Marquess of Halifax is now usually remembered with the disparaging title of “Halifax the Trimmer.” Not only was he (as we would say) “pragmatic” in his own political allegiances, but he invented The Character of a Trimmer in a pamphlet of that name in 1684. When, said his lordship, a boat was weighed down by too many people on one side or the other, “it happeneth there is a third opinion of those, who conceive it would do as well, if the boat went even without endangering the passengers.” Those passengers, therefore must rely on the Trimmer to move back and forth between the two sides so as to keep an even keel. Yet in his own day, said Halifax, “the poor Trimmer hath now all the powder spent upon him alone, while the Whig is a forgotten or at least a neglected enemy; there is no danger now to the state (if some men may be believed) but from the beast called a Trimmer.”

mohBy what strange quirk of human nature, then, does it happen that in our time the Trimmer has come to be more honored than the party man? If the media consensus is to be believed, the danger to the state comes from the beast called a “Partisan” — while the Trimmers of the Clinton Administration are all triangulating away like mad to keep the Partisans from capsizing us. As Congress recessed last month, for example, Alison Mitchell sadly announced on the front page of the New York Times the “Return of Partisanship to Capitol Hill.”

As the 105th Congress ended its first session tonight, it could boast of one paramount, bipartisan achievement: the midsummer legislation to balance the budget and cut taxes. But the ill will, stalemate, and destruction of the session’s closing weeks point to a return to sharp partisanship next year.

Who are the guilty men of this Partisan Congress? Interestingly, those who are blamed for bringing back hated Partisanship are those who take up contrary positions to those which the New York Times consistently identifies as the right ones. The Republicans were at fault for killing campaign-finance reform and the nominations of Bill Lann Lee to head the civil-rights division of the Justice Department and William Weld to be ambassador to Mexico, while the Democrats were guilty of opposing their President on free trade. The reader is invited to share in the writers’ longing for an ideal world in which everyone would be as far-sighted as the New York Times.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Dan Balz was singing the praises of current British political discourse, to which the new Conservative leader, William Hague, had made a remarkable contribution by admitting that his party had suffered its worst defeat in over ninety years because it “was regarded as out of touch and irrelevant.” Balz does not reflect that Hague could hardly have acknowledged less and might have acknowledged a lot more; that “was regarded” was a typical politician’s use of the passive voice in order to avoid assigning responsibility. No matter, it was enough to send Balz off into raptures:

What if the Republicans, after 1996, had acknowledged that, in their haste to undo the Great Society, they had alarmed many of the voters who had put them into power? What if they had really owned up to the fact that the hard edges of their conservatism in the 104th Congress had triggered a public backlash that hung like a dead weight upon Dole’s campaign?

And what if neither of these things is true? Balz never considers this possibility because for him, and for the journalistic Trimmers whose ever-growing numbers he would join, it is true ex hypothesi: all moral failing and most electoral non-success must be the results of deviations from the Golden Mean, that tolerant, secular, “compassionate,” Great Society Lite habit of mind that the journalistic consensus has made its own.

The irony is that Balz is right in claiming that “neither party in America works very well these days.” But much of the reason for this state of affairs is that both parties are terrified to go beyond that same journalistic consensus, lest they be identified as “extremists” or unduly “hard edged.” We all are Trimmers now.

What was it that turned the Trimmer from a reviled turncoat into the “pragmatic,” “non-ideological” hero of our time — the Colin Powell or the Bill Bradley to whom so many in the press look to usher in a new, “non-partisan” political era? Perhaps the sea of cant on which our politics has been floating since Vietnam and Watergate is just unusually stormy and requires a lot of trimming. But if so, the job of the Trimmer is an easy one so long as he continues to occupy his usual place of journalistic safety. What could be easier than to stand to one side and tweak the party men with one’s own disinterested avoidance of party conflict? What could be nicer than to gain a reputation for high-minded principle by promoting such issues as campaign-finance reform, gun control, punishment for tobacco companies, and stepped-up production of racial pieties?

Yet the true Trimmer can never really have any other principles so long as his first principle is keeping an even keel between Left and Right. It is therefore hard to know whether it is to the Trimmer’s credit or discredit that he less often proves true to his one ostensible principle of moderation than to his many unacknowledged ones, which are generally liberal. For the most notable journalistic Trimmers of our time — E. J. Dionne and David Broder of the Washington Post, for example, Jonathan Alter and Matthew Cooper of Newsweek, Joe Klein of The New Yorker — are nearly all liberals whose compromises with the failures of their creed are mostly rhetorical. These are men (for some reason, women are less likely to be apologetic about their liberalism) who have learned how to salve their consciences by clinging to the “compassion” of their liberal youth while at the same time claiming credit for the “moderation” of their middle age.

But liberal habits of mind die hard. Consider E. J. Dionne’s taking the Republicans to task last summer for charging Democrats with attempting to revive “class warfare” by insisting on a high rate of capital-gains tax for “the wealthiest,” who were to have received 18.8 per cent of the “benefits” under the Republican plan but only 2.6 per cent under Clinton’s. “Once upon a time,” wrote Dionne, “class warfare meant ‘soaking the rich.’ Now you’re in the trenches with bearded Marxists if your tax cut for the wealthy isn’t big enough. Strange, but this is Washington in 1997.” To Dionne, of course, that money is the government’s, and it is absurd for the government to “offer” or “give” it to rich people. He doesn’t see that logically you’re in the trenches with the bearded Marxists whether you propose to start soaking the rich or, as in Washington in 1997, not to stop soaking them.

Characteristically, however, he is generous with his advice to Republicans, who, he says, “are missing their best case for a tax cut” by not agreeing to Democratic proposals to extend the $500-a-child tax credit to non-taxpayers. Recalcitrance on this point he takes to be nothing less than “incomprehensible.” (Revealing word!) Tax relief for those who pay no taxes is not tax relief but a handout from government — that is, from some genuine taxpayer. But once again Dionne sees all that money as belonging to the government in the first place, so that the tax credit would be for him a handout in either case. That is why what would seem to be an elementary distinction between giving people back their own money and giving them some of somebody else’s is “incomprehensible” to him.

The Trimmer’s gestures to the right, though sincere, depend for their magnanimity upon such incomprehensibilities as these. Indeed, if you think about it, it is quite touching that someone like Matt Cooper can continue to be polite to Republicans when he takes it for granted that the story of the Reagan years is precisely as it is in the Democratic playbook: “overzealous military spending and excessive tax cuts led to $5 trillion worth of debt.”

One of the most revealing things Cooper ever wrote was in his consideration in The New Republic of the improbable candidacy of Richard Lugar for the Republican nomination in 1996. “The most pressing question,” he wrote, “is not whether Lugar will be elected President, which is doubtful in the extreme. It’s whether Lugar will win the mantle of the thinking man’s candidate.” Why this should have been a “pressing question” to the political junkies who read The New Republic is very far from clear: why it was pressing to bien-pensant journalists is much more clear. Identification of “the thinking man’s candidate” (Cooper helpfully reminds us that this was Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Bruce Babbitt in 1988) — a candidate whose chief virtue, it is not too much to say, is his unelectability — is necessary for those whose business it is to find and praise politicians who stand for a show of bipartisanship and cheerful pragmatism.

THESE qualities are all very well in their place, of course, but one ought to be suspicious about those who value them for their own sake and independently of context. That is the sure path to Clintonian posing, which is only a more successful version of the “thinking man’s” vacuous tributes to any sort of bipartisanship and pragmatism, when in fact the Partisan may be in any given instance (and often is) far more pragmatic, and the pragmatic the result of partisanship. But Clinton has shown us how liberalism in the post-Reagan era has learned to sustain itself by trimming against the list to conservatism. In 1996 it was nearly impossible to find any single issue on which Clinton had a substantive disagreement with his Republican opponents; but on every issue he pledged to go more slowly and to protect those, such as children or old people, whom he portrayed as being otherwise vulnerable to Republican rashness.

Thus the Trimmers in the press have become, after a period of fashionable skepticism and ennui, largely converts to the Clintonian notion of the “vital center” epitomized by “soccer moms.” What is there left now for the poor toothless beast of a Trimmer to try to set to rights but such few shreds of “partisanship” as remain –Jesse Helms, for instance, or an unexpected stiffening from Orrin Hatch over the appointment of Mr. Lee? Until such time as we can learn once again to hate the Trimmer, there will be no good times for anybody in following American politics.

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