A Question of Wit and Will

Terry Eastland

June 16, 2014

The next conservative President must be willing to be rhetorical in the best sense: he must frequently make cogent arguments for his policies. That way he can contribute to deliberative democracy; and that way, just possibly, lies greater success than Reagan or Bush enjoyed in establishing their policies in law.

The 1992 election brought to an end not just the Bush presidency but a conservative era in presidential politics that was a gleam in the eye of F. Clifton White. For it was 1961—when, the Age of Camelot having rolled in, conservatives were approximately as down in the dumps as they are today—that White convened a group of his colleagues at the Avenue Hotel in Chicago to plot how conservatives might capture the Republican Party and win the presidency. Both goals were achieved, and Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency facilitated the election of George Bush in 1988. “Facilitate” is the right verb, for it is doubtful that Bush could have got to the Oval Office on his own. Bush’s great fortune was (1) to have been selected vice-president in 1980 by Reagan, this enjoying an advantage over his rivals in the 1988 GOP primaries; and (2) to have been able to run as the GOP nominee in 1988 when the economy was still growing. The first advantage was good for that year only, and the second was not available in 1992, when the economy was struggling to recover from the 1990-91 recession. Meanwhile, the Democrats managed to nominate in Bill Clinton an almost perfect candidate— someone who rejected, as Michael Dukakis had not, the label of “liberal” and was relentlessly protean in adapting to whatever political environment he was in, and who, notwithstanding his efforts to escape the draft during the Vietnam War and his opposition to it, worked overtime to persuade American voters that unlike previous Democratic nominees, he would be a Commander in Chief willing to pull the trigger of war. Meanwhile, too, the election year witnessed in Ross Perot the strongest third-party challenge since Theodore Roosevelt’s try in 1912— a challenge that tapped into the anti-incumbent sentiment discernible in recent years.

These circumstances worked to send George Bush home to Kennebunkport and/or Houston. So here we are now, in 1993, with a self-proclaimed “new Democrat” in the White House and conservatives reflecting on the lessons of their experience in the executive department.

Few conservatives could be described as pleased with the Bush record, which included the eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and intelligent supervision of the end of the Cold War and the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas but also, among other things: the 1990 budget summit, which, contrary to the President’s loudly declared 1988 campaign promise against “no new taxes,” raised taxes; the 1991 civil rights legislation, which contrary to his opposition to quotas, tended to support quotas; and, contrary to his stated intentions on the matter, a reregulating of the economy. There is much to learn from the few pluses and the many minuses of the Bush presidency, but conservatives will make a mistake if they do not also think critically about the Reagan presidency. The entire 12-year period is worthy of reflection.

A chief lesson, or set of lessons, concerns the federal government. Conservatives used to be wary of executive power and celebrants of the Congress. It is an insistent lesson of the past 12 years that having only the presidency is not enough to govern as effectively as one might; conservatives must run for, win control of (and reform) both houses of Congress, and strategies towards these ends must, especially now, be pursued. But regardless of the partisan composition of Congress, it remains the case—and a lesson of the past 12 years—that the executive must be an energetic one. Alexander Hamilton said as much in his essays on the presidency in The Federalist, and the conservative wariness of executive power has in this century stemmed largely from the excessively (even at times unconstitutionally) energetic tenures of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, especially. But in form, at least, there is nothing wrong with a presidency that acts on the basis of its constitutional powers, and such a presidency, as the framers understood, is critical to limited government. Moreover, as a practical matter, especially under conditions of divided government and given that current political forces in Washington conduce toward even larger and more expensive federal government, a conservative executive cannot be passive and hope to advance a conservative program that must, by definition, press for less of virtually everything: taxes, expenditures, regulations, bureaucrats, programs, offices, etc. This list should also include less government by judiciary, achievable through the appointment of judicial conservatives.

The point is, after these past twelve years, conservatives must appreciate the importance of executive power and the need for its energetic exercise—an exercise that must be constitutional and should strive to be prudent. Conservatives should have learned that most all of what a President does he does through his aides, and that for that reason his appointments (of more than 5,000) people to executive departments and agencies ought to be made with enormous care: candidates must be evaluated in terms of competence in the relevant field, integrity, commitment to change and—not least—dedication to the President’s politics and policies. Conservatives also should have learned that policy goals can be pursued both legislatively and administratively—the President has constitutional powers and duties in regard to both—and that a jurisprudential legacy can be built through the intelligent use of the President’s unfettered power to nominate and his (shared with the Senate) power to appoint judges and Justices. Conservatives also should have learned the President ought to confront Congress on issues of major importance: one thinks, for example, of Reagan’s failure to challenge the Boland amendments or to make the case for the Bork nomination. And, too, conservatives should have learned that the President must defend his own office against legislation that would weaken it: one thinks here, especially, of Reagan’s failure to veto the independent counsel reauthorization, in 1983 and then again in 1987. For many Americans, the presidency today is synonymous with the “bully pulpit”—with presidential speeches, press conferences, and the like. Ronald Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator,” and indeed he gave many impressive speeches. But Reagan did not routinely argue the best case possible for specific programs and policies. On the other hand, George Bush disdained the task of speechmaking, to such an extent he appeared, at times, almost as a Nineteenth Century President. He preferred press conferences, a poor forum for making an argument, and he seldom made good arguments for his programs and policies. The next conservative President must be willing to be rhetorical in the best sense: he must frequently make cogent argument for his policies. That way he can contribute to the deliberative democracy; and that way, just possibly, lies greater success than Reagan or Bush enjoyed in establishing their policies in law.

For the future, the content of policy remains critical. And here the Reagan-Bush era raises the question of what, especially on the domestic side, should that content, generally speaking, be? The past 12 years of conservative presidential governance did not leave a mark comparable to that left by the 12 years of FDR. Conservatism from 1981 to 1993 led to a greater appreciation for lowered tax rates, as witness the marginal rate cuts of 1981 and 1986, and for, at least in theory, limited central government, as witness the exit-polling data on Election Day, indicating majorities against higher taxes and more spending. But it proved unable to downsize and reform government—the Education Department still stands, larger than ever, and added has been the Veteran’s Department—or to reform spending (farmers making more than $100,000 annually still receive subsidies!). (A cynic might say that what conservatism proved is that cutting taxes for you and me is easier than cutting a grant that goes into your bank account and mine.) Conservatism also proved unable to revive federalism. Just as it proved unable to disturb very much the widespread notion that as Washington goes, so goes the nation. More generally, it proved unable to restore the formalities of the Constitution to our forms of government. And a major reason it proved unable to do these things is that it lacked the will, and often the wit, to do them.

The great challenge for a conservatism out of presidential power is whether it will now acquire the wit and the will to do those things. Or will conservatism pursue such goals anymore? Is conservatism, after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, merely a pragmatic movement that aspires only to win and retain office by conventional measures (such as by asking, as it repeatedly has, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”) These are questions for the future, not to mention in particular the 1996 presidential campaign.

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