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Tuesday, July 1, 1997

Rip Van Winkle arose this spring from a slumber of two decades. He gazed in amazement at a world transformed.

The Soviet empire, so menacing when he fell asleep in 1977, was now on the ash heap of history.

Rising protectionism had given way to exploding commerce and tumbling trade barriers.

Nixon-Carter stagflation had been replaced by Reagan-Gingrich prosperity.

Business and profits were no longer dirty words. Now everyone wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Prices for gasoline, airfare, and long-distance phone service had plummeted thanks to competition and deregulation.

California had passed an initiative abolishing racial preferences.

Federal farm and welfare programs dating to the New Deal had been abolished.

Welfare caseloads in Wisconsin had fallen in half.

A new emphasis on local accountability, truth-in-sentencing, and community policing was reducing crime in New York and other major cities.

Congress was debating fundamental Medicare reform that would lower costs and give the elderly more choices.

Leading liberals were pushing for legislation criminalizing late-term abortions.

Congressional Black Caucus leaders were breaking with the teachers unions and the NAACP by endorsing school vouchers.

Conservative Republicans now controlled both houses of Congress and a robust majority of governorships.

Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep listening to a harangue by Ralph Nader. He awakened to the music of Rush Limbaugh.

But one thing hadn't changed since Rip closed his eyes. Conservatives were still depressed. They were still complaining about their leaders. And they were still failing to build institutions as powerful as their ideas.

The American conservative is seemingly dedicated to three principles: life, liberty, and the pursuit of unhappiness. Something there is about the conservative temperament that loves despair.

The crisis in the conservative movement is its dysfunctional relationship with its elected leaders.  

Conservatives have been singing the blues for most of the 20 years this magazine has been published. This is not simply nostalgic yearning for a leader like Ronald Reagan. Conservatives were unhappy during most of his administration, too.

In October 1983, Policy Review interviewed 12 conservative leaders to ask them what they thought of Ronald Reagan. Nine gave him low ratings.

"If Reagan represents no more than a right-of-center vision of the welfare state, he doesn't represent change; he simply represents cheap government. Republicans cannot win in that framework," said a GOP backbencher now in the congressional leadership.

"The radical surgery that was required in Washington was not performed. Ronald Reagan made a pledge not to touch entitlement programs, and that's one of the few pledges he has kept absolutely," said a top conservative activist.

"This has been essentially another Ford administration. It has been business as usual, not much different from any other Republican administration in our lifetime," said a leading conservative intellectual and journalist.

These quotations, from brilliant people I admire, betray an impatience, a set of unrealistic expectations that lead to dejection when they aren't satisfied, and a failure to create a culture of celebration for conservative achievement. In retrospect, we know that 1983 was a glorious year for conservatism. It was the first year of the Reagan boom. During 1983, as Grover Norquist wrote in these pages in the spring of 1984, "America in the throes of a supply-side recovery created more jobs in 1983 than Canada has created since 1965 . . . and as many jobs as Japan created in the entire decade of the 1970s."

That year was also the turning point in the great titanic struggle against communism. As Elizabeth Spalding and Andrew Busch wrote in Policy Review in the fall of 1993, "a series of events in 1983 would come together to stop the seemingly inexorable advance of Soviet totalitarianism and to lay the groundwork for the eventual triumph of the West." This was the year of Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, the launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the failure of peace movements to stop Euromissile deployment, the turning of the tide in El Salvador, and the liberation of Grenada.

But conservatives at the time were unaware of the historic significance of these victories. They thought they were losing. They still do. Maybe it's because conservatism still isn't acting as if it wants to govern.

Conservatism today is in a leadership crisis, but the crisis is not what most conservatives think it is. The central problem is not the lackluster quality of the party's presidential candidates. Nor is the central problem the timidity of the GOP congressional leadership in pushing for tax relief, spending cuts, and other conservative priorities.

Instead the crisis is the conservative movement's dysfunctional relationship with its elected political leaders. It would be unthinkable for top liberal politicians to propose anything as significant as a budget without consulting key groups like the AFL-CIO. But that's exactly what GOP congressional leaders did with the 1997 budget agreement: They simply made the best deal they thought they could get with President Clinton, then handed it to conservative activists as a fait accompli. There was no consultation with key conservative activists in advance; no effort to find out which reforms conservative grass-roots groups would mobilize for. GOP leaders seemed to regard the conservative movement as an annoyance, an angry constituency to be mollified, not their strongest ally.

Top-down leadership is inappropriate for a movement that aims to return responsibility back to the states and the people.

The movement is also to blame. Conservatives expect their elected leaders to do all their work for them, to mobilize the grass roots, to persuade Americans of the importance of conservative reforms. This isn't how teachers unions or environmentalists or civil-rights leaders conduct politics. Activists on the Left organize parades their politicians can march in front of. Conservatives expect their pols to fly the banners and beat the drums themselves. Then they whine when no one marches.

Exhibit A is the budget showdown of 1995. Republicans in Congress cut taxes, cut spending, boldly challenged Clinton to the point of shutting down the government. And what support did they get, district by district, precinct by precinct, from conservative activists around the country? Zilch. Instead conservatives groused that their leaders hadn't devised the right communications strategy.

Conservatives are yearning for a national leader or leaders who will galvanize and inspire the country through the national media. A Churchill, an FDR, a Reagan. But this is a model of leadership for war or a catastrophe like the Great Depression. A top-down, centralized leadership style is inappropriate for peacetime, especially for a movement that aims to decentralize power and return responsibility back to states and to the people. Conservatism today doesn't require national leaders with a dominating political presence or an eloquent media personality; what it needs most are movement-builders who will encourage and elicit leadership among the conservative movement and the American people.

Ronald Reagan told Notre Dame students in 1981 that the West would not simply contain communism, it would transcend communism. With the failure of the liberal state, with the collapse of family and community and school after 60 years of liberal control of domestic policy and the national culture, conservatives now have the opportunity to roll back liberalism at home just as Ronald Reagan rolled back the Evil Empire abroad. This will require, to borrow Reagan's formulation, that Big Government not merely be contained. It must be transcended. And to transcend the liberal welfare state, conservatives must devote the next 20 to 30 years to building private and local institutions that will outperform Big Government in addressing the nation's needs. Needed are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of American citizens reasserting their leadership over failing schools, failing criminal justice systems, failing approaches to providing opportunity for the poor, and an ugly, coarse culture that brings out the worst in human nature.

This magazine aims to report on, to celebrate, and to stimulate the great wave of social entrepreneurship that will rebuild America. Our publisher, Edwin J. Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation for 20 years, has long described himself as an "optimistic entrepreneur." Optimistic because he is confident that conservative ideas of freedom and responsibility work. An entrepreneur because he constantly looks for opportunities to advance conservative principles, even in times of political setback, and because he has dedicated his life to building an institution larger than himself that turns conservative ideas into action. Conservatism will need more of this institution-building spirit if it is to accomplish even more over the next two decades than it has over the past 20 years.