In 1955, in the first issue of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. exuberantly proclaimed that the task for conservatives was “to stand athwart history, yelling stop.”
In these tumultuous times, it still is. But for those devoted to conserving individual freedom, preserving what’s positive from the past can never be their only task. Conserving freedom also requires reforming existing institutions and practices.
Conservatives tend to be suspicious of reform and distrustful of the impulse to improve, seeing in both perennial threats to freedom. This is exacerbated by the common tendency, on the right and the left, to equate reform and improvement with the progressive aspiration to remake society. Conservatives warn—with a good deal of dismal political history on their side—that owing to ineradicable human arrogance, ignorance, and error, big plans to centrally regulate human affairs are bound to go awry.
But that’s no excuse to conflate reform, which is often necessary to advance the cause of political liberty, with the progressive interpretation of it. Indeed, conservative reform will very often involve devising policies to limit government in the face of relentless progressive pressure to expand its reach and responsibilities.
Conservative reform is particularly necessary today. Revolutions in telecommunications and transportation continue to transform business, the family, and the environment. The threat of transnational terrorists employing biological, chemical, radiological, nuclear, and cyber weapons demands greater resourcefulness and agility at all levels of government, as well as greater cooperation among federal, state, and municipal officials. And the vast expansion of the federal government undertaken by President Obama and the Democrats has focused the electorate on government’s cost and role in a way not seen since Ronald Reagan ran for president.
Unfortunately, over the past decade, conservatism in America has squandered the reputation for reform that it earned in the 1980s and 1990s. President Reagan led the way with his signature tax cuts, which launched two decades of stunning economic growth. Governor John Engler in Michigan (1991–2003) and Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin (1987–2001) gained national prominence for the benefits they brought to their states by cutting taxes, promoting school choice, and renovating welfare. The 1994 Republican congressional campaign’s Contract with America, which drew on Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address to propose concrete legislation to make the federal government more transparent and accountable, promised a new era of conservative reform.
The promise was not fulfilled. Congressional Republicans grew complacent and in some cases corrupt. While he ran as a reformer in 2000—remember “compassionate conservatism”?—President George W. Bush was soon consumed with two wars and never regained his footing after Hurricane Katrina.
RUNAWAY SPENDING AND A LOSS OF FOCUS
The reform efforts the Bush administration did undertake—the No Child Left Behind Act, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and the campaigns to overhaul Social Security and deal with immigration—fizzled at best. Perhaps most damaging to conservative reform over the past decade was the profligate spending that united President Bush and congressional Republicans.
In 2007 and 2008, taking advantage of the nation’s war-weariness, candidate Barack Obama sonorously invoked hope and change while deftly playing down the content of the change he hoped to bring about, thereby obtaining for his party a monopoly on the spirit of reform.
To earn the opportunity to be embraced again as the majority’s governing creed, conservatism must recover its reformist heritage, its deep roots in prudent reform that embraces limited government and respect for tradition, order, and virtue.
No one appreciated that reforming ability more than Edmund Burke, a founding father of modern conservatism. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), his great polemic against radical political change driven by abstract theory, Burke insisted that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” In the causes that defined his political career—reconciliation with America, toleration for Irish Catholics, and securing the rights of the native population of India—Burke demonstrated that conserving freedom could require alteration of popular policies, breaking with entrenched practices, and upholding abroad the universality of individual rights.
Like Burke, contemporary conservatives should take their bearings from the principle of freedom and the conditions that sustain it. In every case the question is whether current arrangements or proposed alternatives are more likely to promote individual responsibility, self-reliance, and opportunity. The answers should recognize that a federal system favorable to local self-government, respectful of religion, and supportive of the family is a time-tested way to cultivate individuals capable of conserving free institutions and taking advantage of the opportunities freedom affords.
Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, as well as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, are among those officeholders who are recovering reform as a conservative virtue. In November, Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in California, and Brian Sandoval, the Republican nominee for governor in Nevada, stand a good chance to join their ranks.
SMALLER BUT MUCH BETTER
Today’s conservative reformers appreciate that within its limited sphere government should be excellent. Promoting individual responsibility, self-reliance, and opportunity requires targeted action. The list includes health care reform that truly controls costs by eliminating barriers on insurance companies operating across state lines and limiting malpractice damages; public-sector reform that reins in unions by reducing benefits and expanding accountability; and education reform that, through school-choice programs, gives parents, particularly in low-income and minority communities, greater control over their children’s education.
That’s a big agenda, and it doesn’t even address immigration and energy or national security and foreign policy. It’s a long way from standing athwart history yelling stop.
In 1965, Buckley launched a quixotic campaign for New York City mayor, running as a practical reformer and issuing detailed position papers on water, welfare, education, fiscal affairs, crime, taxation, housing, pollution, drugs, and transportation. He hadn’t changed his mind about the importance of tradition. Rather, his platform was built upon the conviction that tradition cannot be conserved without political freedom, and that political freedom cannot be conserved without restraining and reforming government.
That was a sound but losing conviction in 1965, less than a year after Lyndon Johnson crushed conservative standard-bearer Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. The conviction is just as sound in 2010 and, judging by public-opinion polls and grass-roots activism, it is what the people want.