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Now They Tell Us

TRB From Washington

Apparently America cannot be the world's policeman. Political quarrels in foreign lands are none of our business. Apparently our nation is "on the verge of catastrophic decay" because we've been ignoring the problems of the poor. Major new government initiatives are called for. These are not sentiments culled from the 1972 McGovern campaign or the speeches of Hubert Humphrey. These are "new ideas" being trumpeted by America's triumphant conservatives. To which the proper response is an exasperated, "Now they tell us!"

McGovern said, "Come home, America." Paleocon Patrick Buchanan now writes, "America is coming home." He recommends, as part of a "new nationalism," the withdrawal of all our troops stationed abroad and a general indifference to the fate of foreign nations.

Neocon Irving Kristol confesses that lie has achieved that indifference. He resents the pages devoted to international news in The New York Times. The struggle between "a Mr. Doe and a Mr. Taylor" in Liberia gives him "a sense of numbness." Ethiopians starve as brutal Marxists duke it out for power, but "one's fund of compassion for suffering peoples all over the world is limited" and "we have no national interest there." Godspeed to the Burmese people struggling for democracy, but Burma has been undemocratic for decades "and the American people seem not to have experienced any trauma as a consequence."

What has changed? The answer, of course, for both Kristol and Buchanan, is the collapse of communism. But this answer raises other questions. What, in retrospect, was the cold war about? Was it only about protecting the physical security of the United States? All that stuff about a crusade for freedom was just a smoke screen? If so, was the gargantuan military effort of the past half-century entirely necessary? After all, we are a continent nation with nuclear weapons. Couldn't Europe and Japan have been defending themselves for years now?

And weren't the liberals unarguably right about, say, Vietnam? The only Americans threatened by the Viet Cong were the ones we sent there. The anti-war argument was that this distant nation's fate was none of our business, or at least beyond our reasonable power to affect. Callous, perhaps, but exactly what Kristol now says about Burma.

On the other hand, if the cold war was about something more, about promoting American values in the world, why has that mission ended with the collapse of communism? Democracy is far from triumphant around the world, but Kristol and Buchanan say we should no longer care. Indeed Buchanan goes further than liberals ever did, attacking what he calls "the Democratist temptation, the worship of democracy" as "a false god." His "new nationalism" is purer than that.

Despite the "come home" rhetoric, liberals were never isolationists. Their objection was not to foreign entanglements per se, but to bloodshed and war. By contrast the new conservative isolationism--really a throwback to pre-World War II conservative isolationism--seems to revel in bloodshed but resent the entanglements. Just when the world seems really ready for some of the gooier aspects of internationalism --global environmental cooperation, free-trade zones, etc.--these guys want to hole up.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Representative Newt Gingrich and Housing Secretary Jack Kemp want conservatives to launch a big new war on poverty. Nothing like the collapse of communism is available to explain this domestic-policy turnaround. It's just that despite Republican control of the White House for eighteen of the past twenty-two years, it seems that the problem has not been licked.

Gingrich's line of bull is heavy on vacuous inspiration: "The essence of the new reform movement's message [is that] applying common sense focused on opportunities and success will lead to a more prosperous America." There is some wonderful malarkey about a triangle with "basic American values" on the bottom and "technological progress" and "entrepreneurial free enterprise" up the sides. But distilled, arduously, to its essence, Gingrich's idea is that private and local government initiatives should replace the federal "bureaucratic state." He, for example, is offering poor third-graders in his district $2 for each book they read this summer.

Kemp's essence is even more elusive. He shares an anti-bureaucratic bias (which is easy enough), but he certainly has no objection to national-level efforts. In a single Wall Street Journal article (June 12), he endorsed a new program of housing vouchers, large tax cuts for the working poor, IRAS for first-time home buyers, expanded "community-based mental health facilities" for the homeless, and so on.

The only thing that might be labeled "conservative" about Kemp's laundry list--and that only in a very modern sense--is his refusal to say where the money will come from. A recent puffer on Kemp in these pages treats this as a peccadillo, but it seems to me that it establishes the essential phoniness of "bleeding-heart conservatism," as it is called. Is there a crisis of the underclass in this country? Is giving third-graders $2 a book a sensible response to it? If so, why should the financing of this allegedly splendid idea depend on a publicity-seeking congressman with some extra PAC money? What about all the third-graders in other districts?

To be sure, new approaches to America's social problems are needed and welcome. Gingrich's and Kemp's ideas, to the extent they aren't simply hot air, are what used to be called "neoliberal": market-oriented, anti-bureaucratic, and so on. But what has blocked these ideas for the past decade has been far less the liberal establishment than conservative opposition to any major national initiative (other than vacuous volunteerism) to address any social problem (other than drugs).

Gingrich now aspires to create "an outpouring of civic energy and commitment" to "bring about … change in individuals, families, and communities." Heavens. Patriotic cadres and reshaping human nature: sounds more like Chairman Mao than Ronald Reagan. Everyone out for predawn calisthenics in front of McDonald's! Meanwhile, he keeps on attacking "liberals."

Obviously Gingrich and Kemp, if not Kristol and Buchanan, realize that conservatism has been missing something that voters are beginning to want. Thus their efforts to repackage the movement in ways that liberals will find irritatingly familiar. If conservatism now stands for an active and specific concern for the poor, and a positive distaste for military adventurism, that's real nice. But it's a bit hard to swallow the ideological bait-and-switch.

By Michael Kinsley