Reagan v. Gingrich

01.25.13

Good Luck With That, Peter Wehner

This passage, by conservative writer Peter Wehner from the big Commentary issue on conservatism's future, is actually laudable to a degree:

Conservatism, at least as I understand it, ought to be characterized by openness to evidence and a search for truth, not attachment to a rigid orthodoxy. “If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction,” Ronald Reagan said in 1977, “it is American conservatism.”

What I’m talking about, then, is a conservative temperament, which affects everything from tone to intellectual inquiry to compromise. It champions principles in reasonably flexible ways that include a straightforward evaluation of facts.

To put things in a slightly different way: Conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with the true spirit of conservatism, which is reform-minded, empirical, anti-utopian, and somewhat modest in its expectations. It doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It doesn’t treat political opponents as enemies. And it isn’t in a state of constant agitation. Winsomeness goes a long way in politics.

Since 1965, arguably the most important conservative politician after Ronald Reagan is Newt Gingrich. He achieved some remarkable, impressive things. But he practiced a style of politics that was quite different from Reagan’s. It was characterized by apocalyptic and incendiary rhetoric, anger, impatience, and revolutionary zeal. While his positions on issues were often conservative, Gingrich’s temperament and approach were not. Yet it is the Gingrich, not the Reagan, style that characterizes much of conservatism today. It would be better for conservatism, and better for America, to recapture some of the grace, generosity of spirit, and principled politics of America’s 40th president.

I see what he means with that Reagan quote. If you go back to the late 1960s, say, and think about something like the founding of The Public Interest, you could argue that it was liberalism that was in important ways a slave to abstraction, and that neoconservatism (domestic-policy neoconservatism, which is what it was back then) was looking at the facts of the shortcomings of the Great Society. I would dispute that, but I could see someone thinking it.

Wehner's closing paragraph is good but doesn't go nearly far or hard enough. I edit a journal like Commentary (although better, naturally!), so I understand he probably just didn't have the space. But conservatism needs people like Wehner to write big cover stories for Commentary on, for example, Why We Need to Stop Listening to Rush Limbaugh. It follows completely from what he argues here, after all. It would certainly get attention. It would help the country. So there you are, John; all for free!

Instead, we have Rich Lowry, editor of another supposedly journal of gravitas on the right, writing this week that Limbaugh is a wise intellectual leader.