The Restoration

Americans bandy the word ""revolution'' with the insouciance of a fortunate people whose history has spared them any recent acquaintance with the rigors of the real thing. The revolution due to begin in January with a bang of Speaker Gingrich's gavel may indeed involve greater change than Washington has seen since the New Deal. However, the huge wave about to hit Washington did not rise suddenly from a flat sea. It is part of a tide of conservatism that began rising in the late 1960s because of disappointment with Great Society social engineering and dismay about the coarsening of the culture. This protracted revolution is actually a restoration, a reconnection with the most continuous thread in America's political tradition, commitment to limited government.

The latest conservative wave will meet little liberal resistance in Washington, where Bill Clinton is the least consequential president since Coolidge, who, unlike Clinton, was peripheral by conviction and choice. Clinton's largest achievement, NAFTA, was won against Democratic majorities in Congress and embodies the conservative drive for emancipation of markets from governments. With his two Supreme Court choices Clinton bowed to the desire of the public and Congress for more judicious, meaning less legislative, justices. Clinton's judicial selection process will now be further inhibited by the need to send nominees for confirmation to a Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch. Clinton could not pass his economic ""stimulus'' package when he controlled Congress, which even then was much more conservative than he, as it later demonstrated by discarding his health care plan. The price Congress exacted for passing (by a single vote in each House) Clinton's first budget was to force him into the role of a ""root canal Democrat,'' the old Republican role of a green-eyeshade-wearing, deficit-squeezing accountant.

The most important maker of economic policy in Clinton's Washington is Alan Greenspan, who was made chairman of the Federal Reserve Board by Reagan long before Clinton vowed to ""reverse Reaganism.'' Greenspan, whose fondness for Ayn Rand's novels is surely not shared by Clinton, has a loathing of inflation -- a determination to preserve the currency as a store of value -- that provokes liberals whose ideology is rooted in a regional memory. Last week, after the sixth interest rate increase in 10 months, a prairie Senator, Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, participated in a protest at the Federal Reserve Building. Welcome to a centennial. It was in the mid-1890s that a prairie populist, Rep. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, voicing the resentments of rural borrowers against urban lenders, put the Democratic Party squarely on the losing side of an argument about ""hard'' versus ""soft'' money, an argument about how America should pursue economic dynamism, with all its exhilarations and hazards. Even amidst a 1990s ""revolution,'' the continuity of America's arguments is striking.

Clearly the next wave of conservatism is coming to a Washington where conservatism is already flourishing, and where liberals are neither spirited nor coherent nor thick on the ground. In fact, many of conservatism's problems will come from conservatives. Some of them worry that their revolution has already entered its ""thermidor'' phase.

Thermidor was the 11th month of the French Revolution's calendar. On 9 Thermidor 200 years ago (July 27, 1794) Robespierre was overthrown, ending the Reign of Terror and signaling the ebbing of revolutionary fervor. Today some conservatives think the Gingrich revolution entered its thermidor phase five days after the election. Gingrich was asked if Republicans would deal sternly with agriculture subsidies, which go primarily to rich, and predominantly Republican, farmers. Gingrich said Republicans would ""look at'' how to ""make a transition in agriculture'' but must be inhibited by European agriculture subsidies that put ""American producers at a significant disadvantage in the world market.'' He added: ""I don't think you can unilaterally disarm American farmers.''

Gingrich is fated to the normal affliction of the ""conviction politician'' in power: he will constantly be called either a zealot or a sellout. He is neither. He is an idea-driven politician with far-reaching changes in mind. But he also has a majority to manage in legislative action -- and to preserve through enough elections to produce far-reaching changes. It is an intractable fact that two important Kansas Republicans, Robert Dole and Rep. Pat Roberts, the next chairman of the Agriculture Committee, are fond of subsidies, and two important Texans, Sen. Phil Gramm, one of Dole's rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, and Rep. Dick Armey, the next House Majority Leader, are not.

Agriculture subsidies will be a defining issue for conservatives. So will welfare, crime and a balanced budget constitutional amendment. Such an amendment will be sent to the states for ratification or rejection. In January, 30 states with 73 percent of the nation's population will have Republican governors who will enjoy in practice what they deplore in principle -- the portion of federal deficit spending that goes to states. Republicans must soon decide whether they want to continue the liberal policy that nationalized welfare by imposing federal standards to restrict states' sovereignty and experimentation. Do Republicans simply want Washington to be bossy on behalf of conservative rather than liberal welfare ideas? Or do Republicans think true conservatism consists in yielding control? Are Republicans willing to give to states what the Constitution, properly construed, gives them -- power to set such domestic policy?

Will Republicans continue the federalization of criminal law, quarreling with liberals only about the ratio of punishment to pork in an endless stream of crime bills? Perhaps Republicans will at long last notice that the Constitution enumerates only narrow congressional responsibilities regarding crime, which is a quintessentially state and local responsibility. If Republicans will forgo the delights of grandstanding with crime bills in every Congress, that will demonstrate that they have more in mind than making Washington a hectoring nuisance from the right rather than the left. That change could be called ""revolutionary.''

Join the Discussion