Meacham: We're a Conservative Country

It was a grand evening. On Thursday, Dec. 5, 1985, at the Plaza Hotel, William F. Buckley Jr. rose to toast the president of the United States on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of National Review. Charlton Heston was the master of ceremonies; the audience included William J. Casey, Nancy Kissinger, Roy Cohn and Tom Selleck. Thirteen months earlier Ronald Reagan had been re-elected, carrying every state in the Union except Walter Mondale's Minnesota. "As an individual you incarnate American ideals at many levels," Buckley said to the president. "As the final responsible authority, in any hour of great challenge, we depend on you." Buckley was 19 when America dropped the bomb at Hiroshima, he said, and he had just turned 60. "During the interval I have lived a free man in a free and sovereign country, and this only because we have husbanded a nuclear deterrent, and made clear our disposition to use it if necessary. I pray that my son, when he is 60, and your son, when he is 60 … will live in a world from which the great ugliness that has scarred our century has passed. Enjoying their freedoms, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong."

You can almost hear the trumpets. The scene from the Plaza, in a ballroom resplendent with flowers, full of guests cheered by wine, is glittery, and emblematic of the days of the Age of Reagan. Buckley's cold-war remarks were primal, reflecting the ancient human urge to protect one's own from gathering dangers.

A month before, in November 1985, Al From, the former staff director of the House Democratic Caucus, had been in North Carolina, flying from Raleigh to Greensboro, on a trip to talk wavering Democrats into staying in the fold after Mondale. "The common charge we heard from voters was that 'we didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left us'," says From, whose organization, the Democratic Leadership Council, was trying to move the party rightward toward the center. Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, Sam Nunn and Lawton Chiles were among those flying with From, and things were not going well. "It was a miserable day, and our trip was about to be aborted," From says. There was congressional business in Washington, and From had already canceled the last leg of the journey, an event in Charlotte. Landing in Greensboro in the rain, the group made its gloomy way to an airport hotel for a fundraiser. "We were sure no one would show up," From says. "But when we got there we saw people lined up out the door." As he recalls it, the message of the occasion was straightforward: "We were trying to reconnect the Democratic Party with mainstream America."

In these two moments from a now distant year—the dinner at the Plaza and the gathering in Greensboro—lie the roots of our politics. It is easy—for some, even tempting—to detect the dawn of a new progressive era in the autumn of Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency. Eight years of Republican rule have produced two seemingly endless wars, an economy in recession, a giant federal intervention in the financial sector and a nearly universal feeling of unease in the country (86 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with how things are going, and 73 percent disapprove of the president's performance). Obama—a man who has yet to complete his fourth year in the United States Senate—is leading John McCain, and Democrats may gain seats on Capitol Hill. In 2007, the Pew Research Center published a 112-page report subtitled "Political Landscape More Favorable to Democrats," and the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 55 percent believe Obama's views are neither too liberal nor too conservative but are "about right."

But history, as John Adams once said of facts, is a stubborn thing, and it tells us that Democratic presidents from FDR to JFK to LBJ to Carter to Clinton usually wind up moving farther right than they thought they ever would, or they pay for their continued liberalism at the polls. Should Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal—a perennial reality that past Democratic presidents have ignored at their peril. A party founded by Andrew Jackson on the principle that "the majority is to govern" has long found itself flummoxed by the failure of that majority to see the virtues of the Democrats and the vices of the Republicans.

The pattern has deep roots. FDR had a longish run (from 1933 to 1937), but he lost significant ground in the 1938 midterm elections and again in the largely forgotten wartime midterms of 1942. After he defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964, LBJ had only two years of great success (Ronald Reagan won the California governorship in 1966) before Vietnam, and the white backlash helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968. Jimmy Carter lasted only a term, and Bill Clinton's Democrats were crushed in the 1994 elections. The subsequent success of his presidency had as much to do with reforming welfare and managing the prosperity of the technology boom as it did with advancing traditional Democratic causes.

Republican presidents, too, are frequently pulled from the right to the center. Nixon instituted wage and price controls and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Reagan cut taxes, then increased them, presided over the expansion of the federal government and wound up successfully negotiating with what he had once called the Evil Empire. George H.W. Bush swore he would not raise taxes, but did.

So are we a centrist country, or a right-of-center one? I think the latter, because the mean to which most Americans revert tends to be more conservative than liberal. According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, nearly twice as many people call themselves conservatives as liberals (40 percent to 20 percent), and Republicans have dominated presidential politics—in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast—for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996), and in those years they were led by Southern Baptist nominees who ran away from the liberal label. "Is this a center-right country? Yes, compared to Europe or Canada it's obviously much more conservative," says Adrian Wooldridge, coauthor of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" and Washington bureau chief of the London-based Economist. "There's a much higher tolerance for inequality, much greater cultural conservatism, a higher incarceration rate, legalized handguns and greater distrust of the state."

The terms we use in discussing politics and culture can be elusive and elastic. The conservative label is often applied to people of all sorts and conditions: libertarians, evangelical Christians, tax cutters, military hawks. (There are just as many, if not more, varieties of liberal.) But in broad strokes I mean "conservative" in the way most of us have come to use it in recent decades: to describe those who value custom over change, who worry about the erosion of the familiar and the expansion of the state, and who dislike those who appear condescending about matters of faith, patriotism and culture. (In other words, think of figures ranging from Edmund Burke to Thomas Jefferson to David Brooks to Sarah Palin. It is an eclectic crew.)

The argument I am making—that we are at heart a right-leaning country skeptical of government once a crisis that requires government has passed—is probably going to look dumb, or at least out of step, for many months to come. A big blue tsunami appears imminent. Election night and the first phase of a possible Obama administration may feel as though we have left the old categories behind, striking out on a bold new path in which pragmatism trumps dogma. (Bold new paths are a specialty for new administrations, until they become safe old paths.) Economically, the deficits are so vast that we're all supersized Keynesians now, and there will most likely be political and intellectual cover for a stimulus package of new spending in the new year.

The American relationship with government is so fraught with hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance that it is difficult to discuss with any degree of rationality. Many dislike the state, except when the state is helping them; many hate paying taxes, except they expect the government to be able to fulfill the obligations (war, infrastructure, emergency relief, the rescue of investment banks) they think it should fulfill. If we are in a season in which government appears to hold answers to certain problems, then there will be much talk for a time about an emerging Democratic governing majority.

Such speculation is not crazy. From the Adam Smith-inverting bailout of the financial system to evidence of slightly less religious intensity, there are signs that the Americans of 2008 are far from the crusading townspeople of "Inherit the Wind." Context is all, however. Yes, the country may show signs of a receptivity to more-activist government and to a gentler tone on social issues involving religion and sexuality, but when we compare ourselves with, say, Europe—which the left loves to do, especially when assessing our foreign policy—we remain strikingly conservative. In the Pew survey, the number who say they have "old-fashioned values about family and marriage" has declined 8 percentage points since 1994—but from 84 percent to … 76 percent. That is hardly a landslide toward the libertine. In California, at least one poll suggests that social conservatives may pass an anti-gay-marriage ballot proposition next month (perhaps boosted by a high African-American turnout for Obama). "If you compare the Democratic Party to European Labor, in lots of ways [the Democrats] look quite conservative," says Wooldridge. Will a Democratic administration, he asks, "ban handguns? No. Will it throw its weight behind legalizing gay marriage in every state? No. So even if you have, as we will, a Democratic Washington, America will remain a fundamentally conservative country."

Like the apostles of Jesus who expected their Messiah to return in triumph before they themselves died, many liberals are almost certain to be disappointed in a President Obama. "I think right now people are in a pragmatic mood, not an ideological mood," says David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. Perhaps, but on the off chance that ideology is on the mind of a voter or two, Axelrod's candidate has taken care to avoid the L word. Obama opposes gay marriage; talks about tax cuts, God and veterans' benefits; and is spending money to try to remain competitive in traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and even West Virginia, where Hillary Clinton trounced him earlier this year. "I think he will govern a little right of center," says Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. "He is not an ideologue."

An Obama presidency would be one of the few exceptions to a 40-year-old historical rule. Why do Republicans tend to win the White House? Not surprisingly, each party's answer to the fundamental question about the GOP lock on the presidency is less than satisfying. Republicans say the policies and values they represent are wholly American, and so it is natural that they win so often. Democrats explain their failures by asserting that the Republicans are evil geniuses and fearmongers who exploit whatever is at hand to scare people into having their resentments win out against their better angels. In this scenario, Nixon and Reagan and the Bushes won only through the dark arts of the Southern strategy, of Atwater and Rove.

The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere between these extremes. The Republicans have seemed fatherly and tough (see Bill Buckley's paean to possible Armageddon), the Democrats motherly and soft. Understanding the forces behind the usual Republican hold on the White House explains much about the country, and is essential to Obama's potential success if he were to win, for the most effective presidents have had an appreciation of the nation's intrinsic tendency toward conservatism.

Contrary to caricature, to be conservative is not necessarily to be racist, or retrograde, or close-minded. It is, rather, to be driven by a fundamental human impulse to preserve what one has and loves. Liberals and moderates share this impulse, of course; and many conservatives, like many liberals and moderates, are generous, future-oriented and interested in reform. The point is that history suggests America is more likely to tack toward the familiar on big questions of politics and culture than it is to enthusiastically embrace radical change. If you doubt this, ask an African-American or an advocate of universal health coverage.

This is not a new phenomenon. In introducing his classic 1948 book "The American Political Tradition," Richard Hofstadter quoted John Dos Passos: "In times of change and danger, when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present." The need for that lifeline transcends any given generation's political labels. In the popular imagination the conservative epoch that may well be coming to an end this November is generally considered to have begun with Reagan's election to the White House. But a wider reading of history suggests that the impulse we now think of as conservative—that politics can help us recover a lost, better world, if we heed custom—is one that, in varied manifestations, stretches back to at least the 1820s and '30s, when Americans nostalgic for the Revolutionary generation spoke of the Jeffersonian "old republican" school. As Hofstadter argued in the 1940s, the Progressive Era was in many ways driven by a sense of restoration: William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette and Woodrow Wilson were, he said, "trying to undo the mischief of the past forty years and re-create the old nation of limited and decentralized power, genuine competition, democratic opportunity, and enterprise."

Hofstadter encapsulated the center-right point about the country better than most, writing: "The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies; these conceptions have been shared in large part by men as diverse as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover." To this list we may safely add Barack Obama (and John McCain, for that matter).

The two Arthur Schlesingers, father and son, believed American history was cyclical, with periods, as they saw it, of liberal action followed by conservative reaction. There is much to commend this construct, though history and politics, like so much else in life, do not lend themselves to easy categorization. Liberal ideas flower in conservative eras and vice versa, just as liberals sometimes enact conservative dogma and conservatives embrace liberal shibboleths. Eisenhower chose not to roll back the Roosevelt-Truman expansion of the state, essentially codifying the New Deal; Nixon was crucial in the rise of affirmative action.

So the lines are blurry, the terms squishy—and there are plenty of skeptics about the conservative-America thesis. Rick Perlstein, who published the excellent "Nixonland" earlier this year, makes an interesting argument. "As far as public opinion goes, the American public is generally not center-right," he says, pointing to data like those in the Pew poll. "The younger generation is more progressive than the last one. What we do have is a center-right political system." In Perlstein's view, the system is set up to make it difficult for voters to achieve a government as liberal as their beliefs. Because of the veto, the filibuster and powerful interests, he says, a supermajority is needed to reform government. America's Founders "wrote a Constitution designed to make change a slow and deliberative process."

Yes, they did, and it has served us rather well over time—not perfectly, God knows, but it has enabled us to muddle along for well over two centuries, always expanding, not contracting, individual liberty under law. Perlstein's well-considered view is widely shared on the left. Asked why it is that more Americans identify themselves as conservative rather than liberal, he replies: "There's been a concerted 30-year propaganda campaign to make the word 'liberal' synonymous with all that's distasteful and alarming. Frankly, I don't care if people call themselves a liberal, a conservative or a ham sandwich if they support progressive positions, which they do."

What is also true but less noticed of late is that people of good will can, looking at the same facts, come to different conclusions. In the half hour after the final presidential debate, Brian Williams of NBC News interviewed Hillary Clinton on his broadcast. Citing fears of one-party control in Washington, Williams asked Clinton what the Democrats "will do with power, with majorities [in Congress] and the White House."

"Well, the last time we had a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president was in 1993," Clinton replied. "And what the Democrats did then is what we're going to have to do again."

With respect, Senator Clinton is recalling those days rather more rosily than many others do. The first two years of the Clinton administration gave way to the Gingrich-led Republican landslide of 1994 (one of the GOP victories that night: George W. Bush's win over Ann Richards in Texas). Bill Clinton brought in his old pollster Dick Morris, moved rightward and recovered his old Democratic Leadership Council bearings.

The lesson is one with bipartisan relevance: parties nearly always overreach. That is one reason the Republicans lost the argument over the role of government in 1995, and it is why they are in such trouble at the moment. "I wouldn't be so grandiose as to say that if Obama wins, that is a harbinger of a 30-year era," says Axelrod. "Karl Rove made that mistake when Bush was elected. No one can foresee the future to that degree."

But one man's hubris is another man's genuine reform. It is a fact of our politics that presidents usually have limited windows of opportunity to do big things. With Johnson, it was 1964, 1965 and 1966; with Reagan, at least domestically, it was 1981. "There could be an opening for real reform," says Charles Peters, the founding editor of The Washington Monthly, who first came to the capital to work for President Kennedy's new Peace Corps. "It may be briefly possible, but Obama has to remember that the natural tendency of the country, at least in my lifetime, is to settle just right of center."

The son Bill Buckley spoke of at the Plaza 23 years ago, the writer Christopher Buckley, has had an eventful autumn. After endorsing Obama on the new Web site, Buckley faced charges of apostasy from his father's old comrades on the right. He offered to resign his duties as the back-page columnist of the magazine his father created, and the incumbent editor accepted with alacrity. Aside from the vague "Hamlet"-like overtones of a son's expulsion from his late father's kingdom—and given the Buckleys' upper-class Catholic ethos, it is more Evelyn Waugh than Shakespeare—the incident is interesting because Buckley chose Obama for largely conservative reasons. The right, he believes, has lost its way, and he thinks "President Obama will (I pray, secularly) surely understand that traditional left-politics aren't going to get us out of this pit we've dug for ourselves."

I spoke to Buckley briefly last Friday. "My hope is that Obama will govern, in that dolorous phrase, from the center," he said. "I think his instincts are conservative—he is a churchgoing, Christian family man. If his family resembled Sarah Palin's family, can you imagine the howls from the right?" Buckley paused. "He will have to be an artful dodger, for sure. But he knows the country is basically conservative." It is something Obama needs to remember as the trumpets begin to sound—not for a Roosevelt or a Reagan, but for him.