May 17, 2005

Conservative Movement, R.I.P.

Pat Buchanan is one of those great anomalies — a man chipper and friendly in his daily affairs, but gloomy in his professional pronouncements. His latest grim declaration: The Conservative Movement is dead.

In a sense, he is right. The original conservative movement arose back in the days when you could count Washington conservatives on one hand and liberalism ruled the hearts and minds of everyone from the guy who picked up your garbage to the fellow who sipped coffee each morning at his desk in the Oval Office. Conservatism was a perky insurgency, whose happy warriors busily churned out manifestos and Big Ideas. Each day brought new energy and new challenges — and its votaries were abuzz constantly because the summit of power seemed impossibly distant, and the party was so impotent that no idea could be deemed too brash or dim because none of them had a remote chance of seeing the light of day, anyway.

Pat’s lament sounds a bit like the grousing of those who worked in the resistance during World War II. They were never more alive than during the war, when the world was devoid of grays. Bright-line distinctions separated the realms of good and evil, and nothing could match the electric thrill of fighting surreptitiously against Hitler and his thugs, and nothing in peacetime Europe could match the surge of purpose that accompanied each day of fighting behind the lines.

Many old Republican warriors now lament the good old days when Washington was packed with a throng of foes — when power seemed far away, but the hunger for relevance did not. Now that the fat days have arrived, complete with a Republican president and Congress, nothing seems quite as tangy or exciting. Indeed, the business of governance can seem downright dull.

Furthermore, Republican politicians have fallen prey to the snares that trapped Democrats during their halcyon days: Some politicians protect their power by raiding the treasury and sprinkling goodies to friends back home. Others have succumbed to the temptation to skim a little money here and there, as part of the perks of power. Once a party becomes accustomed to majority status, it tends to lose some of its moral edge — and weak souls tumble into the maw of laziness and corruption.

So Pat’s right: The Conservative Movement is dead, in the same way the Civil Rights Movement is dead. Once a movement achieves its goals, its votaries have to make the transition from protest to authority. It’s not the most invigorating of fates — but it’s not so bad, either. After all, this is precisely what all the young whippersnappers, huddled in basement offices and Capitol Hill pubs, dreamed of achieving some day.

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