Imagine an America where Bill Clinton is considered a mainstream conservative. An America, indeed, where conservatives model their own ideas and actions on those of the former President. Sound far-fetched? Just wait. It might take sixty years but the day is coming when William Jefferson Clinton will be an hero to the right.
Throughout his presidency Clinton was perhaps only marginally more popular among conservatives than Saddam Hussein, that other bugbear of the 90’s. Conservative-penned exposes of Clinton corruption were more than a cottage industry, they were the publishing equivalent of the Palace of Versailles. All with good reason: Clinton’s corruption and buffoonery were all that they were made out to be, and much more.
Bill Clinton was not the first American President to earn such well-deserved conservative animosity however. Within the same century there had been an even more corrupt and dangerous man in the Oval Office, whose popularity was even greater than Clinton’s, and whom conservatives dedicated their lives and livelihoods to fighting. That man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
There was a time when the right-wing was practically defined by its opposition to FDR, in much the same way as opposition to Clinton was characteristic of ’90s conservatism. Albert Jay Nock, later an influence on Bill Buckley and Frank Chodorov, discussed at length the similarities between Roosevelt’s administration and fascism in the first chapter of Our Enemy, the State. H.L. Mencken’s assessment of of Roosevelt’s character was that “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday” and further that Roosevelt was “the first American to penetrate the real depths of vulgar stupidity.”
That was then. Today, fifty-six years after Roosevelt’s death, “America’s Premier Conservative Website” runs a flattering imitation of FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” National Review On-line’s Michael Novak doesn’t just use this piece of New Deal propaganda for rhetorical effect; Novak’s list includes the same socialist “freedom from want” that Roosevelt’s did. The right has come a long way from Nock’s verdict on the Four Freedoms: “There is no such thing, four or forty. Freedom has no plural. Freedom either is, or isn’t.”
Latter-day Republican leaders like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich have spoken highly of FDR, but what’s more significant is the modern right’s embrace of Roosevelt’s policies. Consider the right’s fight to save social security. Even the Cato Institute is in on the act. Today’s right is trying to conserve the very policies most of the Old Right opposed. It’s a 180 degree reversal.
The right came to cherish FDR and the New Deal within the span of sixty years, so there’s no reason to think it cannot learn to love Clinton as well. That would be less remarkable than what has happened to the right’s attitude toward Roosevelt. If Clinton’s stature on the right doesn’t grow to match Roosevelt’s, it will only be because Clinton achieved less. It might be difficult to imagine conservatives fighting as hard to save Americorps as they fight to save Social Security. On the other hand it’s not so difficult to imagine them fighting to save Hillarycare, which is where the creeping socialization of American medicine is heading.
Every year conservatism becomes a little less conservative. Every year the left pushes the boundaries of government out a little bit further, and the right responds by trying to restore them to last year’s limits. Under these conditions the Clintonization of the right is inevitable. Government will keep growing and America will become an increasingly difficult place to raise a family or run a business — but we’ll all have become too much like Clinton to care.
If the right doesn’t want to become like Clinton it has to stop being like FDR. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because it means not only giving up Social Security and the New Deal, but also the Rooseveltian “arsenal of democracy.” After all, World War II saved the New Deal. The legitimate functions of government are its vital organs and they drive its growth. It doesn’t do any good to attack the newest and most controversial functions of government; conservatives must start with the oldest and most necessary. That’s why the Old Right was staunchly anti-war.
Unless we are anti-statist even when the State is most useful and legitimate, America will continue on its leftward course and tomorrow’s right will embrace Bill Clinton the way today’s right embraces the legacy of Roosevelt.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.