William F. Buckley became despondent about the conservative movement in general, and the actions of the George W. Bush White House in particular, towards the end of his life. It was the influence of the neocons that he seemed to rue most as the Iraq war ground on and conservatism came into ill-repute. It's hard to avoid the feeling that Buckley, who played a pivotal role in creating modern conservatism, felt that it had morphed into something of a Frankenstein. His own son, Christopher Buckley, was effectively purged from National Review over his publicly voiced disaffection with the policies of the Bush administration and the direction of conservatism in the form of an endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008.
So would the conservative movement benefit from a return of a Buckley-like figure to rescue it from its current torpor? That's the argument of David Welch, a former researcher for the Republican National Committee, in the New York Times. As Welch depicts it, the lunatics have taken over the asylum in the GOP. Just as Buckley ran the John Birch Society out of the GOP in the early 1960s, so establishment conservatives must exorcise the spell of Tea Party members over the GOP. Here is Welch:
The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.
Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”
Does Welch's argument hold up?
One problem is that he is demonizing the Tea Party. It is true that the Tea Party contains members who are bonkers. But it's something of a stretch to liken it to the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a dupe of the Kremlin and that there was an establishment cabal, headed by Jewish bankers and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, often one and the same, who were secretly running America, and not for the better. The Tea Party, by contrast, harkens back to older libertarian strains in American history—it's opposed to taxes and big government. If anything, it is a movement that has distinct Jeffersonian strains. The Birchers were fascists; to apply that label to the Tea Party adherents is unpersuasive.
Welch goes on to argue,
Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.
Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.
Yes, Christie and Bush could help pull the GOP back to more sensible positions. But invoking the example of Buckley is not the way to do it. The truth is that Buckley launched his own crusade against the Republican establishment, against the middle-of-the-road moderation espoused by Eisenhower. Buckley himself was a pal of Senator Joseph McCarthy's and on the right of the party. He set out to destroy the traditional Republican party with his own insurgency. He succeeded. That is the story of modern conservatism. But like many revolutionaries, Buckley saw his own movement lurch out of control. The Leninists took over in the form of the neocons—endless wars in the Middle East, blind support for Israel, bloated military budgets, extravagant budget deficits, the very policies driving America toward fiscal ruin. Now the right resembles, as Sam Tanenhaus has put it in The Death of Conservatism, "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology."
What Welch is really calling for is an anti-Buckley to reanimate the GOP. In my view the most intriguing thinking on the right, as David Brooks has noted, is taking place among the renegades at the plucky American Conservative, where libertarian propositions are freely aired, where American foreign policy is invigilated, and where, above all, few shibboleths are left unchallenged. It has the feel of what Buckley's magazine once represented, an insurgent movement with little to lose and much to gain. But whether that can translate into actual political influence is an open question. Welch urges a different tack: the emergence of an establishment figure from the ranks of the moderate establishment that Buckley originally set out to destroy. But as Geoffrey Kabaservice has chronicled in his new book Rule and Ruin, it would be a herculean task to reconstitute it. Will anyone rise to the challenge? And will anyone be listening?