Citizenship: The Right’s Secret Weapon

The return of the Clinton scandals brings back, among other things, the character issue. Novelist Mark Helprin has been praising the macho warrior-President, and voters over time seem to agree with him, since a good third of our chief executives had battle experience. But there are other honorable types.

James Madison, besides being Father of the Constitution, was a shifty pol who, after 1790, abandoned every principle he had in order to maintain his position and prospects in Virginia, then the biggest state. His Presidency was a disaster of infighting and cross-purposes, culminating in a war with Britain which we could not wage, because the Virginians had dismantled so much of the government. But in the war’s darkest days, when the enemy had captured Washington and burned the White House, President Madison, a short, bookish lifelong civilian in his early 60′s, took the field at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. Gumption comes in many forms.

He also never got blowjobs from interns. But there will be time for fulminations. Before President Clinton is inescapably fused with his misdeeds, credit should be given to his achievements. They are political: the reconfiguration of the left, and the puzzlement of the right.

This is not a matter of personality. President Clinton is a peerless one-on-one politician. So was Ronald Reagan. But paying attention is not the sum of the one, as punch lines were not the sum of the other. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair has a very different personality from Bill Clinton, but he, too, has succeeded in a similar way.

Sidney Blumenthal has spoken of a politics of the “third force;” Dick Morris has called Clintonism “triangulation.” Scrubbing down the slogans, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Blair have profited from and accomplished the same things. (1) The conservative governments they replaced presided over victory in the Cold War. Obvious foreign policy threats no longer existed, allowing the left’s historic weakness in this area to be forgotten. (2) Both men caused their parties to accept the broad status quo. In Britain, this meant forcing Labor to break with its socialist past and embrace the free market. In the United States, the problem was less clear-cut, but it was solved by surrendering various left-wing stigmata. Even uptight Michael Dukakis defended teachers who did not want to take the Pledge of Allegiance. Bill Clinton, by contrast, dissed Jesse Jackson, fried a murderer and talked about school uniforms. (3) Both men invested significantly in the politics of doing good. Mr. Blair’s style is Anglican and earnest; Mr. Clinton’s, part Baptist, part New Age, is more emotional: “feel your pain.” Hence the prominence he has accorded children, whether as victims of gun nuts and tobacco merchants, or as beneficiaries of health care reform.

The observer with clearest view of this process is my National Review colleague John O’Sullivan. Since he has divided his professional career between Britain and America, he has looked at the beast in both places, and he has a way the baffled right can tame it.

The right certainly is baffled. In this country, only 10 years ago, conservatives talked about an “electoral lock” on the White House. But a lock has to be shut with a key. George Bush lost the key of Reaganism. For a while, it seemed as if Newt Gingrich had struck off a copy, with its own odd Newtian wards (computers, the Tofflers). But the G.O.P., though it has held on to Congress, hasn’t done much with it. Forgetting your past successes isn’t very smart. But trying to replay them may not work, either.

Mr. O’Sullivan’s answer to the third force, oddly enough for a trans-Atlantic man, is nationalism, or what he calls “the national question.” This is a cluster of issues–quotas, multiculturalism, immigration–which speak to the nation’s character. Not to its moral character, which is the focus of the religious right, but to the character of citizenship.

Central to O’Sullivanism is the perception that citizenship, like Janus, has two faces. It looks at rights, fundamental laws and statements of principles. But it also looks at mores and behavior. It encompasses both the Declaration of Independence and the language we speak. It is where we put our hearts, and what kind of hearts we have.

Fighting affirmative action is mostly a struggle over rights and definitions: Shall there be one status for Americans, or several? Fighting bilingual education and unrestrained immigration is a struggle over mores and behavior: melting pot, or gorgeous mosaic? The left, however triangular, comes down on both the wrong and the unpopular side of these issues. It cannot deal with them. But the right, more often than not, doesn’t want to deal with them, either. They worry about metamorphosing into Pat Buchanan, or they try to construct unconvincing substitutes (e.g., “national greatness conservatism,” which amounts to Teddy Roosevelt nostalgia and public works), which fail to address the unpleasant questions of contemporary life.

They should read Robert D. Kaplan’s report on the West Coast, “Where America Sheds Its Skin,” in the August issue of The Atlantic Monthly . From Vancouver, British Columbia, to Orange County in southern California, Mr. Kaplan found a proliferation of peoples and communities, “slowly evolv[ing] into a new, light-frame structure of mere imperial oversight–for the sake of defense, conservation, and the rationing of water.”

Mr. Kaplan’s vision of what is happening along the Pacific Rim may be overstated. So may his notion–using a phrase borrowed from Henry Adams–that the result will be “in no way unpleasant.” Take the most obvious unpleasantness: The empire, in his light-frame world, still is responsible for defense. Why?

Why should men kill and die so that ecofreaks, immigrants and the inhabitants of gated communities can do their own thing in their own little burrows? If we do not institute a military caste, we must rely, for deterrence and in the crunch, on the patriotism of citizen soldiers. But citizens of what?

So we come, circuitously, back to Bill Clinton, whose great achievement may be that the only response to his politics requires virtues that his behavior helps to stifle.