William F. Buckley Jr. was in town Thursday to discuss the future of conservatism in a mock Firing Line with his son, the humorist and satirist Christopher, for the Goldwater Institute. (Christopher wryly noted what an honor it was to finally be a guest on the show, five years after it had gone off the air.)
Conservatives are feeling pretty cocky these days, believing that the political zeitgeist is at their back. But Bill Buckley's visit underscores the challenge four more years of the Bush administration presents to conservatism's fundamental beliefs.
Buckley is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in modern American conservatism, establishing an intellectual foundation for a political movement popularized by Barry Goldwater and made triumphant by Ronald Reagan. George Will has even gone so far as to denominate Buckley as the most consequential journalist of our age.
But even that understates Buckley's importance. In a very real sense, Buckley actually invented modern American conservatism.
Through his intellectual leadership, Buckley consolidated the disparate themes that became modern American conservatism: anti-communism, free-market economics, limited government and a cultural perspective rooted in religion and religious values.
One of the main pillars of Buckley conservatism was a limited role for the federal government in domestic affairs.
George W. Bush openly professes to be a conservative. But rather than a limited role, Bush favors an activist federal government, only harnessed to serve conservative purposes.
The difference is clearest in the No Child Left Behind Act. For years, conservatives have argued that the role of the federal government in public education should be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Bush, in contrast, successfully sought to expand the federal role in education, but to serve the conservative purpose of accountability through testing.
Less clear, although becoming more discernible, are the changes Bush is making in the conservative approach to foreign policy.
Pre-Buckley, the conservative instinct about foreign affairs was toward non-interventionism. Under the Buckley consensus, the comprehensive threat of expansionist communism justified the United States being very aggressively and thoroughly engaged in international issues and conflicts.
Bush directly makes an analogy between the communist threat and the Islamic terrorist threat, arguing that the latter requires as comprehensive an engagement as the former.
But Soviet communism, certainly until the detente era, was clearly an expansionist power. There's an insularity and isolationism to Islamic terrorism that is insufficiently considered.
The Buckleys explored these differences in the mock Firing Line, and in an interview preceding the event.
George Will flatly says that we smaller-government conservatives are dinosaurs. And you get a sense of resignation in the air.
In the current issue of National Review, the magazine Bill Buckley founded, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that conservatives shouldn't press too hard on tax reform. Success is doubtful, he maintains, and pushing for too much would be bad for the cause.
When conservatism was still learning to walk politically, National Review was hardly restrained by the art of the politically possible. If it were, it would have had nothing to say, since nothing was very politically possible for conservatives in those days.
Now, there's a difference between how a movement in dissent engages and how one that seeks to govern does so. But there's also a difference between political pragmatism and abandonment of principle.
Politicians need to make tactical decisions about how to nudge policy in the right direction. But the role of philosophical conservatives should be to try to expand the ambit of the politically possible through persuasion.
Right now, the conservative movement has an insufficient ratio of philosophers to tacticians.
Bush asserts that the security of the United States ultimately depends on the spread of freedom and democracy, particularly in the Middle East.
But Buckley pointed out that acting on American idealism internationally should be constrained by the need to act to protect ourselves. There is not much of that sort of restraint in the Bush doctrine.
Buckley said in the mock Firing Line that, although he initially supported the Iraq war, knowing what he knows now, he wouldn't have. As someone who opposed the Iraq war then based on what he knew then, in large part Bush's unconstrained regional ambitions, that's welcome company.
I asked Bill Buckley whether, in his opinion, George W. Bush was a conservative.
Buckley made a distinction between being conservative, which he said Bush was, and being "a" conservative, in the sense of himself and Barry Goldwater, which he said Bush wasn't.
Much of the future of modern American conservatism depends on whether that distinction can be preserved over the next four years.