WASHINGTON -- As the Lewinsky parenthesis in America's political conversation comes to a close, consider two changes it has accelerated. One is a revision of the job description of president. The other is the conservatives' collapse of confidence.
The first is partly the result of a conservative impulse, and partly a product of conservatives' excesses. The second requires conservatives to practice the cardinal virtue of their creed -- prudence, which involves facing facts and distinguishing between those that can be changed and those that must be accommodated.
To begin understanding both changes, consider the three reasons why the public has steadily (showing none of the volatility the Founders feared) held to its judgment that Mr. Clinton is both a bad man and a good president.
First, conservatives, in their sensible desire to dampen Americans' enthusiasm for government, have indiscriminately portrayed the political class as contemptible. The public has been convinced of that by conservatives, to a degree now inconvenient to conservatives, and so has not been scandalized by Mr. Clinton's scandals.
Second, between 1952 and 1988 Republicans controlled both houses of Congress only two years (1953-54) but won seven of 10 and five of the past six presidential elections during that span.
As a result, conservatives became fixated on the presidency and opportunistically adopted the vocabulary of watery Caesarism, arguing that social progress is a measure of, because it is a consequence of, presidential aptitude.
The quite unconservative premise -- its pedigree traces to turn-of-the-century Progressives -- is that government, particularly the executive branch of the central government, is the most important creative agency in society. So today's high approval by a content, prospering country of its president's job performance rests on an assumption that conservatives embraced.
Third, why are many conservatives shocked that the first modern nation, the United States, is embracing a distinction made by the founder of modern political thought, Machiavelli? He (see "The Prince," Chapter 8) argued that one could be a "most excellent captain" without being "among the most excellent men."
Time was, conservatives relished Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's answer when he was asked if he would give people moral direction. For that, he said, they should consult their bishops, not their politicians.
Machiavelli earned a bad reputation by severing the assessment of a politician's job performance from the assessment of his moral qualities. Less radical thinkers -- temperate Machiavellians -- know that a morally exemplary leader is an occasional bonus in political life, and occasionally is imperative, but is not necessary for the functioning of a well-founded regime. As James Madison wrote, with dry understatement, in Federalist 10, "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."
Mr. Clinton is surviving because the public wants him to, and it wants this for essentially conservative reasons. Conservatives, not recognizing the conservative roots of the public's reasoning, are disconcerted by this, and by the fact that the political market is ratifying conservatism's successes of recent years.
Many conservatives crankily charge Mr. Clinton with intellectual larceny in his macro issues (balanced budget, welfare reform) and micro issues (V-chips, school uniforms). Now he has moved rightward regarding what is arguably the most important issue of the 1990s -- missile defense -- and some conservatives' gloom has deepened.
As recently as September, 41 Democratic senators filibustered to prevent a vote on a Senate resolution declaring it U.S. policy to deploy effective anti-missile defenses of the territory of the United States as soon as that is technologically possible. Five months later that resolution expresses administration policy.
And some conservatives, in their almost clinical obsession with Mr. Clinton, have responded by talking of themselves as victims of an unfair expropriation of their policy property. Cannot such conservatives hear their own larceny? They are stealing the whiny language of contemporary liberalism.
Some conservatives who celebrate the working of markets in petroleum and potato chips seem to dislike market forces affecting political ideas. They complain when demand for a political program they advocate causes Mr. Clinton to move toward supplying what is demanded. But that is how things are supposed to work when conservatives succeed in moving the center of political gravity to the right.
Even before the Lewinsky parenthesis began, many conservatives were quite cross with the public because that center had not moved enough to permit implementation of conservatives' plans for pruning government. Now Mr. Clinton is wielding his popularity to advocate a huge and potentially popular new entitlement -- Medicare coverage of prescription drugs. This will reveal whether conservatives' capacity for persuasion has been crippled by self-pity.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 1/28/99