At the luncheon after George W.
Bush's inauguration, senator Mitch McConnell toasted the new
president as an American "Joshua," whose ability to bring people
together would lead the nation to the promised land. It was
a religion-filled day-with President Bush appealing to saints
and angels in the cause of renewing "the spirit of citizenship."
For a nation that has spent the last half century erecting barriers
to religion in public life and ignoring the religious grounding
of its own history, the first days of the Bush presidency have
marked a striking change.
But that change should not be overestimated. For all the media
revulsion that has greeted Bill Clinton's narcissistic departure
from Washington, this is still a country that has so minimally
defined the presidency that it gave the exiting Clinton a 65
percent job approval rating, the highest in modern history for
an outgoing president. And if the passions and divisions of
the Ashcroft hearing are any indication, then America may indeed
need a political Joshua to bring it together on the most important
moral issues. For despite Bush's unifying call, echoing Jefferson,
that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,"
many differences are just that-deep, fundamental, differences
On no issue is this more clear than abortion-where the absolutist
agenda of choice over responsibility makes its most resolute
claim. It is an issue that is important not only because of
the moral gravity of the deed itself, but because it is intertwined
with the moral challenges of the next generation-human cloning,
genetic engineering, and in general the extent to which we are
willing to manipulate human life in the name of happiness, compassion,
choice, and progress.
Bush's commitment to civility, the overarching theme of his
first weeks in office, is a welcome change from Clinton's guerrilla-warfare
style of politics. But civility is not always the highest political
virtue, especially if it degenerates into appeasement in the
name of poll-tested realism, and retreat in the name of bipartisanship.
If by civility it turns out that Bush means doing obvious, easy
things that no one can cavil at, he will not achieve the restoration
of American character that he claims is his political mission.
So what can George W. Bush do? Is there a New Republican agenda
to be forged and a new governing majority to be created? Or
are we in for a period of cultural stalemate?
So far, there is cause for both optimism and concern. As political
managers, Bush and Cheney and their team have performed admirably.
Clearly, Bush is not simply an economic and political pragmatist
(like his father) or an anti-government zealot (like the Gingrich
revolutionaries). He seems to be grasping for a practical philosophy
of conservative governance, one rooted in his own faith and
broadly appealing to the "quiet of American conscience."
But the Bush team's commitment to and capacity for political
entrepreneurship is not yet clear. The promise to "unify, not
divide" cannot obscure the fact that on the most important,
most divisive, moral-cultural issues, Bush has not persuaded
key constituencies to think and vote and govern themselves differently.
He has not yet tried to redraw the political map.
Bush's "faith-based" initiative is a much needed first step.
But if it is pitched narrowly to the most suffering, most needy,
most disadvantaged Americans-without contributing to a moral
awakening among the nonjudgmental, post-shame, pro-choice elites-it
will be a real but limited blessing, and perhaps in the end
an unsustainable one.
To be fair, the new presidency has just begun. And perhaps
Bush's strategy of blurring the middle during the campaign,
avoiding divisive social issues, and quietly trying to bring
together Republican pragmatists and conservative ideologues,
is political genius. Perhaps it is the basis for a new Republican
majority, which Bush can expand by refocusing the conservative
agenda on traditionally "liberal" issues, like fighting poverty,
improving public schools, and expanding health care coverage.
And perhaps Bush himself is wisely taking the long view-using
his first 100 days in office to build comity and consensus,
so that he can address the most divisive, most important moral
issues from a position of strength.
But this strategy, if it is a strategy, has limitations: First,
bringing together these old Republican constituencies does not
address the problem that Republican pragmatists and Republican
ideologues still seem to add up to no more than 48 percent of
the electorate, the size of Bush's vote.
Second, given the Clinton accomplishment of convincing much
of the nation that Democrats can handle the economy just as
well as Republicans, it may be that many Republican pragmatists
are less firmly Republican than they once were. Indeed, if the
economy falters, as it looks likely to do during the first part
of the Bush presidency, even the 48 percent may be a high-water
Third, the political viability and moral strength of the new
coalition of compassion remains an open question. In the one
area where he most tried to act like an entrepreneur-by reaching
out to poor minority groups, especially blacks, as a "compassionate
conservative"-Bush performed worse even than Dole in 1996. And
in the segment of society that may matter most-the university
and technological centers-he lost decisively, especially among
those who voted predominantly on moral issues.
And so, fearing division and divisiveness, Bush seems likely
to downplay issues like abortion, the role of women in the military,
affirmative action, and the excesses of popular culture. Nor
has Bush shown any urgency in connecting the religious soul
of America-so eloquently described in his inaugural address-to
the new politics, laws, and moral transformation required to
bolster that soul against life-altering technologists, who prefer
their own renegade powers to "God's enduring purpose."
It is precisely because of the technological revolutions just
begun and on the horizon-because of what they mean for America's
understanding of "the pursuit of happiness," because of the
moral wisdom they require-that virtue matters most in American
politics today, and not the virtue of compassion alone. And
it is precisely because they are so powerful and so important
that the political and moral disposition of the technological
elite matters. And that disposition, right now, does not inspire
confidence: This group lives by the creed that if it can be
done it should be done, that technology is destiny. Most of
them have little or no political education, little or no sense
of personal or national tragedy, little or no memory of war,
little or no sense of the stakes of their own inventions. The
elixir they offer is freedom without suffering-a false freedom
that reduces human beings to their chemical and genetic makeup,
and makes them accomplices in cheapening human life to extend
indefinitely their own "healthy" existence. But in a nation
where civic ties have been weakened, where mass divorce has
created a generation born into anxiety, where sexual freedom
has become the norm-the potion is appealing. It has made its
mark on the urban, new-economy centers that are largely Democratic
strongholds; how long, one wonders, until it makes its mark,
decisively, on the nation as a whole.
In response, the Republican party, if it is to succeed and
to matter, needs to articulate an updated vision of the good
society; a vision of America's role in history and the world
that goes beyond Bush's call for "American humility"; and a
moral and political framework to deal with the riddles of the
new technological age.
As yet, compassionate conservatism has not shown itself fully
able or fully willing to do this. Instead, what Bush appears
to be doing-what he did fairly effectively during the campaign-is
combining honest religious witness and belief with a Republican
form of identity politics. Because of his deep Christian faith-and
his appointment of Ashcroft-he has been able largely to avoid
political engagement with the moral issues that religious conservatives
care most about. (Though one wonders what pro-life activists
were thinking when Bush, asked in the debates about the FDA's
approval of the abortion pill RU-486, replied, "I think once
the decision's been made, it's been made." Or when Laura Bush,
more recently, said she does not think Roe v. Wade should be
overturned, and Ashcroft called that decision settled law.)
And instead of staking out political positions, Bush has repeatedly
defended his own and everyone else's "heart"-the presumption
being that a good heart translates into good politics.
God, we all must hope, has a hand in America's fate-as Bush,
like presidents past, declared in his inaugural address. But
so do leaders; and leadership does not happen on its own, even
for those who are religiously serious. Perhaps religious witness
is just what a demoralized America needs. But it won't be enough
by itself. The religious appeal to dignity needs translating
into a new politics of dignity, the religious call to sacrifice
into a new politics of sacrifice, the religious heritage of
America into a new politics of virtue.
If Bush is to succeed as a politician and statesman, he must
find ways to combine the old Republican agenda-lowering taxes,
streamlining government, reforming middle-class entitlements,
rebuilding the military-with a New Republican agenda: one that
connects "old" moral issues-like abortion and the nature of
the family-with "new" moral issues-like human cloning and genetic
engineering; one that reconciles, to the extent possible, the
political equality of women and the natural differences between
the sexes, and that addresses the meaning of those differences
for American institutions and American families.
In short, Bush the political manager needs to be a political
entrepreneur as well. A political entrepreneur might find a
way to connect the pro-life position with the pro-environment
position, and embrace both in the name of reverence over choice,
sacrifice over autonomy. He might connect campaign finance reform
with public standards for entertainment, and embrace both in
the name of civility and decency in public life. He might stop
conceding government support of art and culture to the postmodern
Left, and instead assert vigorous and increased national support
for cultural institutions that unify and ennoble American life.
He might prudently use American power to defend human rights
around the world, and in the process awaken the nation to the
sacrifices that meaningful freedom requires. He might pledge
to put an American on Mars by the end of the decade, which would
demonstrate how technology can be used for heroic rather than
simply narcissistic ends. He might, if he were really ambitious,
connect the democratic impulse in the nation with the responsibilities
of democracy-and thereby restore a rudimentary understanding
of the American political system and foster democratic resistance
to judicial activism.
To be a political entrepreneur and Republican statesman, Bush
will need to combine the politics of co-optation and confrontation;
he must reframe the Left's best issues-the environment, campaign
finance reform, support for higher education, middle-class tax
cuts-to serve conservative ends, while shaming (or ostracizing)
the worst elements of the cultural Left for their extremism,
nihilism, and anti-Americanism. And he must have a political
strategy-and the powers of persuasion-to make this agenda appealing
to the very constituencies that are most inclined either to
pay it no attention at all (the mushy, nonjudgmental middle)
or to reject it entirely (the new technological elite). This
would be, as Bush put it in his inaugural address, "the serious
work of leaders and citizens." In politics, the supreme act
of faith is to seek the votes of the unconvinced by challenging
them rather than appeasing them. It is no small task. Perhaps
God's words to the original Joshua are as good as any: "Be strong
and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed."