Premature "Death" - A Review of "The Death of Conservatism" by Sam Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and Week in Review sections, doesn't so much call the movement dead as try to define it out of existence. But the political landscape has shifted underneath Tanenhaus's feet, rendering his book a fossil of conventional wisdom that can be carbon-dated precisely to Barack Obama's brief period of ascendancy of early 2009.

The title of Sam Tanenhaus's slim new essay of a book, with the wishful-thinking title "The Death of Conservatism," is misleading. Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and Week in Review sections, doesn't so much call the movement dead as try to define it out of existence.

"Death" reshapes the U.S. political landscape out of all recognition to make it hospitable to Tanenhaus's peculiar brand of left-center politics, where the only true conservatives stalking the land are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and (wait for it) Barack Obama, "more thoroughly steeped in the Burkean principles of 'conservation' and 'correction' than any significant thinker or political figure on the right today."

Under Tanenhaus's conveniently pinched definition of conservatism, liberals are welcome to expand the reach of the federal government through regulation, higher taxes and welfare, moves that conservatives are then obligated to "conserve" and consolidate to be true to their philosophy - as dictated by a New York Times editor who assuredly has their best interests at heart (as do the four liberal journalists who contributed back-page blurbs).

Yet Tanenhaus, who wrote a well-received biography of conservative hero Whittaker Chambers, doesn't seem to have much interest in what real conservatives actually think. Supporters of limited government and free markets are dismissed as either fringe or (his favorite word) "revanchist," a French Revolution term standing in for "reactionary."

Tanenhaus is impatient with those who stand up for limited government and tradition, while rarely offering a principled argument as to precisely why bigger government is better, as opposed to sometimes being popular. Lacking any concept of the movement as a conduit for individual freedom or bulwark for individual responsibility, he dismisses libertarian concern over ever-encroaching government as an "ethos of greed" and emphasizes "the emptiness of free-market liturgy." Meanwhile, liberal social issues like support for gay marriage and gay adoption are spun as welcome embraces by gays of conservative "family values." Nor is massive government intrusion a bar to being a good conservative:

Obama's plan to extend health coverage to the nearly fifty million Americans who lack it is pure Disraeli.

Along the way, this supposed friend of conservatism approvingly cites another scholar about the GOP's "unconstitutional usurpation" during the Clinton years, defined as the use of the filibuster by that right-wing radical, Sen. Bob Dole. He even accuses the late-1970s right of "nursing its own version of anti-Americanism," of having "demonized government and society alike." As if left-wing opponents of George W. Bush did otherwise.

His favorite politicos and pundits are invariably described as Burkeans (after Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism), reformists and realists willing to bow to mass opinion, unlike today's doctrinaire conservatives who have supposedly led the movement into an ideological dead end. These include pundit George Will during his moderate "Statecraft as Soulcraft" phase, National Review founder William F. Buckley when he's not being mocked as a "right-wing egghead," even presidents Clinton and Obama.

Stacking the deck to frame Democrats as the party of "consensus" and the GOP as "conservative orthodoxy," Tanenhaus ludicrously includes Obama as one of the party's many "centrist" candidates, ignoring George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Arguing that Republicans prefer "ideologically committed" candidates like Goldwater, Reagan and George W. Bush, he conveniently ignores moderate Republican nominees like Bob Dole and John McCain. Most puzzling of all, Bush is tossed in the "conservative" sin bin for his expensive Medicare drug program, a big-government move Tanenhaus nonetheless declares consistent with true conservative principles, given that Ronald Reagan failed to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.

Got that?

Oddly, Tanenhaus argued just the opposite about Bush in a 2003 Times column, written before he joined the paper. Back then, the Medicare drug plan made GWB a "big-government liberal":

So, too, with President Bush, who now seems a small-government conservative (tax cuts for the rich), now a big-government liberal (prescription drug benefits), now a social liberal (favoring some types of affirmative action), now a social conservative (opposed to gay marriage).

Again, Tanenhaus is fudging facts to portray the political landscape in a liberal-friendly manner. But the real world has shifted underneath him in the last few months, leaving Tanenhaus's elaborate painting looking more like a twisted Picasso than a realistic view of U.S. politics.

In one oft-quoted image from the book, Tanenhaus likens today's conservative movement to "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." It's a striking image, but as dated as the rest of the book, which is itself frozen in time, a fossil of conventional wisdom that can be carbon-dated precisely to Obama's brief period of ascendancy, circa early-to-middle 2009.