- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 1999

Steve Forbes is my man. I'm even on his Washington State campaign committee. Mr. Forbes' domestic policies flat income tax, Social Security privatization, school choice, etc. constitute a symphony of sanity. As a person, he's a wondrous blend of gravitas and humanity, vibrant idealism and practical smarts, deep faith and gracious tolerance. He has limited experience in foreign affairs, but any guy who can live with six females one wife, five daughters is probably halfway to a Nobel Peace Prize already.
And yet, he troubles me. Not that I doubt his sincerity, his merits, or his decency. What you see is what you get, and what you get would make a fine president. But certain aspects of his campaign aren't what they ought to be, or could be. Some are relatively trivial. More vexing is his lack of a serious defense policy. In his book, "A New Birth of Freedom," he does little more than catalogue post-Cold War force cuts which would have happened under any president, urge missile defenses, and call for "leadership." Both Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain have done far better.
But most frustrating is his approach to cultural and moral renewal. The issue here is not his Christian commitment. Rather, the problem is that Steve Forbes and conservatism generally are missing an enormous opportunity. Conservatism lost and deserved to lose the Culture War of last 30 years. But there's no reason to lose the next one the one now coming upon us. We are told that the "indicators of deviancy" crime, illegitimacy, abortion, drug use, etc. are level or declining. Whether this constitutes a trend or merely a pause remains to be seen. What is clear is that the array of forces over-simplistically known as PC, Politically Correct, have entered their Brezhnev era: powerful, addicted to power, but ever more sterile and ever more bizarre. The opportunity to counterattack is real. But only if conservatism eschews three deadly errors, and finds a leader willing to get beyond them.
Conservative Error First: We Don't Have to Know about Anybody Else, We Know about Us. Or do we? When conservatism touts its reverence for "the best of the past," it too often ignores the rest of the past. When conservatism parades "Judeo-Christian values," it too often acts as though it held both a patent and a monopoly on goodness. As long as conservatism's solution to the Culture War consists of three words, "Be Like Us," it can expect to hear "no" far more often than "yes."
Conservative Error Second: We Fight the War We Want to Fight, Not the War We Need to Fight. How often do conservatives define their enemies as PC, or liberalism, or Cultural Marxism or that ultimate horror, the 1960s. A nice, neat package. No matter that, for everybody under forty, that decade's (ancient) history. No matter that Cultural Marxism, that Conspiracy So Vast interpretation of the Culture War, ignores the phenomenal complexity of non-conservative America. No matter that left-liberalism/ PC didn't rise to its present estate because everything in America was copasetic. But these are the folks conservatism loves to hate. So be it.
Conservative Error Third: It's Either/Or. Culture, unlike elections, is not a zero-sum game. Why have conservatives not yet grasped that disgust with the left does not automatically generate movement to the right?
In recent years, an awkward word "Responsibility" has entered the lexicon. More's involved here than Dr. Laura. Responsibility has gone commercial. (Like Dr. Laura?) Drink Responsibly. Drive your ATV Responsibly. Ads for late night trash TV urge us to "View Responsibly." In some cases, the admonitions reflect pure utilitarian calculation; in others, perhaps, hypocrisy. Still, to coin a phrase, hypocrisy's the tribute vice pays to virtue.
And there's the key: virtue. People need to feel right about themselves not just good, right. Virtues are internal human characteristics that generate rightness. Values are desirable conditions and outcomes. Rules are instruments for achieving both. Throughout the Culture War, the left appealed to virtue at least as much as to vice. The quest for moral stature, misguided or not, animated a thousand protest and direct action movements, from Vietnam and disarmament to the environment, feminism, minority entitlements, whatever you care to name. But now, as the practical consequences of so many left-liberal/PC stances become clear, personally and politically, the virtue appeal starts to wane, especially to those non-ideologue, non-hateful millions who determine elections.
Can conservatism capture the appeal to virtue? Not as long as it limits itself to "Judeo-Christian traditional values" and acts as though Christ died so they could tell America what to do. And certainly not as long as it perpetuates a millennia-old scam either our God-defined virtues or nihilistic evil, with nothing in between. (Tell it to Plato.)
But what could a Steve Forbes accomplish if, without denying his own beliefs, he said to the American people, "Our recovery of virtue need not be limited to, or exclusively based upon, religion. In truth, and for all the emphasis on Great Awakenings and other revivals, it never has been. Let's differ on the sources of virtue. Let's not get hung up on one-size-fits-all values. Let's go easy on the rules. Let's just go there together."

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