Life Watch: At the Edge of Conventional Wisdom

In the mid-1980s, as people began to ponder the question of a successor to Ronald Reagan, there was a flicker of interest in Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada. But one veteran of the Goldwater campaign observed that one of the lessons learned in that campaign was that a candidate from a small state found it hard to develop the political reflexes that were needed in seeking support over a large terrain, with a heterogeneous electorate. The interest in Laxalt quickly flickered out. But by 1992 the conventional wisdom was undone: A governor from Arkansas showed that his political skills had not been blunted by the need to cultivate them in a state with only four electoral votes. (One wag, discounting him at the time, remarked that there hardly seemed to be a threat posed by a candidate from a state whose electoral votes equaled the number of living former presidents.)

The conventional wisdom may still be wise, at least most of the time. We are simply reminded that all of these rules are problematic, and they do not always hold. That point came back over the past two weeks, as a result of trips to Dallas and Los Angeles, where friends who are politically savvy seemed to be anchoring themselves in another maxim of politics that they apparently regarded as quite firm. A journalist, listening to Steve Forbes deliver a solid, substantive speech at Claremont-McKenna College, offered a summary judgment: It finally didn’t matter. The American people were not going to take a chance on a candidate who had never held public office or faced the responsibilities of managing an administration in a political setting. Forbes, he said, had passed by two chances to establish his standing. He could have run for the governorship of New Jersey or for a Senate seat sprung open there. If Forbes had run and won either of those posts, my friend estimated that he would stand today, not as an outsider and a long- shot, but as a candidate who would have to be regarded, instantly, on the same plane of plausibility as the governor of Texas. A man who has won statewide twice in Texas establishes a certain credibility to run in a larger theater, and so he seems to stand now as the favorite among the professionals offering odds—and arranging their own bets.

Curiously, I heard this brief offered a week earlier, during a visit to the University of Dallas, along with similar complaints about those articulate, inspiring men who had never held public office. The brief, and the complaint, came from another friend, a professor of political philosophy, a tough conservative and pro-lifer. He knew that George W Bush was no more likely than his father to make the pro-life case during his campaign. But he thought that Bush was even more earnest on this issue than his father, and he could be depended on to incorporate the pro-life interest in his administration. In the meantime, my friend was quite concerned that a serious candidate like Bush could be undermined among the pro-lifers through the candidacy of Gary Bauer. He liked Bauer, but he was quite emphatic on the point that candidates who had never won any elections—like Bauer, Forbes, Pat Buchanan, and Alan Keyes—should forego the temptation to roil the waters and undermine a Republican who had a serious chance of winning.

And yet Bauer had cultivated some extraordinary skill in presenting and defending positions precisely because he had been in offices with public visibility. He had worked on the White House staff under Reagan; he had served as a deputy to William Bennett in the Department of Education; but his main fame had been gained as the head of the Family Research Council. From that post he had managed to launch a spirited defense of the pro-life position in Republican politics, along with a resistance to the agenda of gay activism. On the pro- life issue, his was often the one voice heard first and heard persistently, whenever there was a move to make the Republican Party more “inclusive” on abortion—by shoving the pro-lifers out of the party.

But my friend in Dallas began to relent in his opposition to Bauer— and to grant him a certain standing—when I relayed to him two stories. During the argument over the Republican platform in 1996, Bauer and Phyllis Schlafly appeared before the platform committee and made a strong, compelling case against any effort to weaken the platform on abortion. A few days later, Bauer called me on another matter, and when the conversation turned to the platform, he said (and I paraphrase), “Where were the Republican governors? Where were Tommy Thompson and John Engler? Would Phyllis and I have had to be the chief spokesmen on this question if any governor of standing, or any member of the Republican establishment, had come forward to speak?” Instead, the obvious choices were too hesitant to speak, lest they embarrass Bob Dole.

Just last year, when Bauer was beginning to consider a run for the presidency, I was turning the question around with him when he said something that would be under-stood at once by anyone who has ever tried to write on issues of the day or contribute to the speeches of candidates: I’ve tried so many times, he said, to put words in the mouths of candidates, and they never come out as I had written them or meant them. At a certain point you decide that the words are going to come out the way you want them only if you say them yourself.

With that, there is no arguing; and I don’t see that Bauer has any lesser standing to make the argument than men or women in office, who have apparently developed the reflexes of public officials by backing away from the making of arguments on abortion. As James Madison once said, Don’t ask from whom the advice comes, but whether the advice is good or bad. Instead of asking about the offices the candidates hold, we should be asking, Who is making the relevant arguments on the matters that are more central to our public life? What seems to be passed over in the cur-rent wisdom is that the office of president is not merely a managerial enterprise. The skills of administrators and accountants are not to be discounted, but the central task of an executive in high office is the task of articulating the ends and the principles that give guidance and order to the life of any administration. What had Henry Kissinger ever run before he became the adviser on national security and then Secretary of State? His claim to office did not rest on his record in managing summer programs at Harvard, but in the understanding of foreign policy that he had worked out in his writings. Had Bill Clinton shown his aptitude for managing the presidency by his administration of the republic of Arkansas? As Ross Perot said, in one of his rare moments of lucidity, that kind of experience didn’t rise to the management of Wal-Mart.

In comparison, why would the record of Steve Forbes be counted as less substantial in any dimension? To sustain Forbes magazine as a going enterprise requires more skill than “sustaining” the government of Arkansas, an entity that will endure regardless of the venality or ineptitude of its governors. Apart from the matter of management, Forbes’s standing as the head of that magazine really depended on the acumen he showed in writing and directing the editorials. With those writings, his understanding was constantly on display to an urbane audience that could judge, in the end, whether he knew what he was talking about.

In the Republican politics of this moment, Forbes has a distinct place with a unique opportunity: He comes from the Christie Whitman circles of the party, and yet he carries into those circles the pro-life argument. He understands that it will not be possible, overnight, to ban most abortions, much less enact a constitutional amendment. But he understands—and persistently says—that this issue cannot be anything other than central. We may take, initially, only the most modest steps to protect life, but he is utterly clear that those steps are part of a design, leading us eventually to broaden, at each stage, our protection of life, and reminding ourselves, with each step, of our respect for life.

In taking this line of argument, Forbes may strike off on the appealing course of Franklin Roosevelt in making himself a “traitor to his class.” That he sees political gain in that move does not diminish its significance or its credit to him as a political man. There is even more profit to George W Bush if he could make a marriage of this kind, but he has shown no comparable signs of a political motive stirring him to a serious policy.

For at this moment the highest task of statesmanship in the country is to preserve the alliance between these two wings of the conservative movement: The traditional Republicans, concerned about the economy and taxation, and the conservatives who have a paramount concern with questions of moral consequence. One would have to be witless not to recognize the serious danger right now of a rupture in that coalition, and a split would mean peril for either side. Bush is an estimable man, and he has had the good judgment to bring to his aid Michael Gerson, an accomplished writer who is deeply committed on the life issues. But the question is whether Bush himself has the inclination or conviction to speak the words that are needed—and on that pressing subject, more next time.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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