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Columnists Remarkable Providences



It's too early to give up on change in Washington

As our Oct. 10 cover story pointed out, the Clinton impeachment debate has pushed otherwise reluctant conservatives to close ranks behind the GOP. Discontent remains, however, and mention of an Idaho bumper sticker- "Don't Vote: It Only Encourages Them"-still brings laughs and nods.

The discontent arises because some conservatives thought we were choosing a true "Republican Revolution" in 1994 by throwing many of the bums out. Many did not understand that Republicans were not promising change but congressional votes on change, votes that a slick White House incumbent and a pugnacious Democratic opposition could render largely inconsequential.

Of course, Republican apologies should not be taken entirely at face value. History is full of examples of insurrectionists who, when they gain power, become imitators of what they overthrew. Russians in the 1970s joked about Leonid Brezhnev showing off his big homes and abundant possessions to his impressed mother, who then asked a worried question, "But what if the Communists come?"

A parallel question could be addressed to a few of the first-term fire-breathing congressmen from 1995 who have now adopted the ways of Washington and over-compromised: "But what if the Republican Revolution arrives?" There's no doubt that some leaders and followers breathed fire when that was fashionable, and once in office made new alliances with the smoke detector industry.

What should astound us, though, is not that the go-along get-alongs exist, but that many principled conservatives have stood fast. It is hard to stand up to the corrupting temptations of power and influence. It's been hard throughout American history.

What astounds me, looking back, is that 19th-century leaders like Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland stood up against centralizing pressures. When they ran for reelection, they had to fight the tendency of some of their followers to be frustrated because their main White House successes lay not so much in pushing a new agenda as in stopping bad things from happening.

What astounds me at the end of the 20th century is not that conservatives haven't won the ballgame, but that there still is a ballgame. After all, throughout the century we've seen decades of movement toward centralized government (the '10s, '30s, and '60s in particular) followed by periods of consolidation. Presidents such as Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s were willing to stand athwart history and say no. Both times, however, weak successors were unable to stay the course, and the next decade witnessed new expansions of governmental power.

What's not astounding is that changing a political culture is very hard, and that a century-long movement takes more than a few years to reverse. Of course some congressmen who came to Washington three years ago committed to decentralization have fallen into the old pattern of thinking that if they favor a particular human need or desire, they should vote to spend tax money on it. But that's no reason to give up.

I've personally seen progress in the war of ideas. In 1989 talk in Washington about the crucial role of churches in fighting poverty and crime was seen as brave but way-out prophecy. But in June of this year, Newsweek had a cover headline that proclaimed, "God vs. Gangs. What's the Hottest Idea in Crime Fighting? The Power of Religion."

In 1992 the prospects for attaining serious welfare reform seemed almost nil. Now, a strong economy plus the welfare changes of 1996 have led to the fewest number of folks on welfare since 1969; at least rhetorically, politicians of many stripes emphasize effective compassion rather than mere material distribution.

In 1995, when my then 10-year-old son Daniel told a group of liberal political dignitaries that he was being educated in home school, many had never heard of that notion; several asked, "charm school?" Now, even establishment publications like Education Week and Newsweek are giving homeschoolers respectful attention.

A change in the dominant ideas eventually leads to political change, but the transition takes time. Let's not forget that many of those elected in 1994 have stood fast. Let's not assume that a new revolutionary crew, if it could get elected, would necessarily create any less disappointment. Let's thank God for the many men and women of principle, and try to elect more. Here's a better bumper sticker: "Vote for the good ones. It'll encourage them."