In June, the editors of The Weekly Standard asked 28 writers, thinkers, activists, and political professionals for their thoughts on the following proposition:
"Conservatives worldwide are in a peculiar state. On the one hand, their ideas seem to be ascendant; on the other hand, the parties and politicians that represent them seem to be getting battered. Clinton, Blair, and Jospin are victorious, while politicians allied with what we think of as "conservative" ideas about the free market, regulation, the size of government, and traditional morality are reeling from defeat after defeat. In the United States, the Republican Congress has lost its moorings in the wake of Bill Clinton's reelection. What's going on? What does it mean? What happened to the confident conservatism of Thatcher, Reagan and the 1994 Republican congressional victory?
A possible explanation: Imagine you live in New York City and you've been convinced that 50 years of rent control does grievous economic harm to the city and is an iniquitous system. But you also have the good fortune of living in a rent-controlled apartment and are paying much below market price for it. In this case, your abstract beliefs would conflict with your specific circumstances. In the tradition of St. Augustine, you'd want the conservative agenda to proceed, but not yet.
Many find themselves in the same bind. You agree that the existing welfare system is a disaster but blanch at the prospect of the poor in your own city getting cut off. You recognize that social security can't go on this way but worry about your parents' benefits. Similar fears apply to myriad other programs – mortgage deductibility, minimum-wage laws, the arts and humanities endowments, Medicare, aid to cities. In other words, the nanny state coopts all but the most determined conservatives.
To do battle against this colossus, politicians must take heed that the status quo has great power, then factor this into their calculations. That means going more slowly than they would wish, applying constant pressure, and acting with great cleverness and a certain stealthiness. It won't be easy. But then, it took 30 years, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, to construct the liberal state. Pulling it down will likely not go faster.