In 1950, the liberal critic Lionel Trilling famously dismissed American conservatism as "irritable mental gestures that seem to resemble ideas." In the half-century since, the political right has tried hard to refute him: with a grass-roots movement, a stable of intellectuals and a coherent ideology. This metamorphosis is the story of Lee Edwards's "The Conservative Revolution" (Free Press, 391 pages, $27.50), a book that is slightly less triumphalist than its title suggests.
Mr. Edwards begins with the "do-nothing" Republican Congress elected in 1946. He notes that President Truman, who used the appellation freely during his 1948 re-election campaign, always failed to mention that it derived mostly from his own liberal use of the presidential veto. In fact, there are striking similarities between the 1946 Congress and the recent Gingrich congresses. Both began with ambitious agendas, found themselves frustrated by an underestimated Democratic president and ended up accommodating the regulatory state.
For a long time, conservatives saw Eastern Establishment liberal Republicans as their true enemies over and above New Deal Democrats. In 1948 and 1952, it was believed, Tom Dewey and then Dwight Eisenhower "stole" the presidential nomination from the more deserving Sen. Robert Taft. In 1960, Richard Nixon broke his promise not to meet with Nelson Rockefeller before the GOP Convention, traveling to Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue apartment to pay homage to the dean of liberal Republicanism. The meeting, which Barry Goldwater called "an American Munich," convinced conservatives that Nixon would never be one of them.
In 1964, everyone knew that Goldwater stood no chance against Lyndon Johnson. Even so, Mr. Edwards faults liberal Republicans for not making even token efforts for Goldwater. A parade of indignities in this period showed conservatives that they would have to capture the GOP if they were ever to guide its destiny. Goldwater's loss actually foreshadowed this takeover, since he scored most of his victories in the once Democratic South. And indeed, in 1980 Ronald Reagan won every Southern state except Georgia. A decade and a half later, when the House was won by Republicans, most of the gains came in the South.
While "The Conservative Revolution" is well-researched, Mr. Edwards is what baseball fans call a "homer," rooting for his favorite team. He's frank about it, too. He notes in his acknowledgments: "Those seeking absolute objectivity will not find it here. But then they will not find it in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s history of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency or William Manchester's biography of John F. Kennedy either." This is a clever comparison -- and a truthful one -- but the effect of such candor is a kind of self-marginalization, as if his book need not be taken seriously by people who don't agree with its author's prejudices.
Unfortunately, this is typical of American conservatism, which has a strong defeatist streak. Since the whole impeachment debacle, many conservatives have accepted the conventional wisdom that the right is in serious trouble. Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, for example, set off a firestorm in Washington recently by suggesting that conservatives ought to abdicate the political realm since the prospects for victory are so dim.
Mr. Edwards, however, is usually a happy warrior. "Conservatives from Taft to Gingrich," he writes, "have always known that in politics there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats, only permanent things like wisdom, courage, prudence, justice, and, overarching them all, liberty."
Indeed, conservatism is not nearly as dead as the conventional wisdom would have it. The leading GOP presidential candidate (Bush) is beating the sitting Democratic vice president (Gore) by nearly 2 to 1 in the polls, and liberalism's leader (Clinton) is going into constitutionally imposed exile in January 2001, undoubtedly with what is referred to as a "mixed legacy."
But without Mr. Clinton, liberalism today is about as formidable as postrevolutionary France during one of Napolean's vacations on Elba. The reason is that Mr. Clinton, for all his faults, has the political discipline to resist the extreme impulses of his party. It is not clear that the critical mass of Democrats can muster a similar sense of restraint. The old bulls in Congress, hoping the GOP will falter, are just waiting for the return of their chairmanships. But John Conyers, Henry Waxman and the rest are still well to the left of the American electorate.
Conservatives can also take solace in the fact that history rarely happens as the conventional wisdom dictates. In 1992, Mr. Schlesinger wrote that Mr. Clinton's election proved his political-cycles theory and that the 1990s would be a decade of liberal resurgence. Two years later, the GOP took Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Politics simply does not lend itself to neat analytical grids and sure-fire predictions. It's hard to say, for example, how the impeachment will play out in the 2000 campaign; meanwhile, there's a war going on that Sen. Taft might have found revolting -- maybe the harbinger of another Conservative Revolution.