In this year of unrequited love and loyalty betrayed, the most painful story of broken hearts doesn't involve Bill and Monica or Bill and Hillary or even Monica and Linda. It's American conservatives and the American people. And the saddest romantic outcry of the year wasn't Monica telling Bill, "I need you right now, not as a President, but as a man!" It was the sigh of perplexity that issued a few weeks ago from William J. Bennett. It appeared in the New York Times in a story about how conservatives were coming to grips with the fact that most people did not want Bill Clinton pushed out of office. And Bennett, the author of The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, was left to shake his head at how the American people had abandoned him. "For the first time in my adult life," he said, "I'm not in sync. I don't get it."
That wasn't just Bennett's customary gravitas. It was the sound of conservatism in despair, a bewildered keening that could just as easily have come from Gary Bauer or Robert Bork or William Kristol. All year the political right awaited the moment when everyone would agree that Ken Starr's investigation was the institutional expression of a national consensus, namely that the President's relationship with Lewinsky was not simply wrong but criminal. That means it was something that it was the proper business of government to discover, interrogate, rip to pieces, expose and punish. What happened of course is that most people signaled, through polls and then on Election Day, that maybe they didn't feel that way. As the events of December made plain, how those people felt didn't matter much. Even so, Clinton's most headlong pursuers were denied the pleasure of imagining that everybody else was cheering them on. While the President was finally caught in the machinery of impeachment, it was a climax that most people said, again and again, they did not want.
How did conservatives, who used to boast that they were at one with ordinary Americans, get it so wrong? The answer begins with the end of the cold war, when the collapse of the Soviet Union gave them the opportunity to focus on the culture wars at home. Optimistic libertarians, the kind who believe that free choice is good and that free markets foster it, are still to be found in the Republican Party. But the more influential voices on the right these days are bleaker. They see America becoming a cesspit of promiscuity and godlessness and blue dresses with who knows what on them, a place where some sexual interludes have to be specified as being "in person," as the Starr report does, so you can distinguish them from the ones you might have, say, over the phone.
For them, government interference with private economic behavior remains a bad thing, but regulation of other kinds of private behavior, chiefly meaning sex, is something America needs more of. This is the line of thought represented most famously by Robert Bork in his 1996 best seller, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Bork warns that America is in the grip of a radical individualism that recognizes no limit to the right of personal gratification, one for which the pleasure principle is the only principle that counts.