Where The Right Went Wrong

In backing Starr's witch hunt, conservatives fell in love with Big Government

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Bork blames it all on the triumph of "modern liberalism," the mixture of hedonism and egalitarianism that is the legacy, of course, of the 1960s. One thing his analysis sidesteps is the way muscular, indelicate capitalism, which he largely favors, chews up every precious thing that stands in its way, including small towns, small farms, old institutions and you. Also overlooked is the way in which an extra measure of freedom has made life just a tad more livable for women and minorities. In Bork's view liberalism, all by itself, is at the root of all current predicaments. And he is worried that after 30 years its contamination of American life is irreversible. "We must, then, take seriously the possibility...that the degeneracy we see about us will only become worse."

Considered that way, the nation's failure to rally around Starr is further proof of the general moral decay. It used to be an article of faith among conservatives that the natural goodness of the American people would be unleashed once we got the government off our backs. (Remember Newt Gingrich?) Lately, however, conservatives find themselves entertaining the opposite thought, that we have all become so heedless and self-regarding that we can no longer be relied upon to make moral judgments. This summer James Dobson, the Christian radio broadcaster, was all but calling for a new American people to replace the defective present model. Before the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr thing is over, it will have pushed conservatism into an oddball neo-Platonism, one that envisions an ideal "American people" of whom the real ones are just a shabby reminder.

The moralists misunderstand two things. One is that Starr's rejection by most Americans was itself an ironic triumph of conservatism. For the past 50 years the right has claimed that government can't perform most public purposes, whether those might be educating kids, caring for the poor or buying toilet seats for aircraft carriers at popular prices. This was an attack that started, of course, in the antigovernment rhetoric of the 1960s left. In the '90s Gingrich and his House revolutionaries consolidated that critique and focused it on Congress, assuring us that the place was a ship of fools. Two years ago, when former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander ran in the G.O.P. presidential primaries, he built a campaign slogan around the ineptitude of Congress: "Cut their pay and send them home." Abbie Hoffman couldn't have said it better.

That line of thought is now embedded in the national psyche. If people flinched at impeachment this year, it was partly a sign that Washington has been more effectively delegitimized than anybody, left or right, ever dreamed possible. When it came time to decide what institution should judge the cross-eyed blunderings of Bill Clinton, who was left to say government was up to the job? And because of the way that both the Starr investigation and impeachment went forward--sometimes a legal process, sometimes just politics where the rules of prosecution didn't apply--it was also hard to claim that the ideal of law lent the thing an extra measure of ironclad credibility.

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