Lamar! Conservative! Not!

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On education, which is one of his big selling points, Alexander feels strongly both ways. Free the public schools from burdensome federal regulations, he cries. Cut the federal education bureaucracy in half; stop trying to run schools from Washington. Meanwhile, use federal influence and money to end teacher tenure, to start merit pay, to provide $1 billion worth of $1,500 tuition "scholarships," and to substitute English tutorials for bilingual education. In one breath Alexander decries the Clinton Administration's educational "command and control" from Washington; in the next he promises to "lead a movement state by state to transform our schools."

It is instructive to compare that sort of talk with Barry Goldwater's two-word federal education plan from 1960: Stay out. "Federal aid to education is... an act of naked compulsion -- a decision by the federal government to force the people of the states to spend more money than they choose to spend for this purpose voluntarily," said Goldwater. But conservatism was different back then. It was conservative.

Alexander fluently uses the conservative phrasebook (character, responsibility, cut regulation in half, etc.), but he succumbs to the modern expectation that a national politician, conservative or liberal, will have a national policy on everything. Alexander's Washington will lead the government and the culture to "honor once again the job of father and mother"; it will expand farm exports by subsidizing agribusiness advertising overseas; it will sponsor affirmative action "for everyone, always based on need, never based on race"; it will help local communities deal with problems such as traffic congestion; it will promote the use of ethanol rather than MBTE to oxygenate gasoline.

George Orwell said, in 1942, "All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy." In 1999, his observation is ripe for right-wing Americans. They disdain government and claim to oppose it, and all the while, they promise to use it in a thousand worthy ways.

This is not honest, but it is understandable. In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton's America, like Tony Blair's Great Britain, has reached a governing consensus broader than anything seen since the early 1960s, and the consensus is not conservative. Alexander is probably right to display himself as an exemplary conservative, but the conservatism he exemplifies, like Blair's reformed leftism, is no longer a program. It is a style of talking. It is less something you do than something you wear. Like, say, a plaid shirt.

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