At two o’clock on the morning of May 2, an elderly British Conservative looked blearily into the television cameras. Sir Marcus Fox had until a few minutes earlier represented one of the safest Conservative constituencies in Britain. He had been the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which is to say the leader and spokesman of the Tory rank and file in Parliament. And he had just lost his seat to a twenty-four-year-old Labour Party researcher whose name nobody—nobody in the Labour Party even—could remember. Sir Marcus knew that the world had turned upside down, that Tony Blair was on his way to 10 Downing Street, and he to retirement. But he smiled good-naturedly. It would, he remarked, have been pretty bad to have lost to the old Labour Party, but it was not so bad tonight. The Conservative Party of John Major had lost, but it had been replaced by the conservative party of Tony Blair; the country was in safe hands. He was sorry to lose, but hardly agitated.
An American counterpart to Sir Marcus Fox, supposing such a creature to be possible, might have drawn the same conclusion from President Clinton’s easy victory over Bob Dole last autumn. Clinton’s victory owed a great deal to the Republican Party’s inability to nominate a team that could have beaten him—Colin Powell assisted by Massachusetts Governor William Weld or Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, for instance; but it was very much a victory for “small-c” conservatism nonetheless. The manner of Clinton’s re-election suggests that conservatism is in the ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic. Whatever the Clintonian word “triangulation” stood for—mostly an unprincipled attempt to steer between the Democrat left and the Republican right—it was not the reassertion of old-fashioned Democrat values. Economic egalitarianism and compassion toward the poor and unemployed were nowhere on the agenda. But the fact that it was Clinton rather than Dole who won suggests that what the nation wants is conservatives of a particular stamp. Or, more broadly, that nice-sounding conservatives prosper and nasty-sounding ones do not.
Clinton’s success as a conservative has its parallel in Christie Whitman’s rise to stardom as a Republican who has wowed the voters of a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one. Since 1992, British observers have been asking whether the Labour Party could find a British Clinton. In a world where Democrats prosper by looking Republican, and Republicans by looking Democratic, the next question may be whether Mrs. Whitman can become an American Blair. Like him, she has prospered by dissociating herself from the more ideologically minded members of her own party; she has been pro-choice on abortion and pro-restraint on guns, and has been unwilling to underwrite Mayor Bret Schundler’s ideas about bringing vouchers for private schools to Jersey City.
Such comparisons cannot be wholly serious, of course. It is true that Clinton has kept his distance from the congressional Democratic Party, and that Blair has asserted an unprecedented degree of authority over the parliamentary Labour Party, but in Britain the leader and the party rise and fall together, while Clinton’s success of last fall did nothing for the congressional Democrats. Still, the commentators’ passion for such comparisons reflects a general understanding that the left, such as it is, can survive only by wearing conservative clothing, and that the right can be undone by the accusation of extremism as easily as the left. So successful has Blair been as a British Clinton that even before the election of May 1, Robert Reich was lecturing the British on the need to make sure that Blair did not entirely sell out to big business and the City of London.
How far this represents the triumph of conservatism is highly debatable, however. It may more nearly represent the triumph of centrism—which is precisely why what applies to President Clinton and to Prime Minister Blair applies so neatly to Governor Whitman. Forty years ago, Daniel Bell wrote The End of Ideology to argue that the politics of class war had become obsolete in the developed, industrialized West. The search for utopia had been abandoned, and politics had become a matter of managing what came to be known as welfare capitalism—a market economy with a substantial welfare safety net and an acknowledged role for government in maintaining high levels of employment. For all the excitements of the intervening forty years, Bell’s views have worn rather well, and the question today is not whether there has been a successful conservative counterrevolution against the postwar social and political settlement, but how far the terms of the settlement have recently changed.
In some ways, they have changed dramatically. The much-remarked increase in income inequality since 1980 is the most striking of the changes. From 1945 onward, the gap between the best-off 20 percent of the population and the worst-off 20 percent closed slowly but steadily. Since 1980, the gap has widened again. Today, the top 20 percent’s share of the national income is what it was in 1945. The ups and downs of the Reagan years and their aftermath have left the poorest 10 percent worse off in absolute terms than they were 1980, while the best-off 10 percent have seen their incomes after taxes rise by 50 percent. This shift has been matched, and indeed exceeded, in Britain, though not anywhere else.
On the other hand, the United States and Britain currently have the lowest unemployment rates among the larger Western economies, which may go some way toward explaining the widespread acquiescence in this shift of advantage from the worse-off to the better-off. More striking than the movements between large groups of income earners has been the rise in the salaries of CEOs of large corporations. These salaries have always been controlled by a sense of propriety rather than competitive forces, and it seems clear that contemporary American managers are less restrained by such social pressures than their counterparts elsewhere and their predecessors at home. Such changes raise obvious questions about attitudes towards radical inequality. Do Americans simply accept it as a fact of nature?
The thought that these changes represent a turning away from an older egalitarianism goes too far. American egalitarianism has never taken the form of a concern for financial or economic equality in the abstract. A dislike of snobbery and a taste for the homespun style is not the same thing as a wish to see everyone earn the same income—though it may go along with a wish to see them hold the same beliefs. What it has involved is a belief in some form of equal opportunity. Positive discrimination has never had much legitimacy. The G.I. Bill was understood as a way of compensating young people who had served their country by giving them an education they might otherwise have missed. Other programs have been harder to defend. Supporters of race-based affirmative action have always had to present it as a way of attacking discrimination—quite rightly, since an ideal of equal opportunity that starts from the view that aristocratic birth should confer no advantage can hardly end by holding that membership in a racial or ethnic group should by itself confer advantages that noble birth cannot.
The elements of the welfare state that have never lost their credibility have been defensive rather than abstractly egalitarian. And where they can be represented as having been earned by hard work or as being a form of collective insurance, their popularity is much enhanced. One of the measures that President Clinton successfully pushed through in the teeth of concerted Republican opposition was an increase in the minimum wage. How much good a minimum wage does, and how many jobs it costs, are contentious issues on which economists have never agreed. The public perception seems to be that a minimum wage sets a limit on how far a grasping employer can exploit an otherwise defenseless worker. In the same way, Medicare and Social Security have become impossible for Republicans to touch. Economists know that both programs are paid for out of current taxation; the public prefers to believe that they have put in their contributions in the past and are getting them back in the present. Neither sickness nor getting old represents a voluntary and willful refusal to work; both make us dependent on others for assistance, but someone who suffers such natural misfortunes is very different from someone whose morale has been sapped by the culture of dependency.
In short, critics of the welfare state are on safe ground only when they want to restore legitimacy to a welfare safety net that always presupposed that everyone who could work would work. If they seem happy to see the elderly as badly off as they were before the advent of Medicare—when one old person in four was in poverty—they will look hardhearted, mean, and brutal, and will fail. Conversely, defenders of the welfare state cannot afford to look as though they are protecting the feckless and the antisocial.
There has been a movement toward a more conservative social climate in at least two ways. The first is that there is a general distrust of the ability of government agencies to make things happen. Where thirty years ago, three quarters of those polled thought that governments were effective in achieving what they set out to achieve, barely a quarter agreed in 1992. In the light of that, the temptation to throw the responsibility for their own welfare back onto the individuals most directly affected is overwhelming. The second is that there has been a reassertion of what Mrs. Thatcher famously referred to as “Victorian values.” What they center on is an ideal of individual responsibility that may be more than a little at odds with reality. There is no reason to think that the middle-management victims of the “downsizing” policies of the past decade were irresponsible; they were just unlucky to find themselves working for IBM or AT&T when the ax fell.
Still, it can hardly be denied that a world in which everyone subscribed to such ideas would see fewer unmarried mothers and would need fewer safeguards against benefit scams than the fallen world in which we in fact live. Indeed, such is the appeal of Victorian values that an enlightening survey in the spring of 1996 discovered that welfare recipients were more convinced than the rest of the public that the welfare system encouraged dependency and work-shy attitudes, while welfare mothers were only very slightly less inclined than the rest of the public to think that a woman on welfare should get no extra assistance for children born while she was on welfare.1
If the voters are happy to re-elect a Democrat running on a Republican platform, will they be just as happy to vote for a Republican running on a Democrat platform? The question is provoked by the earliest stages of what may be the most interesting race of the off-year of 1997, Christine Todd Whitman’s run for re-election as governor of New Jersey. In 1952, her father, Webster Todd, ran General Eisenhower’s New Jersey campaign for the Republican nomination. In the middle of the battle, he found time to write affectionately to his old school friend Adlai Stevenson, wishing him success. In Growing Up Republican, Patricia Beard quotes him: “Both the parties need more people like yourself,” he wrote; “it does give one a good feeling to know that no matter who wins in November, someone of the character of yourself or General Eisenhower will be the next President.” While it is nice to be reminded that politics has not always been a matter of character assassination, it wouldn’t do to exaggerate the good judgment of Ms. Whitman’s father; he wrote to Eisenhower—in 1952—to tell him that he wanted him to run to stop the country “rocketting down the road to socialism and corruption.” The importance of her father’s politics in young Christine’s life was not that she imbibed his delusional anti-socialism, but that she grew up eating, drinking, and breathing a patrician Republicanism quite unlike the bare-knuckled kind that appeals to the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.
All the evidence suggests that Christie Whitman will easily be re-elected. It is hard to remember today that four years ago she seemed all too likely to be murdered at the polls by the man who had until that moment been the most unpopular governor in New Jersey’s postwar history. Growing Up Republican dwells at some length on the fact that Jim Florio’s ambition was not merely to defeat Christine Todd Whitman, but to beat her humiliatingly, to take on her the revenge that he was unable to take on the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature. She won by the narrowest possible margin, a shade over 26,000 votes out of two and a half million. In mid-February this year, the polls suggested she would beat Florio by 68 percent of the vote to 32 percent—no other Democratic candidate would get above 25 percent.
The interest of this year’s race does not lie in the outcome. Ex-governor Florio dreams of a comeback, but his friends have rightly been telling him he would do better to save his energies for 2001. The interest of the race lies in the fact that much as President Clinton won by being a Democrat in Republican clothing, so Governor Whitman looks likely to win by becoming a Republican in Democrat clothing. That may seem something of a stretch, seeing that Ms. Whitman revived a flagging campaign in 1993 by following the advice of Steve Forbes and announcing that she would cut the state income tax by 30 percent over three years. This was, and still is, the move favored by all Republicans in a tight corner. It did Bob Dole no good last year, but it saved Ms. Whitman’s bacon in 1993—less perhaps because voters thought they would get their tax cut than because it reminded them that they hated Jim Florio for raising their taxes in the first places.
Voters in the early 1990s were particularly unforgiving to politicians who first said they would not raise taxes and then did it. Subsequent opinion polls suggested that the voters were little fonder of the Republican legislators they had elected than they were of Florio. But many of those who would not have voted for Ms. Whitman as a Republican were ready to vote for her in order to defeat Florio. She then confounded expectations and became a heroine to Republican voters and to out-of-state pundits within weeks of being elected. Where most critics had thought she would either not get to her 30 percent cut in state income tax at all, or would have to phase it in very slowly, she backdated the first 5 percent cut to the beginning of the year and got her full 30 percent a year ahead of schedule—in 1995 rather than 1996.
If that made her popular with Republicans, her recent claims about what she would do in a second term have had the state Democrats grumbling that she sounds just like one of them.2 On moral issues she is certainly more like them than she is like many of her own party, having not flinched for a moment on abortion. She has stood her ground in spite of the current uproar over so-called partial-birth abortions against the opposition of her own party in the New Jersey legislature. On gender issues, she has at least done more to promote women into senior positions than any of her predecessors. On education, she has been uninhibited about using the state’s authority to take over school districts and about beginning to impose uniform standards on a state whose localism is manifested in the presence of six hundred school boards, some of which have for years presided over utterly inadequate inner-city schools. The question arises whether such measures simply reflect her character or whether she has seen something that much of the Republican Party has missed. One view is that she looked at the peculiarities of her state—densely urbanized in the northeast and near Philadelphia, and astonishingly rural in the south, simultaneously containing disaster areas such as Camden and rich enclaves such as Princeton or the horse country in which Ms. Whitman grew up—with an unsophisticated Girl Scout’s eye, and set out to tidy the state up.
The other view is that she has an intuitive grasp of where power lies in the new, suburban America, and is steadily finding ways to expand the support she gets from its middle class. If this latter view is right, recent events suggest that she may find it a harder task than she had reckoned. Well-heeled upper-middle-class taxpayers will applaud efforts to make inner-city school districts more efficient and less corrupt; they may at least acquiesce in the loss of local control over just what goes on in the classroom that a detailed statewide curriculum represents. But they are not at all eager to see their taxes rise once more to implement the New Jersey Supreme Court’s interpretation of the constitutional requirement that the state should provide as “effective” an education to the poor as to the well-to-do. According to the Court’s decision this May, the state will have to find money to increase appropriations for the poorer school districts. It is a wonderful irony that Ms. Whitman should at this high point in her career find herself facing exactly the issue that enabled her to defeat her predecessor.
The two slight—or perhaps “artless”—accounts of the Whitman phenomenon that came out last summer take Ms. Whitman only half-seriously. Patricia Beard’s Growing Up Republican is exactly what the title leads the reader to expect, that is to say, a friendly and good-natured biography, in which horses, houses, dogs, and husbands make more of a showing than New Jersey politics until well over halfway through the book. Art Weissman’s Christine Todd Whitman is entirely devoted to the topic its subtitle sets out—The Making of a National Political Player. What he is evidently puzzled by is how a nice, not terribly bright, upper-class lady turned out to possess “star” quality. It can’t be said that he produces much of an answer; but, of course, that’s the point. Nobody quite knows why the Beatles succeeded where dozens of other bands failed; nobody quite knows why Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe did what thousands of other beautiful, talented, and sexy young women couldn’t.
One of the puzzles of last fall’s presidential elections was that the so-called “soccer moms” to whom Clinton was supposed to appeal, and who were expected to provide him with a substantial electoral victory, did not, in the event, get out and vote. Can Ms. Whitman succeed in capturing their votes and arousing their enthusiasm? None of the personal and fund-raising scandals that reduce Clinton’s attractiveness to such voters cling to her. Her record in promoting women is appealing. Although she shares much of the Republican suspicion of state regulation, she is an environmentalist by upbringing and something of an expert on waste disposal, too. On issues of juvenile justice and teen-age pregnancy, she is neither a soft touch nor vindictive. There are at least seven million votes to be had that will not go to a right-wing Republican and may go to her. If she is the vice-presidential candidate on a winning Republican ticket in the year 2000, we will know that she was a political star all along. If she isn’t, she’ll still be running the state’s Republican machine for years to come.
Either way, her career isn’t easy to account for. In spite of growing up in an environment in which trips to nominating conventions were an accepted part of childhood, Miss Todd had no very intense political passions. She never questioned the family creed, never denounced her parents’ privileged position, never swung toward the far right. It was not until 1982, when she was already thirty-six years old, that she ran for a seat on the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders—essentially, a part-time post in the county administration. Somerset County is Republican territory, but it was a genuine race against a Democratic incumbent, and she had to run hard before she won, although the comfortable margin was almost certainly thanks to the coattails provided by Millicent Fenwick’s campaign for the Senate. Three years later, she was re-elected, but began to hanker after a more demanding—or higher-profile—job.
Although Governor Tom Kean was an old family friend, he was not accommodating. Ms. Whitman’s mother, Eleanor Todd, kept on at him about finding her daughter a place in the cabinet; he responded that a few years dealing with landfills and garbage haulers in Somerset County were not an adequate training for a cabinet post. Finally, he offered her the presidency of the board of utilities, which regulates garbage routes along with telephone and utility rates. She had sworn, “no more garbage,” an oath made to be broken. “So I called him, and said, ‘I understand that there is this possibility, and Ijust want to let you know, if that’s real, for a position in your cabinet, I’ll do garbage.”‘ The most exciting episode during her brief term of office was when Interstate 287 caught fire. Illegal dumpers had piled so much garbage under an overpass that it spontaneously caught fire and melted a couple of spans.
The greater excitement came in the spring of 1990 when she volunteered to commit political suicide by running for the Senate against Bill Bradley. Her friends urged her not to do it; and the state GOP was so convinced that she would lose by a landslide that her campaign was underfunded from start to finish. Governor Florio and Bill Bradley conspired to save her from her rashness; Florio raised taxes by $2.8 billion the moment he took office, having said throughout his election campaign the previous fall that there was no need for any tax increases. Florio claimed that Governor Kean had hidden the truth about the terrible state of New Jersey’s public finances, and that it was only when he took a close look at what he was faced with that he saw how wrong he had been. He may well have been right to complain about Kean’s overoptimism, though he could hardly have been surprised by it; but being right did him no good.
Florio was also faced with a state Supreme Court decision that the state was failing in its constitutional duty to provide a thorough and effective education to all its children. Over the past twenty years, the court’s decisions have not brought much happiness to the governors who have had to implement them. In 1976 Brendan Byrne imposed the first New Jersey income tax to deal with the court’s requirements, and was universally abused for it. With her usual good fortune, Ms. Whitman was let off the hook in 1994, when the court gave the state government three more years to devise an acceptable funding formula. But her luck ran out on May 15 this year when the court told her she would have to find up to $250 million in additional state funds for hard-pressed districts. Living in New Jersey in 1990, I found my sympathies almost entirely with Florio, especially when he targeted his tax increases on the best-off 15 percent of the taxpayers. It did no good. Large parts of the electorate went berserk. Stirred up by a Trenton radio station, WKXW-FM, and the right-wing local paper, The Trentonian, opposition turned into the Hands Across New Jersey movement, and Florio swiftly became the most unpopular politician in the state.
Bill Bradley acknowledged in Time Present, Time Past that he failed to see that he needed to take evasive action if Florio’s tax increase was not to be an albatross around his own neck. It was not obvious quite what he could do, however; Florio was an old friend and ally, and to repudiate him too strenuously would have looked like an attack on the state Democratic Party. Bradley has always been in favor of cutting taxes, so he could hardly stand up and defend the increase, either. So he said only that he wasn’t responsible for the New Jersey income tax. What he now says he never quite recognized was that New Jersey voters were more enraged at having been, as they thought, lied to than at the tax rise itself. Bradley’s ducking of the issue didn’t go down well, and after starting more than thirty points behind, Ms. Whitman got within three points in the final vote. At this point, Florio’s own approval rating was down to 18 percent. What race she should next get into was clear.
For the next couple of years, she did everything right—wrote a column in the local paper, had a radio show on the anti-Florio WKXW-FM, and went to endless little meetings of the Republican loyalists who would have to get out the vote. The moment the campaign for the nomination for governor began, everything fell apart. The day she announced that she was going to run for the Republican nomination, she had to admit that, like the unfortunate Zoe Baird, she had hired a nanny—or rather a Portuguese couple—whose Social Security taxes she hadn’t paid. Luckily, her Republican opponent, Cary Edwards, was in the same boat, even if he owed the government some $2,300 rather than $25,000. Even before she won the primary, things got worse. Weismann writes, “Whitman’s blunders might have been scripted by the Democrats. A Florio favorite was April 20, when Whitman introduced her education proposals but skipped voting in her local school board election. After all, her children went to a private school. Yet her absence might not have been noticed had the voting not resulted in a 207-207 tie.”
The campaign against Florio was marked by comic opera touches, too. She hired Larry McCarthy, the consultant who had dreamed up the notorious Willie Horton commercial in 1988. He was off the campaign in under twenty-four hours as black political leaders denounced Whitman as a racist and commentators mocked her as an incompetent. Even the Steve Forbes-inspired income tax reduction plan initially failed to do her any good. Ed Rollins’s self-serving account of his fifteen months with the Whitman campaign in Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms lays the blame for such missteps as hiring McCarthy on her brother and husband. He describes his own role with his usual elegance. “Somebody had to save her from her husband and brother, who were locked in a close race to see who’d get the prize as the most pompous, abrasive, and cocky asshole in New Jersey.” Taking the obvious route, which was to remind New Jersey voters how much they disliked the incumbent, Rollins’s team squeaked out the victory that ought to have been hers for the asking. Then Rollins blew it when he boasted to reporters about having paid black ministers to “suppress” the Florio vote and was out of her life forever.
Faced with the job of running New Jersey, Christie Whitman showed what a Republican who thinks like a Democrat is likely to do. She had some luck. Her critics said that if she cut the state income tax as she proposed to, local property taxes would have to rise to fill the gap. In fact, they didn’t. Property taxes rose by smaller amounts than in previous years, largely because inflation had fallen dramatically, and New Jersey voters were getting in the habit of rejecting school budgets and electing school boards committed to smaller budgets. Teachers got less sympathy from the electorate when their annual pay raises—which had often been agreed to in more inflationary times—were 2 or 3 percent higher than those of the voters. The other point, and one which Ms. Whitman makes more quietly, is that cuts in state expenditures have never matched the cuts in income tax rates, so the experiment was never properly tried.
On the other hand, the tax cuts did none of the good things she promised. New Jersey’s unemployment dropped as the national economy improved, but the state’s economy picked up more slowly than that of New York or Connecticut, neither of which went in for such drama. In the middle of 1996, the state’s job growth was only thirty-fourth in the nation. Nor were Ms. Whitman’s tax cuts paid for by cutting state expenditures. According to Richard Leone, a former state treasurer, the state budget has continued to rise in line with inflation. Ms. Whitman has balanced the budget thus far only by failing to make $2.5 billion in contributions to the state employees’ pensions. But this expedient has come to the end of its useful life, and Ms. Whitman has made herself unpopular on Wall Street by trying to borrow $2.7 billion to fill the hole that she has created in the pension fund. This comes on top of a now-abandoned plan to raise $200 million by selling off the state’s disability fund. It is an old, bad New Jersey habit to achieve the appearance of the balanced budget that the law requires by borrowing to cover the real deficit, and it is a habit that Ms. Whitman has found it hard to kick. But it can be little consolation to former Governor Florio that Ms. Whitman is short of almost exactly the $2.8 billion that he added to the New Jersey tax bill. Neither his party nor hers wants to face the voters with a tax raise.
If Ms. Whitman’s economics did not produce the disasters her enemies expected or the triumphs she has claimed for them, she made some undernoticed and underregarded but nonetheless striking departures from the usual style of both Republican and Democratic politics. Deborah Poritz became the first woman attorney general and subsequently Chief Justice. Ms. Whitman ran a tightly organized office, with close advisers such as Judy Shaw and Jane Kenny keeping a careful eye on the formulation of policy on everything that might cause problems in a budget or bring political grief. Republican politicians didn’t entirely like the change, but the voters certainly did. The style and limitations of this approach show up nicely in Ms. Whitman’s big issue—the condition of public education. “Education, education, education” has been the mantra of Britain’s Tony Blair in recent months, and the President’s current big issue, too. It’s easy to see why. Over the past twenty years, the old patterns of inequality have been replaced by something rather nastier. Not only have the rich got richer and the poor poorer; there has developed, if not an underclass, at any rate a gulf between the uneducated and the properly equipped.
The Republican in Whitman emerges when she insists, as she does whenever the subject comes up, that decent education is not a matter of money. The “special needs districts” in Newark and other poor cities, on which the Supreme Court wants more money to be spent, in fact get more money than 80 percent of similar districts nationwide. The problem, as Ms. Whitman reminded her listeners in her 1996 State of the State address, is that too little of the money gets through to the students. New Jersey was forty-ninth in the nation in the proportion of the education budget reaching the classroom. In Newark, the sum spent on supplies in 1995 was $15.00 per head—less than a tenth of what was spent in the equally poor New Jersey city of West New York. Newark’s results were so dire, and the corruption in every part of the school system was so flagrant, that the state took control of it in July 1995. It was high time, too. The “ordinary corruption” of appointing political cronies to posts for which they were unfit was only the tip of the iceberg. The last straw seems to have come when it was discovered that the board had thirty-two house accounts at local restaurants and had spent substantial portions of the budget on trips to Hawaii and other agreeable places. The nearby city of Paterson lost its schools to the state several years ago, but test scores have yet to rise significantly. But things could hardly get worse in Newark, and even if test scores rise slowly, the schools are likely to become cleaner and safer at least.
Though Ms. Whitman evidently likes individual teachers, who feature prominently in her State of the State presentations, she is not kind about them en masse. Her dislike of the teachers’ union—the NJEA—runs deep and is heartily reciprocated. After their first encounter, she emerged breathless with anger, accusing the union of talking only about wages and pensions and never mentioning the children whose education was at stake. But she has angered other Republicans—including Bret Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City—by being lukewarm about school vouchers. Indeed, she has boasted of putting another $260 million into public education this year, and her enthusiasm for charter schools is very much the same as President Clinton’s wish that every student should be able to choose an appropriate public school. In 1996, she privatized many of the functions of the much-hated Department of Motor Vehicles—without achieving any improvement in the quality of its services—but seems not to have been tempted by the idea of privatizing the school system.
The way she contrives to steal the Democrats’ clothing is simple enough. She has treated education as a matter of social engineering. Astonishingly enough, she has managed to get a core curriculum designed, agreed on, and pushed through the state legislature. This happened only at the end of last year, and its impact remains to be seen, but it certainly cannot do any harm to insist that every graduating student be able to hold a conversation in a foreign language, know enough math to understand probabilities, and have some idea how what they have done in science classes applies in the world around them. Opponents have complained that it is a policy for “dumbing down” students, since better schools would no longer teach their students more than the curriculum required, an argument bad enough to suggest that they know they have lost. The state Supreme Court went some way to meet the governor when striking down her funding arrangements, at least inasmuch as the court agreed that her new legislation might well form the basis of an effective education system once the financial inequities had been corrected.
The governor is also a fan of distance learning, which has been oddly underused in the United States. It need not involve the glamorous visual displays that the governor laid on at her State of the State speech in January: Britain’s Open University has been one of the few unequivocal successes among the educational experiments of the past thirty years, and it continues to offer a model of how to provide very cheap, very high-level instruction at a distance. This is not liberation pedagogy or the deconstruction of the school; it is, if it works, the economic empowerment of young people. It gives them a better chance of joining the respectable middle classes for whose benefit and in whose image the American experiment was conceived.
The politics of modest improvement is, as everyone must concede, an unexciting kind of politics. It is built on the thought that politics is a matter of public housekeeping; it is the government’s task to see that the streets are safe, the air and water clean, the schools efficient, and the economy healthy. Thereafter, the citizenry must discover their own way to whatever further sorts of salvation they have in mind. It does not do what Irving Kristol wants conservatives to do—which is to establish a moral orthodoxy.3 It does not do what Robert Bork wants conservatives to do—which is to roll back the liberalism of the past thirty years as noisily and aggressively as possible.4 To say that such a conservatism is not at all concerned with the morality of the citizen is an exaggeration. Ms. Whitman is not squeamish about the death penalty, or about giving sex offenders a hard time. But she seems content that government should stop us from being a nuisance to one another, and the church attend to our souls. She sets the value on clean streets empty of hoodlums, drug dealers, and squeegee artists that Mayor Giuliani and Bret Schundler do; and practically every shop and office worker agrees with them.
This is the small-c conservative politics of the New Labour Party in Britain and the politics on which President Clinton and Ms. Whitman have prospered. It accepts economic inequality without any visible qualms, and proposes “education” as the state’s chief contribution to social improvement. But unexciting and unambitious as it is, it is not intolerant, not mendacious, not irrational. Gratitude seems in order:the last thing we need for the year 2000 is millenarian politics.
June 26, 1997
Steve Farkas et al., “The Values We Live By: What Americans Want from Welfare Reform” (Public Agenda, 1996). ↩
Anyone who set out President Clinton’s State of the Union message alongside Ms. Whitman’s State of the State message would have some difficulty attaching a party label to either, but would certainly think they were in the same party. ↩
See his Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (Free Press, 1995) in which he says that it was an essentially religious taste for orthodoxy that led him into the Trotskyism of his youth and subsequently into the conservatism of his later years. ↩
Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (HarperCollins, 1996) offers a tremendously enjoyable glimpse of the opinions we might have had from the Supreme Court if the Democrats had not derailed Bork’s nomination in 1987. ↩