Conservatives: The Tanenhaus Taxonomy

Much of Sam Tanenhaus’s book is given over to the rating of recent presidents. We are told, for instance: “Of the last six Republican presidents, three (Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush) had strong ties to movement conservatism, while three (Eisenhower, Ford, George H.W. Bush) did not.” He counts the last three superior to the first three. That was not the popular judgment of those men. After all, Nixon and Reagan were reelected, while Ford and Bush I were not. Furthermore, in the latest survey of historians ranking the presidents, Reagan is rated tenth while Bush I one is eighteenth, and Ford is twenty-second.1 Clearly Tanenhaus is using his own measure of good and bad presidents, different from either electoral success or historical reputation. What is it? He notes that the first three, in line with “movement conservatism,” broke the law (Watergate, Iran-contra, Geneva Conventions), while the latter three “respected the established boundaries of constitutional precedent.”

This is a matter of more than sheer law-abidingness with him. He sees two types of what is called conservatism at work. “Movement conservatism” is revanchist—issuing, for example, an “urgent call ‘to take back the culture'”—and revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary), in wanting untrammeled executive power when its candidates are in office. It prizes ideological purity above accommodation, even when that means fighting the government from within the government. This movement is mislabeled conservative. It does not preserve the given order, changing it to make it work better. That is the work of “true conservatives” like Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli, who actually conserve instead of overthrowing.

As his exemplars of modern Burkeans, Tanenhaus comes up with another unusual ranking, pairing Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton: “They are the modern era’s two true conservative presidents—and the two best.” Why? “Both Eisenhower and Clinton struggled to neutralize [conservative] movement forces in Congress. Both succeeded.”

It is clear that Tanenhaus has an original way with history. He can write, for instance: “Nixon’s gifts were prodigious. No modern president surpassed him in sheer ability.” He was, in fact, “one of the most accomplished vote-getters in history.” Though Nixon came into office as a movement conservative, he too turned Burkean as president—not only by his foreign policy (détente, the opening to China), but by his administration’s domestic poverty and family programs inspired by Disraeli’s disciple, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It was only when Nixon’s private demons brought him down that movement conservatives wrenched from him his achievements:

Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism. In the twenty-year period from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans captured four of the five presidential elections.

Did revanchism in fact ride triumphant after Watergate? Not really, since Tanenhaus discovers an inner Burke even in Reagan, another man brought in by movement conservatism only to betray it in the eyes of purists on the right. Reagan raised taxes, did not reduce the size of government, engaged in arms control talks (“friendly tête-à-têtes with Mikhail Gorbachev”), and conducted a flexible ending to the cold war.…

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