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Merchants of Virtue : By Shifting Their Party's Longtime Focus From Money to Values a Trio of Thinkers Hopes To Win Over the Agenda--and the Soul--of the GOP

August 21, 1994|NINA J. EASTON | Staff writer Nina J. Easton's last piece for this magazine was "Novel L.A."--the city as portrayed in fiction. Maloy Moore assisted with the research for this article

ON A MISERABLY HOT JUNE AFTERNOON IN WASHINGTON, WHITE House staffers are putting the final touches on the President's much-hyped but long-delayed plan to "end welfare as we know it." And Republican operative William Kristol is tending his flock of Clinton opponents with calls to and from Capitol Hill.

Right now Kristol is helping conservative legislators devise ways to deflate the soaring rhetoric that will invariably accompany the plan's unveiling. From Kristol's vantage, sowing seeds of doubt will require a disciplined plan: President Clinton's proposal to put more welfare mothers to work is precisely the kind of folderol the liberal media establishment likes to embrace.

Kristol, a 43-year-old former assistant professor from Harvard, was the brains behind Dan Quayle's family values campaign and broadside against Murphy Brown, TV's most popular unwed mom. Now, with the Republicans out of power, he's had the chutzpah to anoint himself guardian of the party's direction. All it took was a $1.3-million donation--including contributions from flush New York investors--a smart if youthful staff of 10 and a sign on the door proclaiming "Project for the Republican Future."

Phone in ear, voice in rapid-fire mode, Kristol urges his allies to stick with a clean line of attack: The President's welfare reform is a fraud, he counsels one congressman, better titled " save welfare as we know it." "If we think that Clinton's plan does not end welfare as we know it, that should be the simple message," Kristol explains between calls, as he describes the difficulties of keeping ambitious legislators focused on the big picture. "What happens is these guys tend to fall in love with their own proposals and hold long press conferences reminding everyone of their legislation."

Intellectuals such as Kristol, who are fashioning an updated version of American conservatism, see their key issue as welfare reform--or, more broadly, reversing course in response to an increasingly violent and isolated underclass. That theme was snatched away by candidate Clinton during the 1992 campaign, but now, in defeat, they want it back.

These thinkers insist that the GOP--adrift since the fall of Communism and the mixed legacy of Reaganomics--needs to fashion dramatic proposals for the nation's social woes that appeal to reason, not hostility. The words they return to again and again are virtue, citizenship, empowerment. The liberal experiment with the welfare state has failed, they say; it has broken families and sapped the spirit of those in poverty. Walk into any of Washington's more fashionable conservative think tanks these days, and you can hear the retro-cons making the case that they, not liberals, are the ones who care about the poor. In their view, the Great Society's hopes have dissolved into drug-infested communities full of fatherless children and violent streets taken over by rootless men. So it's compassionate, not heartless, they argue, to end the social-welfare programs that have left behind such human carnage.

Call them retro-conservatives. Like those in the neoconservative movement that preceded them, many retro-cons have traveled across the ideological spectrum from the left. But, taking their cues from an earlier age, they typically want to go even further to dismantle the welfare state and other government attempts to level the social playing field. Their mantra is the "little platoon"--a term coined by 18th-Century British political writer Edmund Burke to describe the loose affiliations that human beings, left to their own devices, invariably form to take care of one another.

The retro-cons argue that those little platoons--churches and schools, clubs and charitable associations, even unions and neighborhood activist groups that serve as moral standard-bearers and links to the broader community--were undermined the minute Americans transferred their functions to the state. When impersonal government bureaucracies began taking responsibility for the care and feeding of the poor, modern Americans no longer needed to translate their idealistic compassion into action.

"Compassion is always writ small, or it doesn't work," says leading retro-con William J. Bennett, who recently added a bestseller, "The Book of Virtues," to a resume that includes education secretary for Ronald Reagan and drug czar for George Bush. And "strongly bound communities, fulfilling complex public functions, are not creations of the state," adds his colleague Charles Murray, whose criticisms of the welfare state underpin the movement.

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