“Yes, we do, because the fringe is marginal no more.” – George Will, in a 1995 column.
I first read this quote on January 1, 1995 as Washington, D.C. was preparing to swear in the first Republican majority in the U.S. House in 40 years that would join the existing Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Most of us conservatives were quite giddy at the prospect of undoing much of the harm that the liberals had done over that period. And despite a Democratic president we were rewarded in quite a few ways as welfare was remarkably transformed, the federal budget was balanced for the first time in the memory of most people, and the economy continued its record growth begun under the Reagan presidency. Truly, we thought, we—the conservative fringe—are marginal no more.
Here is the quote put into more context:
Robert Merry of Congressional Quarterly recalls Pat Moynihan’s first Senate campaign, in 1976, against the conservative incumbent, James Buckley. Addressing a labor audience, Mr. Moynihan said, “Look, there’s this particular fringe, and their one fundamental problem is they simply never accepted the New Deal.” He added: “Didn’t Franklin Roosevelt settle this issue once and for all? I mean, do we really have to go over it again?” Yes, we do, because the fringe is marginal no more.
Then came not just a Republican Congress, but a Republican president. We had it made! Except that even before we won the presidency, the Republican Congress had fallen back in many of the free spending, big government ways of incumbents. The new president in many ways joined in with this, and after a while it seemed as if conservatives were becoming the marginal fringe even within the Republican party.
Certainly today with President Obama running roughshod over Republicans in Congress, the Texas House Speaker calling for more government spending, and a majority of the American voting public seemingly totally ignorant of conservative principles, it is quite easy to feel as if we have returned to our marginal status. But I’d suggest that is not the case. Back in 1995, the conservative movement had only been part of the governance of our country for less than 15 years. Almost all of the intellectual and policy leadership was still centered on Washington, D.C. There were very few resources and people who could be counted on filling the ranks of conservative leadership across the country.
Now, however, we have a large, well-funded infrastructure that is providing new policy and political leaders and resources across the country. Conservative leadership is strong in many states. While this may not look very promising at the moment from a national perspective, it is creating leaders that can take the fight back to Washington. The one thing I suggest we really need to focus on is taking the conservative fight to local government. Not only can we start making changes to local governance, but we’ll create a new generation of leaders starting from the ground up. We have the infrastructure in place to make all this happen.
The main thing we conservatives can do today to make this happen is to not act like a marginal fringe. Instead, we can take some cues on this from William F. Buckley, Jr. and his band of fellow travelers who started off in the 1950s in a much worse place than we are today. They were intellectually honest, joyful in their attitudes, unerring in their beliefs, and indefatigable in their effort. They needed these characteristics, because it took them 25 years until they—those that were still around, anyway—saw a conservative as president.
Whenever our next big payoff might be—and I trust it will come sooner than a quarter of a century—we can use these men and women as an example of how to push modern liberals back to the fringe they occupied 150 years or so ago.