Before “compassionate conservatism,” “heroic conservatism,” and “Georgia first,” neocons had another slogan: “national greatness conservatism.” The underlying ideology wasn’t much different, but the national-greatness variant could be identified by its adulation of Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Rider was a role model: he had no Grover Cleveland-like scruples about the constitutionality of using government to do good, he believed in and practiced executive-branch supremacy, and his views on foreign policy made Woodrow Wilson look like George Washington. (TR goaded Wilson for years to get us into World War I.)
You don’t hear much about “compassionate conservatism” or “heroic conservatism” these days, tainted as those labels are by association with George W. Bush, so Max Boot returns us to national greatness, with a laudatory essay on TR in the new World Affairs. Boot gets at least one thing right: the division among conservatives today is largely between Goldwaterites and (Robert) Taftites on the one hand and Rooseveltians on the other:
Some of the most influential tomes on Republcian reform, by the likes of Newt Gingrich, David Frum, and Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, argue that hte Grand Old Party needs to fashion itself more in TR’s image and less in Barry Goldwater’s and Robert Taft’s. The creed of these modern-day conservatives intentionally echoes Roosvelt’s: “It is not my intention to do away with government,” he said in his first inaugural address. “It is, rather, to make it work.”
Didn’t know that Goldwater and Taft were anarchists? Well, maybe they just didn’t want government to work. That aside, Boot is on to something. But if his team are the national greatness/heroic/compassionate conservatives, what does that make the rest of us?
Maybe we could do worse than call ourselves “National Smallness Conservatives.” That gets at the ideas of anti-imperialism and decentralism and perhaps suggests something about the constitutional limits of federal power. It nicely echoes Chesterton, too.