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Conservative Reformers

- July 19, 2008

Yesterday in the NYT, David Brooks wrote about the importance of conservative reformers in political history, citing Teddy Roosevelt and Benjamin Disrael:

Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.

A skeptical Kevin Drum responds:

Those are odd choices, aren’t they? A Victorian era prime minister and a guy who accidentally became president in 1901. Surely there must have been some prominent conservative reformers from within the past century that he could have named instead. Anyone? Bueller?

I think Kevin’s generally right that conservative reformers of this sort are few and far between and that Brooks seems to willfully overlook that the liberals have generally been the engines of great social change. Nonetheless, here are some more recent examples of conservative reformers.

Winston Churchill. As President of the Board of Trade, he and David Lloyd George established Britain’s first social welfare measures. Of course many will point out that Churchill did this when he was a member of the Liberal party. True enough, but I would argue that Churchill was temperamentally a Tory throughout his life, he when he was in the Liberal party.

Dwight Eisenhower. By not trying to rollback the New Deal and by continuing the internationalism of FDR and Truman, Ike was crucial to the post-WWII consensus on foreign and domestic policy. Plus, he presided over some big projects of his own, such as the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Alaska and Hawaii statehood, the creation of NASA, and the beginning of direct federal aid to higher education.

Richard Nixon. As David Mayhew has pointed out, the Nixon years where part of a burst of significant legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s. These include OSHA, the EPA, expansion of food stamps, and the 26th Amendment (18 year old voting), among others. Interestingly, Nixon even identified himself as “Disraeli Conservative.”