By David J Beilstein
IN the September 2 issue of National Review, roving correspondent Kevin D. Williamson argues that,
“[President] Eisenhower had a deep appreciation for those most conservative virtues: steadiness, judgment, predictability, attention to detail. He took courageous stands on everything from the Suez to civil rights, but he was never a preening moralist. Under Eisenhower, Republicans were able to communicate to Americans a sense of being on their side.”
Williamson’s argument is persuasive, and what is interesting (and welcome) is how he evaluates Pres. Eisenhower based upon classic conservative virtues rather than vacuous bromides modern conservatives look for in tarts like Presidential candidate, Rick Santorum.
Eisenhower may have sometimes called himself a progressive, but his bedrock priorities—a strong military, balanced budgets, and limited government—are classical conservatism.
Williamson then lays out the details of Eisenhower’s domestic record, writing,
Eisenhower inherited a large deficit in 1953 (large by the standards of the time, some 6.49 billion) and left office with a surplus, following surpluses in 1956 and 1957. If he had not signed off on a 12.8 billion deficit in 1959, a product of the arms race, he would have presided over an aggregate surplus. There were no major recessions in his eight years in office—indeed, the U.S. manufacturing and export sectors were performing at unprecedented levels of productivity, as a result of which unemployment and wages remained strong. That had something to do with the post-war global economic situation—the United States was the last industrial economy standing—but Ike’s insistence that budgets be balanced, resources be diverted from unproductive military engagements, and education and economic opportunity be more widely accessible helped convert what could have been a post-war bubble into a decade of broadly shared growth. General Eisenhower brought general peace and general prosperity.
Pres. Eisenhower’s predictable and stable foreign policy is yet another model for modern day conservatives, stuck in global interventionism, and what Eisenhower avoided, known as “brushfire” wars.
“Waging peace” was an idea Eisenhower took seriously—he made it the title of the second volume of his memoirs—and it was the key to both his domestic and his overseas political success.
As the man principally responsible for shaping NATO, Eisenhower could not be accused of failing to take the worldwide Communist threat seriously enough. But Eisenhower, as he said over and over again, saw NATO first and foremost as a tool for prevention of wars rather than fighting them—that was a secondary mission, and in the case of the Soviets and Chinese, a last resort. Harry S. Truman left him with a lot of peace to be waged. By ending the unpopular and fruitless conflict in Korea, Eisenhower relived the nation of a major drain on the economy and excised a cancer eating away at United States’ national military credibility. He scrupulously abjured what he contemptuously called “brushfire wars,” which would have sapped military manpower, material, and prestige, but left no doubt Moscow or Beijing that any serious threat to U.S. national security would be met with overwhelming force.
Invariably, the last 20-25 years saw the culture war unfold into a roaring and senseless bonfire as the American conservative movement was hijacked moralistic petards doing their able best William Jennings Bryan impersonations, seeking cultural uniformity rather than basic Eisenhower-ian priorities—balanced budgets, strong, sensible national defense, and limited government—the keening of Pres. Eisenhower as a conservative model dissipated.
In a word, Pres. Eisenhower was a conservative; one confined by the role the Constitution prescribes to presidential power.
Ike was the president of all Americans without being overbearing like today’s conservatives, whom so often communicate themselves to be cheesecake clowns. While Pres. Eisenhower pushed for civil rights and the inclusion of all Americans under the Constitutional edifice, he did so without usurping his own federal jurisdiction.
In the age of Pres. Obama, with the raptor-armed Commander in Chief’s disdain for the rule of law and mediating institutions—and the give-and-take of congressional oversight—Pres. Eisenhower was a welcome, and conservative relief.
Too much modern day “conservatism” is hyperbolic. It often abhors federalism. And wages wars outside limited government objectives—cultural and carnal alike—it need not, creating massive entitlement programs while seeking to impose a mesh of barnyard evangelical views of morality—as if only religious Christians are Americans—on the masses, while pining for secular office.
Pres. Eisenhower could teach conservatives and Republicans not simply vision but leadership competence—an eye for detail and priorities. And if winning and governing matter to both, they will begin to listen to the lessons Ike teaches.