Monday, November 26, 2007

The Resurgence of Small Government Conservatism?

I've been marveling over the diversity among Republicans of late on the question of which set of conservative values will prevail in the post-Bush era. The current ferment has got me thinking: Is Reagan the model, as he's often mentioned in the debate over the conservative future?

Some readers might recall Time's cover story earlier this year, "How the Right Went Wrong." The article was a paean to President Reagan:
These are gloomy and uncertain days for conservatives, who — except for the eight-year Clinton interregnum — have dominated political power and thought in this country since Reagan rode in from the West. Their tradition goes back even further, to Founding Fathers who believed that people should do things for themselves and who shook off a monarchy in their conviction that Big Government is more to be feared than encouraged. The Boston Tea Party, as Reagan used to point out, was an antitax initiative.

But everything that Reagan said in 1985 about "the other side" could easily apply to the conservatives of 2007. They are handcuffed to a political party that looks unsettlingly like the Democrats did in the 1980s, one that is more a collection of interest groups than ideas, recognizable more by its campaign tactics than its philosophy. The principles that propelled the movement have either run their course, or run aground, or been abandoned by Reagan's legatees. Government is not only bigger and more expensive than it was when George W. Bush took office, but its reach is also longer, thanks to the broad new powers it has claimed as necessary to protect the homeland. It's true that Reagan didn't live up to everything he promised: he campaigned on smaller government, fiscal discipline and religious values, while his presidency brought us a larger government and a soaring deficit. But Bush's apostasies are more extravagant by just about any measure you pick.
One of the Bush-era apostates is Michael Gerson, who's got a new book out, Heroic Conservatism. Gerson's a former Bush administration chief speechwriter, and he champions a vision of a muscular, missionary conservativism that's a far cry from the small-government groundings of the Reagan Revolution.

Ross Douthat's got a review of Gerson's book up today at Slate, "
The Future of the GOP." He makes a powerful case that Gerson's "heroic conservatism" is the wrong remedy for what's ailing the Republican Party. While Gerson promotes big government policies and Wilsonian idealism in international affairs, those to the left of him (it might be thought) will not warm to his ideas with his ties to the Bush administration:

Nor is Gerson likely to find a ready audience among conservatives. His year as a [Washington] Post columnist has earned him few friends to his right, given the regularity with which he has piously scolded his fellow Republicans for being too partisan, too tightfisted, and too bigoted. (In a characteristic column, he defended Bush's proposed immigration reform by accusing its foes of betraying Jesus Christ himself: "The Christian faith teaches that our common humanity is more important than our nationality. That all of us, ultimately, are strangers in this world and brothers to the bone; and all in need of amnesty.") The publication of Heroic Conservatism was met by a predictable burst of criticism from conservative pundits, in which National Review's Mark Krikorian summed up the general anti-Gerson consensus by demanding: "Why is this man called a conservative?"

It's a fair question. As the world understood the term conservative in, say, 1965, Gerson isn't one. Like many Americans who've crowded into the GOP over the last four decades—blue-collar Catholics and Jewish neoconservatives as well as evangelicals—the militantly libertarian spirit of the midcentury Right is largely foreign to him. But on the road from Goldwater to Reagan, and thence to George W. Bush, the conservative movement transformed itself from a narrow claque into a broad church, embracing anyone and everyone who called themselves an enemy of liberalism, whether they were New York intellectuals or Orange County housewives. This "here comes everybody" quality has been the American Right's great strength over the past three decades, and a Republican Party that aspires to govern America can ill afford to read the Gersons of the world—social conservatives with moderate-to-liberal sympathies on economics—out of its coalition.

Particularly since Gerson's central argument is basically correct: American conservatism needs to stand for something besides government-cutting if it hopes to regain the majority that George W. Bush won (and quickly lost). At its best, Heroic Conservatism is a necessary corrective to the right's mythologizing of its own past, which cultivates the pretense that small-government purity has always been the key to Republican success. By way of rebuttal, Gerson points out that conservatives tend to win elections only when they convince voters that they mean to reform the welfare state, rather than do away with it entirely. This was true of 1990s success stories like Rudy Giuliani in New York and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; it was true of the Contract With America, a far less ideological document than right-wing nostalgists make it out to be; and it was true of Ronald Reagan himself, who slowed the growth of government but hardly cut it to the bone. The insight isn't unique to Gerson; it dates back to the original, '70s-vintage neoconservatives. But it seems to be slipping away from the contemporary GOP, whose primary contenders—save perhaps for Mike Huckabee—are falling over one another to prove their small-government bona fides, and whose activists have persuaded themselves that tax cuts and pork-busting will be their tickets back to power.
Speaking of Huckabee: His rise in the polls is garning attention among conservative pundits. Robert Novak hammered him in a column today over at the Washington Post:

Huckabee is campaigning as a conservative, but serious Republicans know that he is a high-tax, protectionist advocate of big government and a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans. Until now, they did not bother to expose the former governor of Arkansas as a false conservative because he seemed an underfunded, unknown nuisance candidate. Now that he has pulled even with Mitt Romney for the Iowa caucuses and might make more progress, the beleaguered Republican Party has a frightening problem.

The rise of evangelical Christians as the force that blasted the GOP out of minority status during the past generation always contained an inherent danger: What if these new Republican acolytes supported not merely a conventional conservative but one of their own? That has happened with Huckabee, a former Baptist minister educated at Ouachita Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The danger is a serious contender for the nomination who passes the litmus test of social conservatives on abortion, gay marriage and gun control but is far removed from the conservative-libertarian model of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
So who's to fill the yearning for a return to the Goldwater/Reagan consensus? Can it be Ron Paul, who's quixotic White House bid is stirring the souls of small government types across the land?

Patrick Ruffini,
over at Townhall, pumps up such speculation on Paul's unusual ascendance in his piece today, "Ron Paul Has Won":

In the past few months, Ron Paul has dramatically raised the profile of libertarianism inside the Republican Party. My small-l libertarian friends seem more comfortable describing themselves as such, even though they’ll go out of their way to disassociate themselves from Ron Paul and the big-L kind.

Libertarianism in the GOP took a big hit on 9/11, and it’s slowly coming back, with Ron Paul as the catalyst. Its underlying ideals still have appeal well beyond the cramped confines of the LP. If it’s possible to be known as a pro-life, pro-war, pro-wiretapping libertarian, then sign me up. Markos too brands himself a “libertarian Democrat,” though he’s never read Hayek and supports big government social programs.

Some campaigns can win big without ever coming close to winning an actual contest. Pat Robertson’s 1988 campaign signaled that Christian Conservatives had arrived in the GOP. Ron Paul is doing the same for libertarians. This is not a counterweight to the religious right per se, since Paul is identified as pro-life, but it does potentially open up a new army of activists on the right not primarily motivated by social/moral issues.

Not every losing single-issue candidate succeeds like this. Immigration-restrictionists still lack an outlet in the GOP, thanks to Tom Tancredo’s embarrassing tone-deafness as a candidate. Sam Brownback’s campaign had hoped to galvanize single-issue pro-lifers, but was hobbled by his dry persona. Duncan Hunter looks mostly like a campaign for Secretary of Defense.

Assuming Paul loses, where does small-l libertarianism go from here? His movement already did the smart thing by making peace with social conservatism. Libertarianism is no longer aligned with libertine stances on abortion and gay rights.

To become the ascendant ideology within the GOP, I suspect they’ll have to find a way to do the same thing on national security. The war on terror writ large is the one big thing social and economic conservatives agree on, and Ron Paul is vocally aligned against both.

Mainstream Republican libertarians might be gung-ho for Paul’s small-government idealism, they might adopt Glenn Reynoldsish skepticism of the homeland security bureaucracy, and even John McCain has lately made a thing of ripping the military-industrial complex, but there is no way — I repeat NO WAY — they will embrace Ron Paul if he continues to blame America for 9/11 and imply that America is acting illegally in defending itself around the globe. Even if they aren’t the biggest fans of the war, most people that are available for Ron Paul on the right are by temperament patriotic and will never vote for someone who sounds like Noam Chomsky.
Ruffini captures a tremendous amount of tension within the GOP's small government comeback movement. It's a tension, in my opinion, that marks a fatal direction for conservatives and the GOP. There's nothing wrong with seeking a return to fiscal conservatism (notice how Fred Barnes argues this week that shrinking the federal government is not impossible, with references to Reagan administration spending discipline). Yet, notwithstanding the concerns of the most hard-core libertarian Republicans, the expansive scope of government ought not to be something modern conservatives should abhor.

First, a dramatic reduction of the size and scope of the federal government's reach and power is utopian. Trends since World War II have dramatically increased the power of the federal government over the states, in areas as diverse as national security policy to local community development block grants. Second, there remain too many areas of both foreign and domestic policy that cry out for a combination of innovative thinking and can-do pragmatism.

On that note, I like how Douthat concluded
his review of Gerson's book at Slate:

To last, and matter, conservatism needs an agenda that partakes less of Gerson's evangelical moralism and more of the realism that defined the original neoconservatives. It needs a foreign policy whose idealism is leavened with a greater sense of limits than this administration has displayed; and a domestic policy that seeks to draw contrasts with liberalism, not to imitate it, by emphasizing responsibility rather than charity and respect rather than compassion. Above all, it needs to think as much about meeting the concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, the constituents that first Nixon and then Reagan won for the GOP, as it does about the dissidents and addicts that a "heroic conservatism" would set out to save.
Given this warning, where do we go from here?

My neoconservatism supports a muscular national security policy, and a large, well-funded defense bureaucracy to back it (and I deeply distrust
the antiwar fringe libertarians backing the Paul campaign). I also see that with our international preponderance comes great responsibility. Perhaps we'll need more prudence in a post-Bush world, but we should not recoil from the robust use of power to achieve American interests.

Note, though, that some observers forget that neoconservatism also offers a powerful domestic agenda of support for traditional values, personal responsibility, and the rejection of the social welfare paternalism of Great Society liberalism (we can do domestic policy, but we must be more judicious in our approach and more effective in implementation). Neoconservatives are especially upset by the descent of traditional morality as a guiding ethos for the new generations (a distrust the marks another break from doctrinaire libertarianism).

In other words, government is not the problem, but is a possible solution to many policy dilemmas. The key, I would argue, is to move with intelligence and pragmatism. An ideological agenda along these lines - one that recognizes that government, i.e., the state - holds a promising avenue for a restoration of conservative ideology after the Bush presidency.