Sunday, May 07, 2006

Conservatives without a Home

The Cato Institute's online magazine, Cato Unbound, is running a provocative series of essays on the subject of whether the marriage between the Republican Party and the notion of limited government is irretrievably broken (Hat Tip: Real Clear Politics). The three essays contributed to date by David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are all well worth reading.

Much of this represents disappointment with the Bush administration, which has jettisoned the notion that conservatism means limiting the size and role of government and replaced it with the idea that it means expanding the reach of government to support conservative ends and Republican hegemony. In addition, Republican legislative leaders like Tom Delay and Trent Lott ultimately decided that attaining the majority in Congress provided the opportunity to reapportion pork, not reduce the size of government.

While the current pessimism may be overly short-sighted, it is also ironic. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, many pundits were declaring the end of conservatism, in spite of the fact that the first Bush was more representative of the moderate wing of the party. Only two years later, when Republicans gained a majority in both houses of Congress, Clinton was left lamenting the end of "the era of big government" and pathetically arguing his own relevancy ("the Constitution says so"). What Clinton could not do, Republicans have managed quite well. Since 2001, when Republicans gained control of both the White House and both houses of Congress, the federal budget has grown astronomically.

At some point in the 1990's, Republican conservatives forgot some things about both the Republican Party and conservatism. First, while many advocates of small government have historically found their home in the Republican Party, they are not the only group to be found in the GOP, and for much of that party's history they have not been the dominant group. Thus, when Reagan came within an eyelash of beating Gerald Ford for the nomination for President in 1976, he ran in opposition to the party establishment, and many Republican leaders believed that a Reagan victory would ruin the party. Indeed, when Reagan won the nomination in 1980, a fair number of Republicans fled the party and voted for John Anderson, an independent candidate who had lost in the Republican primary.

In fact, it can be argued that conservatism will always be an insurgency movement that must regroup and find new intellectual leadership every couple of decades. Those who lead any entity, including government, will usually come to justify the expansion of their power base. Conservatives, and those who align themselves with conservatives, are not immune to that tug of power. That is one reason that Republicans made a mistake in turning away from their call for federal term limits at the very time when they may have gained the ability to enact them. Republicans seemed to decide that term limits were unnecessary now that it would be their terms being limited. However, when conservatives become leaders of the political class, their new allegiances often become more powerful than their previously held principles. The primary opposition to term limits comes from a political class reminding us, unconvincingly, of their own indispensability.

Most politicians run for office promising a variety of goodies that they intend to dispense. To run for office promising smaller government -- and the increased opportunities and lower taxes that can come with it -- is a more difficult argument not easily made in soundbites. It can be argued that no serious candidate for President has tried to make it since Reagan. Conservatives may be exxagerating their death within the Republican Party, but it is clear that a new Reagan -- one who is capable of engaging that argument for a popular audience -- is needed.

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