In my mind's eye, I can see Ronald Reagan, wearing wings and a Stetson, perched on a cloud and watching all the goings-on down here in his old earthly home. Laughing, rolling his eyes and whacking his forehead over the absurdities he sees, he's watching his old political party as it twists itself into ever more complex knots, punctuated only by pauses to invoke the Gipper's name. It's been said that God would be amazed by what his followers ascribe to him; believe me, Reagan would be similarly amazed by what his most fervent admirers cite in their desire to be seen as true-blue Reaganites.
On the premise that simple is best, many Republicans have reduced their operating philosophy to two essentials: First, government is bad (it's "the problem"); second, big government is the worst and small government is better (although because government itself is bad, it may be assumed that small government is only marginally preferable). This is all errant nonsense. It is wrong in every conceivable way and violative of the Constitution, American exceptionalism, freedom, conservatism, Reaganism and common sense.
In America, government is ... us. What is "exceptional" about America is the depth of its commitment to the principle of self-government; we elect the government, we replace it or its members when they displease us, and by our threats or support, we help steer what government does.
A shocker: The Constitution, which we love for the limits it places on government power, not only constrains government, it empowers it. Limited government is not no government. And limited government is not "small" government. Simply building roads, maintaining a military, operating courts, delivering the mail and doing other things specifically mandated by the Constitution for America's 300 million people make it impossible to keep government "small." It is boundaries that protect freedom. Small governments can be oppressive, and large ones can diminish freedoms. It is the boundaries, not the numbers, that matter.
What would Reagan think of this? Wasn't it he who warned that government is the problem? Well, permit me. I directed the joint House-Senate policy advisory committees for the Reagan presidential campaign. I was part of his congressional steering committee. I sat with him in his hotel room in Manchester, N.H., the night he won that state's all-important primary. I knew him before he was governor of California and before I was a member of Congress. Let me introduce you to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, who spent 16 years in government, actually said this:
"In the present crisis," referring specifically to the high taxes and high levels of federal spending that had marked the Carter administration, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." He then went on to say: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work." Government, he said, "must provide opportunity." He was not rejecting government, he was calling -- as Barack Obama did Tuesday -- for better management of government, for wiser decisions.
This is the difference between ideological advocacy and holding public office: Having accepted partial responsibility for the nation's well-being, one assumes an obligation that goes beyond bumper-sticker slogans. Certitude is the enemy of wisdom, and in office, it is wisdom, not certitude, that is required.
How, for example, should conservatives react to stimulus and bailout proposals in the face of an economic meltdown? The wall between government and the private sector is an essential feature of our democracy. At the same time, if there is a dominant identifier of conservatism -- political, social, psychological -- it is prudence.
If proposals seem unworkable or unwise (if they do not contain provisions for taxpayers to recoup their investment; if they do not allow for taxpayers, as de facto shareholders, to insist on sound management practices; if they would allow government officials to make production and pricing decisions), conservatives have a responsibility to resist. But they also have an obligation to propose alternative solutions. It is government's job -- Reagan again -- to provide opportunity and foster productivity. With the nation in financial collapse, nothing is more imprudent -- more antithetical to true conservatism -- than to do nothing.
The Republican Party that is in such disrepute today is not the party of Reagan. It is the party of Rush Limbaugh, of Ann Coulter, of Newt Gingrich, of George W. Bush, of Karl Rove. It is not a conservative party, it is a party built on the blind and narrow pursuit of power.
Not too long ago, conservatives were thought of as the locus of creative thought. Conservative think tanks (full disclosure: I was one of the three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation) were thought of as cutting-edge, offering conservative solutions to national problems. By the 2008 elections, the very idea of ideas had been rejected. One who listened to Barry Goldwater's speeches in the mid-'60s, or to Reagan's in the '80s, might have been struck by their philosophical tone, their proposed (even if hotly contested) reformulation of the proper relationship between state and citizen. Last year's presidential campaign, on the other hand, saw the emergence of a Republican Party that was anti-intellectual, nativist, populist (in populism's worst sense) and prepared to send Joe the Plumber to Washington to manage the nation's public affairs.
American conservatism has always had the problem of being misnamed. It is, at root, the political twin to classical European liberalism, a freedoms-based belief in limiting the power of government to intrude on the liberties of the people. It is the opposite of European conservatism (which Winston Churchill referred to as reverence for king and church); it is rather the heir to John Locke and James Madison, and a belief that the people should be the masters of their government, not the reverse (a concept largely turned on its head by the George W. Bush presidency).
Over the last several years, conservatives have turned themselves inside out: They have come to worship small government and have turned their backs on limited government. They have turned to a politics of exclusion, division and nastiness. Today, they wonder what went wrong, why Americans have turned on them, why they lose, or barely win, even in places such as Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina.
And, watching, I suspect Ronald Reagan is smacking himself on the forehead, rolling his eyes and wondering who in the world these clowns are who want so desperately to wrap themselves in his cloak.
Mickey Edwards is a former U.S. congressman, a lecturer at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and the author of "Reclaiming Conservatism."