Is it time for conservatives to give up our fight against Big Government?
Some people think so. Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, complained in May to the Huffington Post that the greatest threat to the GOP is "this new brand of libertarianism" that says "look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government." That, Huckabee said, is "not an American message. It doesn't fly. People aren't going to buy that, because that's not the way we are as a people."
And former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, in a May column in the Washington Post, attacked small-government conservatives for believing that "no social priority is ... more urgent than balancing the budget" or that "the state's only valid purpose is to uphold markets and protect individual liberty." He argued that small-government conservatism in that form cannot succeed politically or as policy; that it would be relegated to "the realm of rejected ideologies: untainted, uncomplicated and ignored."
In the wake of the 2008 election debacle, the attack has continued.
In a column this month in the New York Times, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard -- one of the nation's top conservative publications -- called on conservatives to come to grips with the reality of Big Government. Big Government is inevitable, Kristol suggested; we should accept it and move on. After all, he wrote, "talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it's not to the public as a whole."
Five Republicans have won the presidency since 1932, Kristol noted, and of those five, "only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative. ... And Reagan's record as governor and president wasn't a particularly government-slashing one."
Those of us who remain committed to small-government conservatism are, in Kristol's view, turning ourselves into cannon fodder. "I can't help but admire some of my fellow conservatives' loyalty to the small-government cause," he wrote. "It reminds me of the nobility of Tennyson's Light Brigade, as it charges into battle: 'Theirs but to do and die.' "
If, for conservatives, accepting the inevitability of Big Government constitutes pragmatism, it's an oxymoronic form of pragmatism -- one that doesn't work.
How did the GOP fare under those Republican presidents that Kristol cited? Dwight Eisenhower left the GOP so weak in Congress that Democrats were able to establish a seemingly permanent majority. President George H.W. Bush got less than 38% of the vote in his race for reelection. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were party-smashing disasters comparable to Herbert Hoover (another Big Government Republican). Only Ronald Reagan succeeded as both president and party builder.
It is true that Reagan sometimes compromised. (I was one of the loudest complainers when he wandered off the small-government path.) But he never gave up on his core principles.
In 1975, when liberalism was on the march around the world, Reagan called for the rebirth of the GOP as a party "raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people." A few months later, he declared that "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism" -- that is, the belief in small government.
Reagan's stated beliefs made him the object of ridicule among those who considered themselves intellectuals, but he stuck to his guns. And then, in 1980, when the failures of Big Government were evident to all Americans, the people turned for leadership to the presidential candidate who had been right all along.
Over the last eight years, President Bush sought to tame Big Government and turn it to conservative ends. The administration experimented with the belief -- as expressed by Huckabee, Gerson and Kristol -- that Republicans and conservatives would do better by rejecting small-government conservatism and accepting Big Government. For generations, Democrats had bribed people to vote for them with one Big Government program after another, so Republicans did the same (No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, endless deficits and, finally, the bailouts). The results of the experiment are now in: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Harry Reid, President-elect Barack Obama.
In the coming battle with Chicagoism, the conservatives' model is not the doomed members of the Light Brigade but the forces of Shakespeare's Henry V at Agincourt:
"And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Whether we win or lose, future generations will celebrate us as those who fought for freedom at a crucial time in our nation's history. No one can guarantee victory. But if we do not fight, we guarantee defeat.
If we give up our most cherished principle to attain political office, what do we gain? Who will trust us? Who will turn to us when, once again, Big Government collapses in failure?
When our country is at stake, some of us come to grips with reality. And some of us change reality.
Richard A. Viguerie is the author of "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause."