Today, Continetti and Antle discuss the ascent of big-government GOP politicians. Previously, they debated , and conservatives’ regard for . They’ll conclude their debate tomorrow with a discussion on the religious right
New conservatives for a new century
By Matthew Continetti
I wrote a lot on Wednesday, so I am going to keep this short: What are conservatives to make of Republican politicians like John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Huckabee, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist? With McCain the 2008 Republican nominee, these politicians represent the near future of the GOP. Each is conservative on some issues but not on others. Each in his own way is comfortable with government power. Each is popular. And each is generally considered a success.
This is paradoxical. The Republican party rank and file is overwhelmingly conservative, but it is the nontraditional conservative GOP pols -- starting with George W. Bush -- who get all the attention. This suggests that the Republican grass-roots voter has been hoodwinked into supporting moderates -- or that the interests and priorities of the conservative grass roots are changing.
To paraphrase the late William F. Buckley Jr., McCain is “conservative” but not “a conservative.” Yet most conservatives seem satisfied with that. McCain was not their first choice, but they are going to support him in November. Trust me on this.
Why? The success of conservative policies in the closing decades of the 20th century has left us with a different set of social problems in the new century. And because many conservatives seem unable to articulate solutions to these problems (think healthcare and inequality) or deny the problems exist at all (global warming and a broken immigration regime that cannot be reformed through enforcement “attrition” alone), moderates and Democrats claim the voters’ allegiance. Conservatives can win some fights in such a climate, but they do not have the same advantage they had when Ronald Reagan was president or Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House. That is because they do not have a prominent spokesman who can advance an “a conservative” agenda. There are young conservative leaders, mostly in the House of Representatives. But these congressmen do not shape the debate. Nor do they have any real power.
Conservatives are thus in the same position they were in prior to Reagan’s ascent. As they work on new policies to address new issues, they must also work with the “conservative” politicians who can actually shape public policy. That means they will often have to find new ways to make government work rather than nurse their instinctive distrust of the state. The goals of conservatism -- a strong national defense, low taxes and minimal regulation, and the defense of traditional American values -- remain the same. It is the conservative context that has changed. And unless conservatives find a way to work productively in this new context, incrementally advancing their agenda in a cheerful and optimistic spirit, they will soon find themselves on the political margins.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at the Weekly Standard and author of “The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine.”
Big-government conservatives aren’t conservative
By W. James Antle III
We’ve got a number of disagreements to get to, so let me start by emphasizing an area on which we agree. You are quite right that conservatives are going to have to come up with plausible policy solutions to the problems of today, not those of 1980 or 1994. If conservatism cannot cope with rising economic anxiety, demands for healthcare reform or evolving environmental concerns, it will not survive as a viable governing philosophy. President Reagan did not come to power by defending abstract conservative principles alone -- he was elected in part because he was seen as having the better solutions to stagflation, Soviet expansionism and social unrest. There are no Reagans in our stable today.
I’m not optimistic about John McCain. His commitment to duty, honor and patriotism is admirable. But he doesn’t seem to care very much about domestic policy, which makes him an unlikely candidate for closing the conservative-ideas deficit. To the extent that he thinks about domestic policy, his instincts lean toward activist government and bipartisanship for its own sake. McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman don’t add up to a winning conservative platform for the future.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger represents everything conservatives should want to avoid. After being thwarted in his early reformist aspirations, he has moved left almost across the board. All we have to show for his election is the nifty “R” next to his name. If that’s all we care about, then hasta la vista conservatism.
Big-government conservatism is bound to fail not because it is incremental reform -- I agree that we need to pursue incremental change in this political climate -- but because it incrementally pushes us in the wrong direction. If we end up in a government-spending bidding war with liberals, we will surely lose (even if we promise we will be the better, more competent managers of these government programs). If we back increased spending, we won’t ultimately be able to deliver on our promise of low taxes. And we won’t hold power often enough to ensure that our compromises with big government maintain the market-based reforms we insisted on.
Let’s return to our favorite topic, Medicare Part D. Many conservatives who supported this benefit assumed they would be in power for quite some time. That’s not looking like such a good bet now, is it? Which do you think is more likely at this point: a continued expansion of Medicare price competition and health savings accounts, pushing the healthcare system in a more free-market direction, or de facto price controls on Medicare-covered prescription drugs, pushing us in a more statist direction? Fortunately, McCain voted against Medicare Part D. Unfortunately, he did so in part because it didn’t include the de facto price controls.
Controlling spending is difficult, especially when most Americans basically agree with Bush that when somebody hurts, government has got to move. But if we don’t do it, ultimately the conservative project will fail. Bush’s tolerance for big government may help undo his tax cuts. Even Reagan saw his tax cuts eroded, mainly because when it came time to deal with deficits fed by high spending, tax increases were the only thing left on the table.
For two years, we had a Republican Congress and a Republican White House. We had a 10-seat Republican majority in the Senate. The 80th Congress -- the “Do Nothing” Republicans excoriated by President Truman -- had more success cutting spending in a far more liberal era than the Bush and Denny Hastert show of 2005-07. It was a blown opportunity. We didn’t need to go after the mortgage interest deduction in the tax code -- there are some windmills even I won’t tilt at -- but we could have had something enduring to show for the trouble.
The biggest problem with big-government conservatism is it distracts us from what it is we’re trying to conserve: communities and civil society, our constitutional republic and normal life for families and individuals who don’t care much about politics. If we’re sucking trillions of dollars out of their pockets for our national greatness projects at home and abroad, we’re kind of missing the point when we crow about a competitive bidding process here or a voucher there.
Like the Bush administration, I’m running out of time. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to revisit our wars on drugs and in Iraq before we sign off.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.
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