Renewing the Mandate

David Frum makes a persuasive case for conservative pessimism—and indeed, the political picture is in some respects even worse than he suggests. The legacy of the Iraq War and Katrina may well cement the left-wing drift of younger voters, at least in the medium term. Lopsided Democratic majorities among black, Latino, and Asian voters are likely to grow more lopsided still. The same goes for the cities and the inner suburbs, the heart of “the emerging Democratic majority.” While family instability has in a sense been an electoral asset to conservatives—by creating a profound sense of unease among working-class and middle-class voters—one can easily imagine a more energetic left winning these voters with a mix of Clintonian moderation on social issues and promises of economic security. And with the demoralization of the small-government right, reformist energies have shifted to the left, where plans for comprehensive health care reform get an enthusiastic hearing, as the entering wedge of a broader social-democratic revival.

Nevertheless, there is reason for conservative hope as well. History suggests that Opportunity can be a fleeting and vexatious goddess, as Frum would have it— but also that political opportunities can be created as well as seized. Consider the repudiation, a quarter-century ago, of the Nixon-Ford legacy of business-class statism. Was a robust small-government conservatism the inevitable alternative? From the vantage point of the mid-1970s, a push for Swedish-style social democracy was an equally likely candidate—as was a poisonous populism, an American Gaullism married to the divisive racial politics of a George Wallace. (A kinder, gentler version of this ideological brew was recommended to Republicans and Democrats alike in those years.) And yet a combination of vigorous political leadership—from Reagan, of course, but also from many lesser lights—and rigorous intellectual work yielded something very different, namely a new conservative politics based around the American verities of self-reliance and self-government.

This is the kind of work that conservatives can do again—provided that they learn the right lessons from the missed chances and failed hopes of the last ten years. Frum argues that the right’s reversal of fortune began in 1998, when small-government conservatives in Congress abandoned the charge against entitlement spending. His implicit message is that Newt Gingrich had it more or less right—that given the looming fiscal imbalances, a frontal assault on government was vital and necessary, even if it meant taking an approach that was all sticks and no carrots.

But what if Gingrich had it wrong? As Bruce Bartlett points out, slashing government is a fiendishly difficult thing to do—not least because most government programs create their own easily-mobilized constituencies. And Gingrich chose to tackle these constituencies head on, rather than attempting to uncover, or create, alternative constituencies that would have a vested interest in free-market alternatives.

What would such constituencies look like? During the long GOP ascension, from Reagan through the 1994 election, the main small-government constituency was middle and upper-middle class voters whose taxes were too high, and who preferred a government that returned their money, rather than doling it out to favored clients. But eventually the GOP became a victim of its own success: as taxes went down, so did the concerns about over-taxation, and the era of big government being “over” came to an end. The Republican majority has endured into the Bush era thanks to values concerns and foreign policy—neither of which offer a mandate for shrinking government.

What might offer a renewed mandate? The Bush domestic policy has been an epic failure overall, but his administration didn’t get everything wrong. Critics dismiss “compassionate conservatism” as a marketing slogan, designed to woo soccer moms and other squishy suburbanites—a charade that produced one debacle after another, from the ultimately trivial faith-based initiatives to the embarrassing corporate largess of the prescription drug bill. This view is, alas, almost exactly right—not least because there is something un-conservative, and indeed, condescending, about a rhetoric of “compassion.” But Bush’s half-hearted attempts to foster what Jonathan Rauch has termed “demand-side conservatism”—a conservatism that finds ways to reduce the demand for government, rather than going straight for root-canal budget-cutting—suggest a way forward for the Right.

Rather than simply butting heads with the public, Gingrich-style, conservatives need to take a hard look at the factors that keep demand for government high, particularly among the working-class voters who are increasingly central to the conservative coalition—the instability of health care coverage, the stagnation of wages among the non-college educated population, the rising cost of home-ownership and child-rearing. A fulfilling family life is slipping out of reach for more and more Americans, and that in turn erodes the habits of and taste for self-reliance. In such a landscape, simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life, those rich in cultural or economic capital. Instead, conservatives should advocate a leaner state that enables, rather than enfeebles, and that appeals to strivers as well as the already successful. They need to accept that government will remain large in the short run—for reasons of entitlement spending alone, as Bartlett points out—while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.

In tax policy, for instance, across-the-board tax cuts no longer have the appeal they once did, and the conservative hope that a growing “investor class” would provide a major political constituency for further cuts has proven chimerical. But a tax reform targeted to families with children, via tax credits, rebates and even baby bonuses, has the potential to ease the burden on working parents far more than any liberal plan for universal day care. A sweeping market-oriented health care reform that severs health coverage from employment, making it portable from job to job, could have the same effect—while snatching an arrow from the social-democratic quiver. Free-market reforms in secondary and higher education could ease the burdens of paying for an education and dramatically increase social mobility; eliminating government biases that privilege high-tax jurisdictions and discourage telecommuting could drive down the cost of buying a house, raising a family or starting a business.

It’s true that not all of these ideas involve less government, per se—but the small-government movement has always been less about the absolute size of the federal budget and more about the way government spending shapes society, for good or (more often) for ill. So many of today’s conservatives look back and celebrate legislation like the Homestead Act and the GI Bill, even though both increased the federal government’s role in American life—because both also helped move America in a conservative direction, toward an opportunity-oriented, upwardly-mobile “ownership society.” Similarly, the greatest small-government success of the past twenty years, welfare reform, didn’t actually save the government any money—but it was a great conservative reform nonetheless.

Again, both Frum and Bartlett are right—the political climate is inhospitable to plans for shrinking government; the entitlement problem guarantees that federal spending will grow, in one way or another, for years to come; and the right squandered an opportunity, over the course of the last decade, that may not come around again for a long time. But defeats are also opportunities. Today’s small-government conservatives tend to present their ideas as bitter pills, to be swallowed by a reluctant electorate. They need to remember—as Reagan instinctively knew—that theirs isn’t just a language of limits, of discipline and restraint. The small-government movement is a potent force in our politics for a reason: its promise of freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative is deeply-rooted in the American character. By delivering on this promise, conservatives may yet build a lasting majority.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”–values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”