The Republican Identity Crisis
Antigovernment conservatism turns out to be an idealism that strangles mercy
It was a year of turmoil, of ferment and of hope, as the Iraq war dragged on, the Democrats seized Capitol Hill and the 2008 presidential race began in earnest. NEWSWEEK's columnists look back—and peer forward at where the country is heading.
By Michael Gerson
Dec. 25, 2006 - Jan. 1, 2007 issue - My low point with the Republican Party came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In attempting to deliver benefits to victims, the administration found men and women who had never had a bank account; families entirely disconnected from the mainstream economy. A problem rooted in generations of governmentally enforced oppression—slavery and segregation—demanded an active response from government to encourage economic empowerment and social mobility.
Yet the response of many Republicans was to use the disaster as an excuse for cutting government spending, particularly the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors. At a post-Katrina meeting with White House officials, one conservative think-tank sage urged: "The president needs to give up something he wants. Why not the AIDS program for Africa?"
This reaction previews a broader, high-stakes Republican debate as we head toward the 2008 election. One Republican Party—the Republican Party of movement conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank world—will argue that the "big government Republicanism" of the Bush era has been a reason for recent defeats. Like all fundamentalists, the antigovernment conservatives preach that greater influence requires a return to purity—the purity of Reaganism.
But the golden age of austerity under Reagan is a myth. During the Reagan years, big government got bigger, with federal spending reaching 23.5 percent of GDP (compared with just over 20 percent under the current president). But the Reagan reality is more admirable than the myth. He wisely chose what was historically necessary—large defense increases and tax reductions—over what was politically unachievable: a massive rollback of government.
And the critics believe in a caricature of recent budgets. Well over half of President Bush's spending increases have gone to a range of unexpected security necessities, including military imminent-danger pay, unmanned aerial vehicles and biological-weapons vaccines. Other types of discretionary spending have increased at 3.9 percent a year on average—far below President Clinton's double-digit growth in his final year. Why don't anti-government conservatives mention spending increases on defense and homeland security when they make their critique? Because a minimalist state cannot fight a global war—so it is easier for critics to ignore the global war.
As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called "an ideology of universal selfishness." Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.
Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.
But there is another Republican Party—what might be called the party of the governors. It is the party of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who has improved the educational performance of minority students and responded effectively to natural disasters. It is the party of Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who mandated basic health insurance while giving subsidies to low-income people. Neither of these men embrace big government; both show convincing outrage at wasteful spending. But they have also succeeded in making government work in essential government roles—not a small thing in a post-Katrina world.
The future of the Republican Party depends on which party it wants to be—the party of purity, or the party of the governors. In that decision, Republicans should consider: any political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs is hardly conservative, and unlikely to win.
Gerson was a speechwriter and policy adviser to President Bush. He now is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a NEWSWEEK contributor.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address