In the weeks leading up to the 2008 elections, while conservative radio and television talk show hosts were hoping beyond hope for some narrowing of the gap between McCain and Obama, more serious conservative thinkers were arguing that a return to the political “wilderness” could do the Republican Party a world of good in helping to chart a new path to future electoral success. In the months that have elapsed since the election of Barack Obama I have monitored all manner of editorials and opinion pieces on the right. For the most part the post mortems revolve around whether the Republican Party should move further to the right or whether it should embark on some degree of ideological reform so as to reach out to Hispanics, Blacks and the working class in an effort to broaden its’ political appeal. The majority of opinion favors a “return to the principles of Ronald Reagan”. There has been a wholesale rejection of the Bush Administration and the candidacy of John McCain as representing a self-defeating deviation from the core principles of the Reagan years. Absent from the discussion is the question of to what extent are the essential principles of the Republican Party still relevant and valid in this day and age.
First and foremost is the penchant in conservative ideology for limited government, but to what extent is limited government a viable option in a global world where many problems are national or international in scope. To what extent can the American people reasonably expect state and local government to effectively address issues of terrorism, economic dislocation or healthcare? Does anyone realistically expect that we can return to the age of Calvin Coolidge? Conservative historian Paul Johnson points out that the rise of big government in the West is the result of the institutionalization of modern warfare and does not stem from liberal politics. Conservative columnist David Brooks has pointed out that due to the nature of problems facing America in the 21st century; limited government is just not an option. Even the Neocon William Kristol stated in a recent column:” So talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole.”
To what extent does an overemphasis on free market principles hold any appeal in the midst of the current economic maelstrom? While I am all in favor of a functioning free market where it is proven to be effective, there are more than a few examples as to where it has been an abject failure. Healthcare is the point on the political landscape where conservatives have chosen to draw a line in the sand, the crossing of which will inevitably lead to a “slide into European Socialism”. That our present healthcare system is failing to provide adequate coverage is an established fact. Along with the “socialist threat” a chief conservative opposition to universal health coverage is that the American people don’t want a government official to stand between them and their doctors. What we have instead are insurance company and HMO bureaucrats standing between the people and their healthcare providers while the HMOs and the drug companies reap enormous profits while our ranking in world healthcare continues to decline relative to nationalized systems. We are the only advanced country without universal healthcare, which means that the cost of healthcare has to be priced into every American product and service. This further impedes our competitiveness in a global economy while at the same time it contributes to the image of America as a socially backward country.
The debacle in the housing and financial markets borne of deregulation started in the Clinton years and made all the more perilous during the Bush Administration has put the country on a course that could lead to a prolonged recession if not a depression. Alan Greenspan himself admitted that the very basis of deregulation was based on a “flaw” of having overestimated the free markets’ ability to self correct, stating in his own words that the: “whole intellectual edifice collapsed in the summer of last year.” Republicans continue to stress the virtues of the free market in spite of the fact that House Republicans insisted on what amounts to a partial socialization of the banking system as a quid-pro-quo in their support for the financial bailout. In their touting of free market economic theories Republicans ignore the established fact that over the past 60 years the economy has performed better under Democratic Administrations as has been pointed out by Princeton political economist Larry Bartels in his new book “Unequal Democracy”. Government statistics have further shown that even the among the rich, the amount of economic remuneration received when Democrats are in office is only marginally less than that received during Republican administrations thereby undermining the conservative claim that taxing the wealthiest hurts the economy. From the trickle down policies of Nixon to supply side economics of Ronald Reagan to the trickle down of George W. Bush, Republican tax policies have led to a shift of the tax burden from wealth to labor creating the largest disparities in income between classes since the 1920s.
In the controversy surrounding the auto industry bailout one conservative after another has called into question the use of taxpayer funds to bailout Detroit while touting the “success” of foreign automakers in the South as an example of the benefits of a properly functioning free market. Absent from the discussion is the fact that billions of taxpayer dollars were spent in the Sunbelt to lure Japanese and German carmakers to the region as well as the fact that those companies are aided in the process of capital formation in their home economies by not having to pay for healthcare in a nationalized system. James Womack of the Lean Enterprise Institute has gone so far as to say that if it were not for the legacy healthcare costs Detroit would be price competitive with foreign carmakers. I suspect that what was really behind the opposition of most conservatives to bailing out Detroit is a desire to cripple the United Auto Workers and further impede the union movement before the Employee Free Choice Act resurfaces in Congress this year. The prospect of 57 million American workers finally achieving union recognition is not on the agenda of the GOP in spite of its supposed desire to reach out to working Americans.
In opposing government intervention in times of economic crisis, Republicans are ignoring the traditional role of the Federal government in fostering economic development that goes back in an unbroken line to the early nineteenth century. Republicans continue to tout the virtues of unregulated free market economics at a time of grave danger regardless of the historical fact that the Great Depression has proved otherwise. I would say that it is highly significant that at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Economic Association there has been a wholesale rejection of Reagan era economic principles with virtually all of those present endorsing greater government involvement in the economy via the levers of public spending and, that spending should play a greater role than tax cuts in the upcoming stimulus package. In calling for significant and sustained federal assistance in dealing with the current crisis, conservative economist Ben Stein has said: “The private sector is the patient, not the doctor.”
The cherished conservative wedge issues of “Guns, Gays and God” proved to be non issues in the 2008 election due to both the economic crisis and their declining salience among the non evangelical population at large. The younger the electoral age bracket, the less opposition there is to the rights of gays to marry, even among those voters who identify themselves as Republican. While three states voted against allowing same sex marriage, three states defeated statewide initiatives to ban abortion. Likewise this holiday season saw the issue of the “War on Christmas” as having far less of a media impact than it has had in recent years. To paraphrase Congressional Quarterly’s Jonathan Allen: “The cultural wars are over”. The population as a whole has moved on from the three major conservative wedge issues thereby rendering them far less meaningful in the future.
Even in what had heretofore been the strong suit of the Republican Party, national security, there is evidence of an unraveling. The Republicans have bet the house that the tactical success of the troop surge in Iraq would somehow make up for the fact that we never had a coherent strategy for the war or that the war itself is an unnecessary detour in the wider war on Islamic terror. More than one National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Al Qaeda never made up more than 5 or 7 percent of the insurgents in country and that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was but a copycat organization that is indigenous to Iraq contradicting the mantra that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. The last N.I.E. dealing with the subject stated that Al Qaeda had reconstituted itself in the Northwest of Pakistan with an August 2008 follow on report stating that the enemy was more secure and more potent than in September of 2001. In a recently published book, “The Inheritance”, David Sanger has pointed out that while we have been bogged down in Iraq, Iran and China have grown stronger; North Korea has gone from zero nuclear warheads to several; Russia is resurgent and the Pakistan / Afghanistan region has grown dangerously unstable. Domestically we have failed to commit funding to enhancing homeland security by ensuring the safety of chemical plants, ports, railways, water supplies and the power grid. We should all be mindful that the 9/11 terrorists turned available American resources into WMDs and that unprotected chlorine plants or railway tank cars carrying chemicals are as potentially dangerous as airplanes. While President Bush likes to point out that since 9/11 we have not had to endure another attack on American soil, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has skyrocketed since the invasion of Iraq. If this country is subject to another attack it will not directly be the result of Democrats controlling Washington but may very well be the result of a fundamentally misguided Bush era national security and foreign policy legacy.
Controversy and conflict among conservative thinkers reveals just how much trouble the Republican Party could be in over the near term. The validity of its’ core ideals may point to even greater troubles over the long term. From Fred Barnes to William Kristol to Michelle Bernard there have been calls for a new direction and an adjustment of conservative principles while ultraconservative Grover Norquist has said that calls for reform: “Will be cheerfully ignored.” Ms. Bernard has gone so far as to say that the Republican Party has shrunk to a regional party centered in the South and that it lost the 2008 election: “Because its message was disconnected from the majority of Americans.” But is it the message or the principals upon which the message is based that has given rise to this electoral disconnect? Fred Barnes, of the conservative “Weekly Standard”, has said that conservative principles must be adjusted so as to ensure election victories in the future but how far can you travel from your core beliefs before those beliefs become meaningless? The unprecedented government intrusion into the financial system last fall, with Republicans insisting on a partial government equity stake in banking, shows just how far the party’s’ policies have strayed from the twin ideological tenants of free market economics and limited government. This policy departure has in effect eroded the validity of these two very basic conservative concepts. With the exception of arguing what the role of tax policy should be in the stimulus package, the likely Republican acquiescence to Barack Obama’s recovery program will mark a significant shift from the ideas of Ronal Reagan. You certainly don’t hear too much talk lately about “government as being the problem”, especially among Republicans. Quoting conservative Rich Lowry: “The twenty-five year run of free markets, free trade and deregulation are over. We are already into a paradigm shift.”
Many conservatives that I know are hoping that Barack Obama will be a one term President and that as if by magic, the Republican Party will find electoral salvation in: “a return to the principles of Ronald Reagan.” It goes without saying that a channeling of the memories of Reagan into the present political environment would be about as effective as Sarah Palin’s constant rant about Obama being a “socialist” in upending the Democrats. The double whammy of the Wall Street meltdown and the multibillion-dollar misadventure in Iraq will be to the Republicans of this century what the inability to foresee and respond to the Great Depression was to the GOP in the last. While the Republicans can certainly win elections in environments where voters seek to punish the Democrats as opposed to embracing Republican ideas, the GOP could very well find itself relegated to running on the platform that it can better manage government than in winning elections by offering positions that represent an ideological change of course. This was the lot of the Republicans in the postwar period up until the election of Ronald Reagan. For the GOP the journey to the wilderness could be a long one, quite possibly as long as a generation.
Steven J. Gulitti
12 January 2009