Is Defeating Big-Government Conservativsm a Victory for Big-Government Liberalism?


In Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section, the Century Foundation's Greg Anrig published a strain of curious left-of-center analysis I'm seeing more and more this election: That the Republicans are losing because limited-government ideas don't work, and are no longer popular.

This critique requires a significant leap of logic ? that George W. Bush, and his would-be GOP successor John McCain, practice and/or believe in limited government principles. Anrig glides over this problem via assertion.

McCain's ongoing difficulties in exciting voters aren't just a tactical problem; his woes stem largely from his long-standing adherence to a set of ideas that simply haven't worked in practice. […]

The single theme that most animated the modern conservative movement was the conviction that government was the problem and market forces the solution. It was a simple, elegant, politically attractive idea, and the right applied it to virtually every major domestic challenge ? retirement security, health care, education, jobs, the environment and so on. Whatever the issue, conservatives proposed substituting market forces for government ? pushing the bureaucrats aside and letting private-sector competition work to everyone's benefit.

So they advocated creating health savings accounts, handing out school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, shifting government functions to private contractors, and curtailing regulations on public health, safety, the environment and more. And, of course, they pushed to cut taxes to further weaken the public sector by "starving the beast." President Bush has followed this playbook more closely than any previous president, including Reagan[.]

Italics mine, to do violence to your morning coffee.

What's especially curious is that the intellectual left has been so busy this year congratulating itself on studying ? and learning from ? the modern intellectual history of the right. Because the most recent manifestation of that history has not been the triumph of limited government principles, but quite the opposite: Two Republican candidates in 2000 who, in one of the candidate's own words, "challenged libertarian orthodoxy" and the "'leave us alone' libertarian philosophy that dominated Republican debates in the 1990s." A Republican president who outspent LBJ. An ascendance of conservative intellectuals actively celebrating "the death of small-government conservatism." And a candidate in 2008 whose English translation of laissez-faire is T-e-d-d-y R-o-o-s-e-v-e-l-t.

To look at that landscape and declare that Republicans are riding free-market principles to their grave, is to advertise more than just ignorance. It's an act of wishful thinking, hoping that the voters who happen to agree with your political party for once are doing so because they agree with your big-government philosophy. Considering that one of the more credible Turning Points against the GOP was when Congress intervened to prolong the life of a single human vegetable, I think declaring this anti-Republican season to be a victory for re-regulation is a tad premature.