The Eternal Recurrence of Bush Conservatism

Can "conservatarians" save the GOP from itself?


On page 31 of his popular The Conservatarian Manifesto, Charles C.W. Cooke makes a statement so satisfyingly true that I have ripped it off a half-dozen times on television.

"When was the last time you heard an aspiring conservative politician say, 'As George Bush said…' or 'I'm a George W. Bush conservative'?" asks Cooke, a witty political writer for National Review. "The mere thought is preposterous."

As Cooke notes, "During the Bush administration's turbulent eight years, the Republican Party steadily ruined its reputation, damaging the public conception of conservatism in the process. Republicans spent too much, subsidized too much, spied too much, and controlled too much." And yet here we are in spring 2015 and the top of the GOP presidential polls is haunted yet again by the most persistent four-letter word in American politics.

The noble aim of The Conservatarian Manifesto is to replace the big-government, interventionist, tax-cut-and-spend philosophy of Bush conservatism with something that leans more libertarian, particularly on spending (including on defense), drugs, nation building, and crony capitalism. So far, so great.

But political manifestos with catchy names tend to imply calls for group action and team spirit. If libertarians are going to attach themselves to a group of constitutional conservatives who reliably caucus Republican, those of us who are GOP skeptics must wonder: How can we trust that this bloc won't yet again yield to the temptations of Bushism?

I put that question to Cooke at a book talk he gave in March, and his answer was atypically unsatisfying: Basically, we have a two-party system, and Republican electoral politics are never going to be designed to please cranky libertarians. Sorry! In a Reason TV interview with Nick Gillespie the next week (see "Conservatarians Rising?," page 13), Cooke gave a more positive and generational answer to a similar question, suggesting that the new injection of libertarian energy on the broad right is significant enough to outlast the opportunism of the political moment.

Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review
Charles C.W. Cooke

It would be pretty to think so, and there are some reasons for optimism on that score. A majority of self-identified Republican supporters under the age of 50 are in favor of legalizing marijuana, for example, and more than half of those under 45 are also in favor of gay marriage. Regardless of age, the political right in the age of Obama has produced the most interesting major-party push for limited government in a generation, coughing up entire categories of politicians—Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah), Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), among others—that just didn't exist prior to the Tea Party wave election of 2010.

Three of the upper-tier candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination (Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) ran against the party establishment in their first primary elections, and they all won by emphasizing a much more robust vision of restraining government. (For snapshots of the government-cutting records of 17 major-party candidates, see "Can They Stop Themselves?") All three participated in Paul's March 2013 filibuster when the Obama administration refused to say whether it felt it had the legal authority to drone U.S. citizens on American soil. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is gaining traction within the party largely by running on his record as a fiscal conservative during a challenging post-recessionary period. (Read Senior Editor Peter Suderman's profile of Walker, "The Did-Something Candidate")

More importantly, broadly libertarian trends far outside the halls of power are producing such long-overdue developments as forcing meaningful criminal justice reform closer to the top of the nation's to-do list.

So you don't need to squint your eyes to see a salutary conservatarianism wafting over the land. But sadly, it doesn't take a pessimist to view that particular glass as not just half-empty, but potentially poisoned.

The 2016 Republican field, outside of Rand Paul, are not just hawks, they're hawk's hawks. Cooke, in his foreign policy chapter, defends America's role as the world's indispensable nation, but cautions against promiscuous war making and builds a withering case against the metaphorical no-fly zone that is the typical Republican approach toward scrutinizing military budgets. "Unfortunately, the military is blighted by the unholy combination of almost endless resources and a systemic culture of waste," he writes. "Conservatives should recognize that indulging this behavior damages their credibility as the champions of efficiency and good government, and undermines their military goals."

But Marco Rubio is running on a platform that foregrounds a reversal of what he describes as "devastating cuts to our military." Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says National Security Administration surveillance has been "the best part of the Obama administration." Scott Walker is campaigning on pre-emptive war: "I am going to take the fight to them before they bring the fight to us." An entire AAA team of presidential contenders focused on foreign policy—former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, perhaps even the blowhard Rep. Peter King (R–N.Y.)—has arisen with the singular goal of derailing the one candidate in the field who questions their assumptions, Rand Paul.

And as Senior Editor Brian Doherty reports ("Rand Paul's Strategic Ambiguity"), there are many libertarians and anti-interventionists who have expressed anxiety that the Kentucky senator will be whipsawed by the primary process into a more interventionist direction.

And sadly, it's not just on military matters that the 2015 GOP has drifted statist even since 2013. In March, the newly Republican-controlled Senate passed a budget that blew through the sequestration caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, in part by using an off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations mechanism to goose military spending. The only GOP senators to vote nay were Paul and Cruz.

Remember the 2011–13 fights over raising the debt ceiling, which led to some actually serious conversations about long-term entitlement reform and cutting defense? Those were artifacts of opposition; now that Republicans hold both branches, "We'll figure some way to handle that" without brinksmanship, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured the nation in March.

And as this issue of the magazine was heading to the printer, McConnell was trying to ram through a blanket five-year reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act. Why, it's almost as if libertarianism is more politically useful when you're not in power!

Cooke is engaged in a longer-term project of helping the GOP recognize that its own philosophical traditions actually contain the wisest approach toward many of its most bedeviling issues. Namely, he calls for a renewed embrace of federalism.

"Federalism allows the secular hipsters of Portland and the devout Baptists of the Bible Belt to live as they wish, providing a framework in which neither feels threatened by the other, and in which those who are unhappy with the culture of either place may move to more appropriate climes without losing the protections of their flag," he observes. "Federalism allows Americans to say that if the residents of other states wish to smoke pot, 'so be it'; if they want higher taxes, 'so be it'; if they want to allow people to drink at 18, or to marry members of the same sex, or to carry loaded guns on their hips, or to drive at 75 miles per hour instead of 55, then 'so be it.'"

In Cooke's telling, the GOP set itself adrift when it "abandoned its core principle of federalism" under George W. Bush. "In those eight years," he writes, "Republicans passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and a federal takeover of education called No Child Left Behind, and the Bush administration authorized raids against patients who were using marijuana for medicinal reasons. As many of them do now, Republicans frequently called for a federal constitutional amendment against gay marriage…Meanwhile, apparently erstwhile defenders of federalism were happy to intervene in Florida to try to save the life of Terri Schiavo."

Libertarians will be nodding along vigorously to passages like that, even while wincing over the fact that the man who was Florida governor during the Schiavo mess is out there defending his record while amassing the party's biggest presidential war chest. But the best part of The Conservatarian Manifesto is not the bill of particulars against the Bush GOP, no matter how satisfying to some of us, but rather its full-throated explication and celebration of federalism as an organizing principle.

"Explaining happily that there is a strong federal role to play in the maintenance of essential liberties, but that Washington cannot be expected to effectively play a role much greater than that of referee, is the defining conservative challenge of the twenty-first century," he writes. "Ultimately, the instinct to fragment and return power is a liberating and an empowering one. It's time to make more use of it."

But before the states' rights crowd starts popping champagne corks, here's a cautionary tale: Ten years ago, there was a major American political bloc that began flirting heavily with federalism to solve both policy problems and ballot-box woes. It was called the Democratic Party.

In the wake of George W. Bush's convincing re-election, Paul Glastris, editor of the liberal Washington Monthly, wrote, "Why shouldn't the Democrats become the party of federalism?" On gay marriage, marijuana, even environmental regulation, progressives were getting in touch with their inner decentralist. Franklin Foer, then a senior editor of The New Republic, wrote a New York Times magazine feature in March 2005 titled "The Joy of Federalism."

Some Democrats then, as hard as it is to believe now, were even openly contemplating an embrace of the L-word. Generous liberal re-examinations of Barry Goldwater were populating the airwaves and bookshelves, progressive sites such as The Daily Kos were publishing "left-libertarian" manifestos, and lonely Democratic eyes began turning for the rougher-hewn philosophical pastures of the purple-state Mountain West.

We know how that story turned out, at least when translated into short-term two-party politics. Democrats tacked hard to the economic left, and their civil libertarian grassroots largely fell silent as President Barack Obama systematically abandoned much of what made him tentatively promising as a constitutionally cognizant candidate.

Is there reason to expect better from Republicans this time around? Who knows! Our job here at Reason, both in the print magazine and at reason.com, will be to give readers the tools to judge for themselves whether individual candidates, larger voting blocs, and even entire political parties will be worth a damn should they find themselves anywhere near the levers of power. It will not suffice to claim, as Mitt Romney did in 2012, that one's government-cutting bona fides can be demonstrated by supporting a balanced budget amendment. No: At a time when the federal government's debt service is poised to catch up with military spending within a handful of years (even in this artificially-low-interest-rate environment), the test is not what purely hypothetical parliamentary gimmick you might support, but what you're willing to cut right now.

Don't tell that to Jeb Bush, though. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, the would-be 45th president underlined that "Over time, we have to start being for things again." That scrambling noise was the sound of millions of taxpayers reaching for their wallets.

Which is partly why, much as I appreciate The Conservatarian Manifesto and root openly for its arguments to convince the GOP, I am ultimately not the target audience. It's not just because of Cooke's critique of libertarianism ("it can become unreasonably ideological and unmoored from reality"), but also because of his pre-philosophical urge to cobble large groups of political people together in the first place.

There can be great value in the reformation of major political blocs, and I for one have cheered lustily when the Tea Party has pushed the GOP in much more libertarian directions on various issues, including non-obvious ones like criminal justice. But as F.A. Hayek taught us (and Cooke approvingly cites), there is no one true way to produce positive change. Much, though certainly not all, of the best work comes outside the scope of traditional politics, among people happily unmoored from the reality of national elections.

So here's rooting for everyone—Republican or Democrat, politician or activist—to achieve more libertarian-flavored improvements to the government policies that keep us all down. Hopefully next time without a President Bush.