Big Government Conservatism Is an Oxymoron
So reads the title of the third chapter in Tom Pauken’s excellent new book, Bringing America Home (Rockford, Illinois: Chronicles Press, 2010). Pauken chronicles how Nixon/Ford retreads had begun to reassert influence over the Republican Party during the single term of George Herbert Walker Bush after Ronald Reagan left office. Dominance of a big business, “corporate liberal” elite grew during George W. Bush’s two terms in office. Worse, while the elder Bush held by and large to a realistic, balanced, and security-driven approach to international relations, a coterie of former liberal Democrats who joined the Republican Party in the late 1970s literally began running American foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11. These neoconservatives believed in global democratic revolution, as well as preemptive and indefinite warfare to accomplish that aim.
Many were former Marxists, who transformed their communist paradigm into a similarly utopian vision for imposing democracy everywhere. If one searches for an American precursor, one may fairly conclude that it is Wilsonian. It is therefore true that progressivism had reentered the Republican Party even before the more recent emanations so apparent in the Democrat Party. By the time George W. Bush left office, a Big Government domestic crowd and a Big Government military-expansionist crowd had virtually assured runaway spending and the near financial collapse. President Obama really did inherit a mess, notwithstanding his penchant for making things worse.
The Republican Party is still digging out from shambles, but it was never the conservative principles of Goldwater/Reagan that failed. Pauken opines the Republican Party must reassert basic conservative principles, not only to do well in the next election but, in fact, to save the country. The past, à la Goldwater and Reagan, offers salient policy positions for a course correction, as do recently popular libertarian-conservative expounders of limited government and constitutional conservatism, such as Ron Paul. Paul supporters were instrumental in igniting the Tea Party movement. Paul may even be this generation’s Goldwater in terms of being the intellectual progenitor, giving rise to a fresh articulation of conservative principles and to future realization of conservative political ascendancy. How soon that ascendancy happens depends as much on what the Democrats do as Republicans, and also on how bad things get.
Pauken points out what is now widely understood across conservative ranks, that “Federal spending and unfunded federal mandates on state and local governments are completely out of control.” He then asks rhetorically, “Is there any hope whatsoever that a true federalist could actually get elected president, reduce the growth of federal spending, and return power to the states, local communities, and the people?” Sadly the question is now unanswerable, because it may depend on what emerges from the shambles of the Republican Party and whether the GOP rediscovers its conservative root. It depends as well, as it always does, on the people—whether they give in to having stirrups at their sides, and saddles cinched to their backs and Big Government riding herd.
According to Pauken, “The Republican Party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan was a conservative party of limited government. That all changed in the post-Reagan era of Republican politics.” During the first eight years this century, Republicans came to embrace big government conservatism, but this had more in common with the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt or the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson than with the conservative philosophy of Goldwater and Reagan.
Neoconservative Fred Barnes lauded George W. Bush for pursuing conservative ends by traditionally liberal means, a.k.a. activist government. Barnes noted that neoconservative Republicans were favorably disposed towards a conservative welfare state. As Pauken sums it up, “A cynic might suggest that what Barnes was really saying was that there is nothing wrong with big government so long as ‘our guys’ are in charge.” Of course from the standpoint of the economy, big government conservatism still bankrupts the country and stifles recovery. From the standpoint of liberty it matters only by degree, if one master happens to be more benevolent than another. From the standpoint of the Constitution, however, it matters not one whit.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.