February 21, 2006,
During the past year, one of the philosophical justifications for the Bush administration’s approach to government has collapsed. It held that President Bush was a “big-government conservative,” or in the more striking formulation of the influential, Bush-friendly journalist Fred Barnes, a “strong-government conservative.”
In theory, strong-government conservatism is alluring. If government is going to do something, it ought to do it well. In practice, however strong-government conservatism has mostly been a rationalization for lazy and politically expedient accretions to government. It hasn’t given us a strong government, but a further-sprawling government that in many ways is contemptible.
Take the response to Hurricane Katrina. The Department of Homeland Security should be a perfect forum for strong government. Congress and the president identified a goal preventing terrorists from attacking us on our soil and named a new federal department after it: Homeland Security. They threw 22 disparate government agencies together, apparently on the theory that bigger is stronger.
In last week’s House report on Katrina, there was one target for criticism that has gone unnoticed big government itself. The report notes how important it was to share information “within agencies” and “across departments.” It didn’t happen: “Unfortunately, no government does these things well, especially big governments.” The report goes on to say “flexibility and adaptability” were needed. Instead: “We again encountered the risk-averse culture that pervades big government.”
Katrina didn’t involve just the obvious failures. The further down the House report mines, the more failure it finds. To cite an example: “Top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Disaster Medical System do not share a common understanding of who controls the National Disaster Medical System under Emergency Support Function-8.” Besides the heroic effort of the U.S. Coast Guard, strong government was nowhere to be seen.
Another signature Bush foray into expansive government is the Medicare prescription-drug plan. It takes one of the nation’s problems exploding entitlements for the elderly and makes it worse. As Michael Mandelbaum argues in his new book, The Case for Goliath, a major threat to the dominant American role in the world is a declining public willingness to pay for it. Piling up new entitlement costs makes this dynamic even more likely. With the prescription-drug plan, government got stronger or bigger, at least but the nation may well be weaker for it.
Some government programs actually promote strong government. A large, capable military is a foundation of national power. The Patriot Act and the National Security Agency spying program by updating governmental capabilities to deal with a new national security threat represent strong, flexible government. It is also possible to foster desirable values through government programs. Welfare reform promoted responsibility among welfare recipients.
But these kinds of programs hardly necessitate an ever-expanding federal government. The budget for the entire NSA is a relatively affordable $6 billion a year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wasted about 1/6th of that, nearly a billion dollars, on a one-off boondoggle for mobile homes. According to Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, nondefense, nonsecurity and non-Katrina-related discretionary spending has increased 34 percent since 2001. Huge entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are growing at between 6 and 9 percent annually.
None of this makes for strong government in the conservative sense. It creates a self-perpetuating appetite for even more government. The prescription-drug plan hasn’t placated seniors, but whetted their appetite for an even more generous program. As spending increases, so does pressure for higher taxes. This threatens the most successful Bush domestic initiative, which is of the old-fashioned limited-government variety: tax cuts that helped boost the most important factor in national strength and well-being, a strong private sector.
When the GOP begins its post-Bush departure roughly after the midterm elections in November, when the 2008 presidential nomination race begins “big-government conservatism” will probably end up on the ash heap. The party will have to relearn what it used to know: A strong government is a limited government.