February 25, 2005,
Andrew Sullivan has now weighed in on my debate with Ryan Sager. What all of us are grappling with is the expansion of the federal government under President Bush. How should those of us who want a much smaller federal government respond when Bush, for example, imposes steel tariffs? We should denounce the tariffs and bash Bush for imposing them. On this much, I take it, all three of us agree.
But Sullivan and Sager write as though the problem were simply that Bush is for big government as though the problem would go away if Bush would simply commit himself to shrinking the government. I think that's a simplistic analysis. I think Bush is responding to real political circumstances. The most important of these circumstances is the smallness and weakness of the constituency for limited government. There are more voters who care deeply about keeping the Small Business Administration in operation than there are voters who care deeply about shutting it down. The task of a political movement trying to shrink the government over the long run is to change those political circumstances, to expand the anti-statist constituency. I think Social Security reform is a promising strategy for doing that.
Bashing Bush when merited should also be part of the effort. Presumably if we yelp enough about the tariffs his calculation about the political utility of those tariffs will change, and he will impose them less. (I take it that the steel tariffs were rescinded in part because of complaints from conservatives, although complaints from steel-using businesses were more important.) But bashing Bush has to be the beginning of a strategy, not its entirety.
Sullivan claims that what I'm saying is that "Newt Gingrich killed off small-government conservatism and so Bush has no choice. Gingrich is and was one of the least appealing figures in American politics. His tactics were crude and dumb. To abandon every small government principle because he screwed up a decade ago strikes me as silly defeatism." That's a caricature of my position: I don't think it's fair to say that I've "abandon[ed] every small government principle" but tried to figure out a political strategy to get those principles realized in practice. Also, in my debate with Sager, I provided reasons beyond the failure of the Gingrich revolution for thinking that directly limiting government in the short run is a losing political proposition.
But Sullivan is wrong even about this data point. It seems to me to be a mistake to attribute the failure of the Gingrich revolution entirely to Gingrich's tactical errors and personal characteristics although obviously these things mattered. I think that public antipathy to the federal government built from the late 1960s through the early 1990s because federal activism was seen as undermining middle-class values and interests. For a variety of reasons welfare reform not least among them that perception weakened in the mid-1990s. The public never really opposed federal activism to help people who work, and wasn't going to side with a Gingrichian attempt to rein in Medicare even if Gingrich had done everything right.
Then Sullivan suggests that my NR colleagues and I aren't really opposed to big government because all we've done is "nitpick" at Bush's big-government policies. If Al Gore had compiled the same big-spending record in office, NR "would have mounted a ferocious attempt to remove the guy from office." The fact that NR hasn't started an "insurrection," he adds, "tells you a lot about where some conservative thinkers are really coming from." I'll ignore that closing insinuation, chiefly because I'm not sure what exactly Sullivan is trying to insinuate.
"Merely" opposing big-government initiatives, it seems to me, ought to count for something. It's better than, say, Andrew Sullivan's record. For my money, one of the worst things Bush has done in office was to sign a bill restricting political advertising. Sullivan was a cheerleader for that bill. Nor do I think that NR needs instruction on the need for anti-statist zeal from a man who has plumped for increases in the estate tax and the gas tax.
His thought experiment, meanwhile, is thoughtless. For it to begin to work, his President Al Gore would have had to have overthrown the Baathist regime in Iraq, enacted Health Savings Accounts, cut taxes, proposed a free-market reform of Social Security, nominated conservative judges, and so forth. (There have been more conservative policy achievements under this president than there were at the height of Gingrich's revolution, a fact which certainly tempers my nostalgia for it.) Is Sullivan really suggesting that opposing Bush and backing John Kerry would have been the truly conservative thing to do in the last election? Oh right: That is what Sullivan thought. Now he's complaining that NR refused to join him in his folly.