Whence the Republican freefall?
How do we once again convince the public that we are in fact the party many Democrats successfully pretended to be in this election?

So asks Dick Armey in the Wall Street Journal.

A lot of people have said that the recent Republican loss results from their betrayal of the 1994 Contract With America, but Armey's status as one of its original architects makes his argument uniquely tough to ignore:

If there was still any doubt, the Republican Revolution of 1994 officially ended Tuesday night with the loss of at least 28 seats and majority control of the House of Representatives. As I write this, the race in Virginia that will determine if the Republicans also lose control of the Senate is too close to call, but leaning Democrat.

It was a rout.


what the Contract with America really did was establish a national (as opposed to a parochial) vision for the Republican Party. When we took control, that positive Reagan vision of limited government and individual responsibility provided a great deal of discipline and allowed us to govern accordingly. Our primary question in those early years was: How do we reform government and return money and power back to the American people?

Eventually, the policy innovators and the "Spirit of '94" were largely replaced by political bureaucrats driven by a narrow vision. Their question became: How do we hold onto political power? The aberrant behavior and scandals that ended up defining the Republican majority in 2006 were a direct consequence of this shift in choice criteria from policy to political power.

I'm hardly a longtime Republican loyalist (and I don't consider myself a true conservative), but I've been watching politics pretty closely now for several decades, so I might as well weigh in on what I think went wrong and when it happened, because I think that at some point, a rhetorical leap become an ideological leap in faith.

Despite its many ideological twists and turns over the decades, the Republican Party has always been the party that was defined by a core belief in smaller government and fiscal restraint. Despite the divisions between moral conservatives, economic conservatives, and libertarians, there was a shared common ground on things like sticking to the text and intent of the Constitution, keeping the government out of the private sector as much as possible, and opposition to most socialistic programs. While I assumed that Republicans would always agree on these core issues, it was in the late 1990s that the "national greatness conservatism" came into being.

It seemed to me like a rehash of LBJ's disastrous "Great Society" cynically flavored with enough religious-sounding morality to win over the social conservatives. Whatever it was, National Greatness Conservatism was Big Government Conservatism -- more an oxymoron than Republicanism as I had known it, and I was distrustful. So were a lot of others, like Virginia Postrel and James K. Glassman, as well as Jonah Goldberg.

What happened? Why would this rationalization for big government conservatism appear in 1997? Applying FDR's maxim that there are no coincidences in politics, I'm tempted to guess that keen minds in the GOP were trying to out-triangulate Bill Clinton, who had out-triangulated himself just the year before in the famous "The Era of Big Government Is Over" speech. (And after having seemingly put "an end to welfare as we know it," Clinton the "fake conservative" was beginning to sound frighteningly believable to "real" conservatives.)

So (the Republicans thought), if the Democrats can triangulate against big government, then why can't "we" triangulate against small government? The NGC slogan "Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine," seemed to concede to Democrats that traditional Republican thinking was downright kooky (to say nothing of the even kookier ideas of the founders), and it gave a green light to more creative thinking. Conservatism plus big government means compassionate conservatism. The details of "National Greatness" might not have been spelled out, but the rhetoric is clearly evocative of LBJ's Great Society. What both had in common was big spending in the name of compassion.

But this "National Greatness Conservatism" was not a meme that suddenly leaped into being in 1997 as an anti-Clinton counter-triangulation scheme. At the time, Virginia Postrel researched its origins, and found it to be vintage Crolyism (the doctrines of influential Progressive thinker Herbert Croly):

Croly's central message was that the government's job is to solve social problems and to actively shape the future, not to be a neutral referee. "To conceive of a better American future as a consummation which will take care of itself,--as the necessary result of our customary conditions, institutions, and ideas,--persistence in such a conception is admirably designed to deprive American life of any promise at all," he wrote. Croly's ideas influenced, among other contemporaries, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, political rivals who in retrospect had more fundamental agreements than differences.

Crolyism overturned the ideal of limited government in favor of a combination of elite power--commissions to regulate and plan--and mass democracy. It was this pragmatic progressivism, not socialist utopianism, that extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government. Frustrated with constitutional limits, Croly wrote, "The security of private property and personal liberty, and a proper distribution of activity between the local and the central governments, demanded [at the time of the Constitution's framing], and within limits still demand, adequate legal guarantees. It remains none the less true, however, that every popular government should in the end, and after a necessarily prolonged deliberation, possess the power of taking any action, which, in the opinion of a decisive majority of the people, is demanded by the public welfare." This statement, while extreme, pretty much sums up today's governing philosophy.

In Crolyism, we find the assumptions that underlie just about every current political debate: Government is supposed to pick sides and solve problems.

Remember, Postrel is writing in 1997. Before Crolyism had became entrenched in Republicanism and conservatism. Doubtless, very few of her readers had heard of Herbert Croly. While I remember being singularly unimpressed as a libertarian with "National Greatness Conservatism," one of the problems with being a libertarian is that there are so many things with which to be seriously unimpressed that there's no time to sort out which unimpressive things are so serious that they rise to the level of serious threat. Nevertheless, it's not as if we weren't warned.

In the very first sentence of her marvelous essay, Postrel warned that Crolyism was serious enough that it should have become part of our national vocabulary:

Herbert Croly is not exactly a household name, but he should be. Seven decades after his death, we are still living in the political world his ideas built--and struggling to escape it.
Not only do I think she's right, but if I were religious I'd be inclined to call her a prophet.

While the Republican Crolyists at the time had a hazy agenda, remember that the Republicans were not in power. And many of them were reeling from the post-Cold War Clinton embrace of small government, and in fairness to them, they probably had no choice but to perform a rhetorical fast shuffle.

And much to her credit, Virginia Postrel called them on it:

So, far more explicitly, are Weekly Standard editors William Kristol and David Brooks [affirming the Crolyist creed] when they declare in The Wall Street Journal, "Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine....What is missing from today's conservatism is the appeal to American greatness." By their own admission, Kristol and Brooks have only the haziest of agendas: "It would be silly to try to lay out some sort of 10-point program for American greatness." They simply know what they want to quash--the idea that American greatness is emergent, rather than planned, and that it does not emerge from Washington. "American purpose," writes Brooks, "can find its voice only in Washington."
If you want to understand the origins of the GOP's wrong turn, Postrel's essay really is a must read.

Seriously, I can't stress it enough. I feel like quoting the whole thing, but that's bad form and a copyright infringement. So, here I'll repeat the link. Do yourselves a favor and read it. And while you're at it read this post from the Dynamist.com archives, in which Postrel discusses the meme again, and catches the neoCrolyists trying to insinuate classicism into their rhetorical shuffle. (How dare they!)

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to blame anyone. Not Brooks. Not Kristol. Not Bush. Not even Croly. I'm not even sure it's fair to lay blame entirely on the Republicans, and I'll try to explain why.

What I think happened that neither its architects nor opponents anticipated was that just as big government conservatism had barely managed to get its foot in the door, suddenly our whole world went kablooey.

I don't want to waste words, so I'll simply illustrate with a well known image:


Like it or not, stuff like that is enough to turn many a libertarian into a communitarian. It was more than enough to provoke a Republican freefall into massive, no-holds-barred spending. No one with a conscience was talking about fiscal restraint at a time like that.

Did the Democrats complain? I know that's like asking whether the Pope's Catholic, but no, they did not. At least, not until sufficient time had passed.

Libertarian Gene Healey tried to sound the alarm in a 2004 essay titled "The Era of Big Government Conservatism":

There's little evidence that the president recognizes the extent of the fiscal mess we're in. There's even less evidence that he recognizes any area of American life that should be free of government involvement. In his 1996 State of the Union address, then-President Bill Clinton famously declared that "the era of big government is over." President Bush's message for 2004 was less explicit, but just as direct: the era of big government conservatism has arrived.
A lot of people were worried, but in fairness to them, the war against terrorism came first.

It's all too easy to talk about fiscal restraint now that the bills are coming due and the country hasn't faced a major terrorist attack for years, because the terrorists mostly seem to be somewhere else. (As if things like that didn't cost money...)

I think a good argument can be made that 9/11 and all the consequent sequelae explain why big government conservatism morphed into conservative doctrine without much of a whimper. No doubt power helped supply further rationalizations, and power always corrupts as does big money.

But right now, Republicans are looking for answers and to do that they need to look at their roots.

"Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine."

Oh yeah?

I think a good argument can be made that for a variety of reasons, many voters this week voted in full recognition of the fact that no matter who is elected, the government simply will not leave them alone, and that the best protection is to apply the brakes on government in general.

By electing conservative Democrats, might the voters have imagined that they could bring back the "era" of big government being over again?

End of Big Government. Vintage Bill Clinton stuff, right? Well if Republicans don't speak up fast, pretty soon Bill Clinton will be credited with having invented opposition to big government.

He didn't. In what would have been an act of apostasy for almost anyone else, Clinton claimed the mantle of Goldwater, Reagan, and countless conservative and libertarian thinkers, and (IMO) set the rhetorical stage for big government conservatism. That's because of the nature of politics, triangulation tends to invite counter-triangulation.

But certain things are hard to triangulate. Like this memorable line from Ronald Reagan's inaugural address:

...government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem...
Now, if we could just stop Nancy Pelosi from saying that...

MORE: It might be too early to predict a wholesale sea change in Republican thinking (much less a return to advocating small government), but Glenn Reynolds points out that Rush Limbaugh is now feeling "liberated":

Meanwhile I note that Rush Limbaugh, who was complaining about my pre-mortem before, now says he feels "liberated" because he's able to say things like . . . what I said back before the election. Well, better late than never, but one problem with the GOP is that it lost touch with the things it was supposed to stand for, and a little more tough love from Limbaugh before the election might have done some good.
I hope this feeling of being liberated means that Limbaugh will go back to talking about ending big government. But it must be a hard rhetorical twist to have to admit that you were both for and then later against ending big government before you were now for it.

I'd stick with simply being against what Glenn Reynolds said before I was for it. (Especially if I could say I'd "never heard of" Glenn Reynolds.)

MORE: Speaking of Rush Limbaugh, Robert Bidinotto thinks his recent ad hominem attacks on Michael J, Fox cost the Republicans the Missouri Senate seat (and thus the Senate). And as if that wasn't bad enough, he also thinks the Libertarian Party cost the Republicans the Montana seat.

UPDATE: Calling for "a new generation of leaders," today's Wall Street Journal sees voters as rejecting "big government conservatism":

"Big government conservatism" was a nice think-tank proposition; it merely lacks support from actual voters.

As a minority party in Congress, Republicans must operate as the party of change, not of Washington insiders willing to sign away their principles for a courthouse or swimming pool in the home district. This doesn't mean they shouldn't work with Democrats when it makes policy sense. But they need to reclaim their fiscal conservative birthright.

(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

"Big government conservatism" is one of those oxymorons that never should have been allowed to escape from the "think" tanks.


What next? "Small government socialism"?

I'm getting as tired of "liberal" and "conservative" as I am of the way these two "sides" imitate and "triangulate" each other as if they're playing some narcissistic game dominated by political insiders.

Too many people just don't fit, and the country may be due for a new label.

What? I should go back to being a Democrat?

Because I like smaller government?

posted by Eric on 11.10.06 at 10:24 AM


George W Bush ran for president in favor of Big Government, which was called "compassionate conservatism." Bush should never have won in '00, except that the Dems nominated a colorless, charisma-free bot in the form of the sitting Vice President. And still the Dems would've won had Al Gore run as a caretaker for Clintonism. Instead, Bob Shrum had him run hard to the left -- "the people not the powerful" -- and Bush had the political center. And still Bush lost the popular vote, but won the presidency by only four or five electoral votes, brought about by a thinner-than-razor-thin victory margin in Florida.

Bush's style of "big government conservatism" should never have won the election. But Al Gore was a terrible candidate running a bad hard-left campaign and Bush squeaked by. Soon 9-11 happened and we conservatives were fully on-board with our Commander-in-Chief in time of war. And the worst thing about the R-spending binge of the last six years is that: we are at war. The corrupt Republican leadership should've emphatically said "no" to "the Bridge to Nowhere," the farm bill, earmarks. How could we expect the Dems to take The War on Terror seriously when the Republicans were spending recklessly on completely frivolous, expensive earmarked trinkets?

Bush wouldn't veto. The Republican leadership wouldn't hold back.

When the R's took over Congress after the '94 election, what was one of their legislative accomplishments? Their signature accomplishment, in my book. Repeal of the national speed limits! Talk about getting government intrusion out of people's lives! So when's the last time that the Republican Congress took a positive step to get over-reaching government out of my life?

Ranging from the serious and necessary (the Patriot Act?) to the frivolous and stupid (the anti-Rave Act), it's been a long long time since the Republican-led Congress did something to get government off my back. The mystery is what took so long for these Republicans to lose control of Congress (the Dems putting up a horrible nominee in '04, who only narrowly lost, helped extend their reign).

And now Bush is "triangulating". The Era of Big Government is back, with vengeance.

Rhodium Heart   ·  November 10, 2006 12:15 PM

I don't think it's much of a mystery why it took so long. Not only did it take time for the Democrats to come up with attractive candidates, but voters sincerely wanted to support the war.

Eric Scheie   ·  November 10, 2006 12:19 PM

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