In a long piece in The New York Times Magazine, David Brooks recently argued that there are two sorts of Republicans: The first group is made up of people who still mouth the words about reducing the size of government but dont even pretend to live according to their creed. The second group understands that if you dont have a positive vision of government, you wont be able to limit the growth of government.
Two days before, The Economist dissected what it called the contradictory conservative, charging that the Republican administration had presided over a big increase in the size of government despite its rhetoric. More subtly, it suggested there is an implicit contradiction in the vision that advocates transferring responsibilities from the government to the individual while glorifying the U.S. government as a nation-builder abroad and the guarantor of moral virtue at home.
At the Republican Convention last week, I set out to confront some party delegates and a few senior politicians with these two basic thoughts. First, the idea that there are two Republican types, neither one conservative because one type believes in small government only rhetorically while the other is comfortable defending big government. Second, the idea that present-day conservatism is contradictory.
Their responses were fascinating. Almost everybody departed from the real facts. This is not to say they were lying (they were not seasoned politicians). For the most part, they were genuine, idealistic conservatives who believed what they were saying.
The most common answer was that there is only one Republican Party and that the war is to blame for the increase in the size of government. Yet we know that federal spending is up almost 30 percent since 2000. In education alone, it is up more than 70 percent.
The second most common response was that the Bush administration has resisted the pressure to create or expand entitlement programs. And yet they were speaking about a government that has created a new entitlement program for prescription drugs and presided over the largest expansion of Medicare evera program whose growth conservatives decried years ago.
The third type of response was that No Child Left Behind is a good example of how the White House is introducing competition and accountability in government. True, that is one of the aims of the policy; and if it were really focused on allowing children to change schools when the standards are low, one could expect some improvement as a result of increased competition. But no speaker at the conventionor anyone else for that mattermentioned this aspect of the policy. The only aspect that was highlighted from the podium was that the federal government is taking more responsibility (i.e., centralizing the setting of standards) because it cares for children. The advocates of the policy essentially spelled out a paternalistic approach.
The fourth kind of response I obtained, usually from delegates and politicians from Southern states, was that moral virtue (as interpreted by the government) is the highest priority. Then why were Rudolph Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom depart to an extent from that vision, wildly cheered by all the delegates, even those from the Southern states? Because they are strong on defense, came the reply. Oh, I thought, then moral virtue is not quite at the very top of the conservative agenda. And if it isnt, why approve a party platform that places so squarely in the government the responsibility of sustaining moral values?
As a matter of fact, another typical response pointed to the party platform as proof that there is only one Republican trend and that it believes in small government. Indeed, the platform states that the taxation system should not be used to redistribute wealth. Then it goes on to argue that the deficit should be cut by limiting spending rather than limiting tax cuts, and calls for strengthening Social Security with ownershipmeaning that the people should be allowed to direct part of their payroll taxes to personal investment accounts.
But wasnt that a major theme of the Republican campaign in 2000? And has any effort been made to reform the system along those lines? With a deficit this high and existing commitments on behalf of those who have already contributed to the government system, what chance is there that a second Republican administration will attempt such reform?
Finally, there are those who said the government is decentralizing power by strengthening local assemblies. But isnt the fact that the justice system is interfering with the state rights of prosecution in certain cases, or the fact that more documents have been classified than in previous administrations, an indication of the tendency toward a concentration rather than a dispersion of power?
The conclusion one draws from all of this is that conservatism has lost sight of its own roots. There is scant awareness among many well-meaning Republicans of the gulf that has opened up between rhetoric and real life. And in some cases, the overriding passion for military values and moral interventionism overrules any guilty conscience for the fact that present-day conservatism has become a bastion of big government.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets. Eliot could have been describing the state of conservatism at the Republican convention.