In President Barack Obama, conservatives face the most formidable liberal politician in a generation, perhaps since John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Obama led his party to a large electoral victory, winning the presidency with a majority of the popular vote—something a Democrat had not done since Jimmy Carter's squeaker in 1976. In fact, Obama's was the biggest Democratic triumph since LBJ's landslide in 1964. Though he didn't sweep into office as many congressmen and senators as Franklin Roosevelt or LBJ in their big breakthroughs, Obama handily increased the Democrats' control of both houses of Congress, including a Senate that appears filibuster-proof.
Worse still, from the conservative point of view, Obama came into office not as a status quo liberal but as an ambitious reformer. Far from being content with incremental gains, he's gambling on major systemic change in energy policy, health care, taxation, financial regulation, and (soon) education and immigration, one shocking success designed to pave the way for the next, and all understood and pursued as parts of a grand, in his words "transformative," strategy.
Faced with this liberal blitzkrieg, how have Republicans responded? Paralyzed at first by the rapidity and sheer audacity of the Democrats' advance (and by a plummeting stock market), they hunkered down behind a Maginot Line of safe districts, remembered triumphs, and misaimed slogans, hoping that the Democrats soon would outrun their supply lines or, besotted by success, fall to feuding among themselves. Though their spirit and poll numbers have improved in recent weeks, Republicans and conservatives are still profoundly on the defensive. To discover a way forward, we have to begin by understanding our opponents and learning from our own mistakes.
Follow the Leader
Barack Obama is in some respects a new political phenomenon. To state the obvious, he is young, gifted, and black, and as Nina Simone sang 40 years ago, "To be young, gifted, and black / Is where it's at"—especially if you're president of the United States. Most Americans feel a certain pride in his achievement. Beyond that, his combination of Ivy League degrees and Chicago street cred, of high-sounding post-partisanship and hard-core self-interest, leaves people guessing. To call this combination or alternation "pragmatic," as he likes to, is simply to accept his invitation not to think about it.
But in the decisive respect, Obama does not represent something new under the sun. Instead, he represents a rejuvenated version of something quite old, namely, the impulses that gave birth, a century ago, to modern American liberalism.
Most political movements in American history come into being to press some putative reform, and dissolve when they have succeeded, or failed, definitively: for example, the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements, which succeeded, and the campaign for the free coinage of silver, the central demand of late 19th-century Populism, which failed. Prohibition is an interesting case of a movement that succeeded and then failed. Modern liberalism is something else again.
Liberalism was the first political movement in America without a clearly defined goal of reform, without a terminus ad quem: the first to offer an endless future of continual reform. Its intent was to make American government "progressive," which meant to keep it always progressing, to keep it up to date or in tune with the times. No specific reform or set of reforms could satisfy that demand, and no ultimate goal could comprehend all the changes in political forms and policies that might become necessary in the future.
Obama's campaign slogans were marvelous examples of such open-endedness. It takes an effort to remember them, so gauzy were they; but last year they galvanized millions of voters in the primaries and general election. "Hope." "Change." These catchwords lack what are called, in grammar, subjects and objects. Who should change, and in what way? Hope for what, exactly? Obama's slightly more elaborated tag lines didn't solve the mystery but merely restated it—as with the catchy "We are the change we've been waiting for." Or that classic of self-actualization, "Yes, we can!" These slogans were meant to discourage deliberation, to hover childlike and dreamlike over all debate; each required some external agent to define it. Together they said, in effect, we are ready to follow a leader who will tell us what to hope for.
Obama wasn't shy about answering this call, but he disclaimed any personal glory in the matter. He was merely—merely!—the incarnation of the people's own hopes, rallying them to the causes latent in their hearts but not yet conscious to their minds or their imaginations. Liberals live in anticipation of such prophet-leaders, who bring an end to the reign of the wicked and move History (and not incidentally, liberalism) forward to its next stage. In the 20th century America was blessed, according to liberal hagiography, with Woodrow Wilson and the New Freedom, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, LBJ and the Great Society. In the new century, Obama is the one whom History has chosen to reveal to us our hidden selves, and bring America to a new consummation, to a higher state of consciousness. He is the liberals' Twelfth Imam.
Being progressives, however, they fully expect there will be a 13th hidden imam, and 14th, and so on. For though liberalism can't specify what the future will look like, it's confident that it will forever be improving. In its early days, liberalism backed up this confidence with science—the latest in university learning, including an unhealthy dose of Social Darwinism. These days it's rare to hear liberals boast of their scientific command of the future, except perhaps in the climate change debate, which they do not consider a debate because Science has spoken, dammit, through that inspired non-scientist, Al Gore. Nonetheless, the sense of privileged wisdom lives on in the Left's congenital fondness for policy "experts" from the very best schools; the Obama Administration is full of them. These experts teach a less bombastic version of what liberals a century ago regarded as the highest truth of the most scientific kind of political science: that the future demands an increasingly powerful, provident, and paternal State.
The Cooperative Commonwealth
The future being the future, however, even liberalism at its most self-confident couldn't describe the exact institutions and policies of this new State. These were to be ever evolving, hence impossible to pin down. As William Voegeli has well argued in these pages ("The Endless Party," Winter 2004), ask a liberal how big he wants government to be, how much of GDP he wants it to spend, and you will never get a definite answer. "Bigger" and "more" are the best he can do. In broad terms, however, liberals promised to generate a society more democratic than any that had ever existed, and to administer it with scientific efficiency via a new kind of bureaucratic government dominated by unelected experts.
The "new order of things," to use FDR's term, would feature abundant rights, very different however from the unalienable rights invoked in the Declaration of Independence. These new rights originated not in God or nature, as the Declaration taught, but in the State. The character of the rights differed, too. According to the new social contract, government would grant to the people certain socio-economic rights or benefits, bestowed primarily on groups and on individuals only insofar as they belonged to an officially recognized group (e.g., the poor, the mortgaged-deprived). In return for these rights, the people would cede to government ever greater powers. The individual didn't completely disappear from this vision of democracy but appeared in a very different role, as a kind of long-term government project.
The spirit of the old American democracy was free, honorable, independent. The new promised instead a cooperative commonwealth, in which spirited individualism would be social-worked out of folks and it would be hard to tell where democracy ended and socialism began.
The U.S. Constitution was designed for a people who thought republican government a rare and difficult achievement, one historically prone to degenerate into tyranny, or first into anarchy and then into tyranny. To avert this fate, the founders argued that America would need public virtue and vigilance—expressed in elections and in reverence for the laws and the Constitution—as well as "auxiliary precautions" like federalism, the separation of powers, and the extended nature of our republic. "It will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it," warned James Madison in The Federalist. Despite America's political advantages, he therefore expected it would be difficult to maintain liberty, and that to do so the American people's "jealousy" of governmental power would have to be enlightened and persistent.
Today's liberals assure us, to the contrary, that political tyranny is a virtually extinct threat, save for the occasional throwback like George W. Bush. Why fear Big Government, after all, when the bigger and more powerful it gets, the more rights it can bestow on us?
The Higher Lawlessness
As a theme of political discourse, the Constitution as a bulwark of limited government has quite gone out of fashion. Ronald Reagan was its last great champion. As a theme of constitutional law more narrowly considered, it survives, though largely as an exhibit in the museum of discarded doctrines. For more than a hundred years, liberals have contributed to the Constitution's eclipse by criticizing it as a timebound document, ill-suited to our 19th-, 20th-, or 21st-century realities. At least since Woodrow Wilson, liberal anathemas have been aimed particularly at the Constitution's separation of powers, the alleged cause of the deadlock or gridlock of American democracy, which means the inability of progressives to change our politics as neatly and dramatically as they'd like. This complaint underlies President Obama's insistence on tackling all parts of his agenda at once and as hurriedly as possible. Unless the tempo is allegro molto (and he ramped it up to prestoas the August recess approached), "change"will bog down once more in the normal play of American institutions.
Rather than simply pound away at the old Constitution, however, liberals quickly saw the advantage in reinterpreting it in ways that would be more politically palatable. Collectively, these fall under the rubric of the so-called "living Constitution," a later term for Wilson's effort to read the Constitution as a Darwinian document, whose meaning must evolve with the times, and under whose precepts the national government must be allowed and encouraged to outgrow its old limits and blend its powers in novel ways. For conflict among the separated powers-a crucial check on tyranny, according to the founders—must give way to cooperation, in order to solve modern problems efficiently.
The living Constitution is thus an ever-changing constitution, subject to continual fine-tuning by liberal experts to keep pace with new social problems and putative advances in social justice. It assumes that "change" can never, or only very rarely, be the enemy of good government. In this sense, modern liberalism stands for what might be called the higher lawlessness. This is a two-fold term for a two-faced phenomenon. To begin with, liberalism disputes the notion that there are, or ought to be, higher-law restrictions on what government can do, because these would suggest permanent purposes and limits to the State's power. So with few exceptions liberals deny that the Constitution has a more or less authoritative meaning expressed in its text and principles; that the principles themselves reflect a higher or natural law distinct from positive law; and that it is incumbent on judges and politicians to adhere to the Constitution as higher law when interpreting statutes and regulations, however popular or progressive these may be.
At the same time, modern liberals deny that the living Constitution represents mere lawlessness, an absence of standards or surrender to subjective judgment. What makes their lawlessness higher is their faith that it leads upward, that change is almost always something to be hoped for rather than weighed or resisted, that anything really worthy in the Constitution will be preserved or improved by change, and that anything not preserved is, by definition, not worth preserving anyway.
To an amazing degree, Obama's agenda represents a return to liberalism's roots. Modernized, reenergized, repackaged, to be sure, but recognizable as a new installment of something that Americans have been resisting for a long time. Democrats have been trying to establish a universal entitlement to health care, after all, ever since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 declared that "the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health" was part of what he called "a second Bill of Rights."
Why then were conservatives caught so flat-footed? In a way, it was Ronald Reagan's fault, or rather the fault of those who carried on his legacy. Reagan was confident, as he said in 1977, that "we who are proud to call ourselves ‘conservative' are…part of the great majority of Americans of both major parties and of most of the independents as well." His point was that when the social conservatives, drawn from "the blue-collar, ethnic, and religious groups traditionally associated with the Democratic Party," were added to the economic conservatives, traditionally at home in the GOP and among independents, the result would be a conservative majority that would support what he christened "the New Republican Party." He was right about that, as the 1980 and subsequent elections proved (and as the 1968 and '72 elections had already suggested).
He emphasized, however, that it would take "a program of action based on political principle" to unite conservatives into "one politically effective whole," which would not be "a temporary, uneasy alliance, but…a new, lasting majority."
Reagan came through with that program of action based on political principle. His successors did not. The confidence that a latent conservative majority existed helped inspire Reagan to activate it, to create it. That same confidence led his successors to take that majority for granted, to "turn out the base" on election day and otherwise say as little as possible about the substance and purposes of serious conservatism.
The assumption that Reagan had achieved a revolution in policy and public opinion led easily to the presumption that his "new, lasting majority" could be counted on. Even when it went AWOL, for instance in Bill Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996, or in 2006 and 2008, commentators tended to adjust the facts to fit the hypothesis. Clinton was a rogue, they said, and ordinary Americans like rogues; 2006 showed that the voters, like good conservatives, were fed up with spendthrift Republicans; last year Obama kept talking about tax cuts for the middle class, thus sounding more conservative than McCain. Though there's an element of truth to each ad hoc explanation, they overlook the obvious: that latent conservatism doesn't translate into reliable political conservatism, much less into voting Republican, without persuasive appeals, "a program of action based on political principle."
Reaganesque appeals were few and far between in the post-Gipper GOP. George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain—every presidential candidate, even those who most identified with Reagan, chafed at his legacy and took pains to distance himself from it. True, the distances weren't great, but they were instructive. Though each candidate was in some sense conservative, none had been of the conservative movement as had Reagan; and so they tried to make a virtue of that fact. From Bush 41's "thousand points of light" to McCain's embrace of campaign finance reform and anti-global warming, they sought to soften conservatism's hard edges, to co-opt some issues of the Left, in general to try to pull conservatism towards the center rather than to try to persuade the Center to move further right.
The corollary of this strategy was the assumption that even as the Right had gone as far as it could, so had the Left. In the 1990s, conservatives concluded that the Reagan Revolution had domesticated and even neutered liberalism. Clinton's presidency only seemed to confirm this, notwithstanding some doubts on the latter point.
Just what it would have meant after Reagan to try to shift the Center rightward is, of course, a major question. After the Soviet Union's collapse, which occurred on Bush the Elder's watch but in fulfillment of Reagan's policies, the definition of conservatism became newly problematic. For anti-Communism and the anxiety over national defense had always been a key third element in Reaganite conservatism and in his New Republican Party. (In his 1977 speech describing the new Republicanism, for example, he spoke at greatest length about foreign policy.) Without the urgent motivation of anti-Communism, conservatism seemed to lose much of its reason for being.
Many observers predicted a crack-up, with the union of social and economic conservatives dissolving in mutual antipathy. That didn't happen, suggesting that the two constituencies had more in common than it seemed. What ensued in the 1990s was a series of attempts to redefine conservatism for the post-Cold War age. The two most interesting efforts were Newt Gingrich's "Third Wave" and George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
Gingrich's was a striking form of progressivist conservatism; it was almost an inverted Marxism. Mixing wildly disparate sources ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to techno-futurist Alvin Toffler, Gingrich argued that the Right was now on the right side of history. In speeches and best-selling books, he explained that politics is shaped decisively by technology and the prevailing means of production. In the Second Wave, the economics of the industrial revolution and mass production had dictated the one-size-fits-all, big-government policies of the New Deal. But with the advent of the personal computer and the information revolution, politics would be demassified, individuals empowered, and a new era of entrepreneurship would usher in smaller, more agile and efficient government. The Third Wave, he predicted, would ensure a Republican majority and conservative policies for a long time to come.
It didn't work out that way, not because the economy didn't do its part but because politics always has a mind of its own, and thus a freedom from even the most up-to-date determinisms. In 1994, the GOP, under Gingrich's leadership, captured control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. He took this as a confirmation of his thesis and set out to rein in the federal budget as though he had been elected Prime Minister rather than Speaker of the House. Gingrich was surprised at how Clinton outmaneuvered him in the government shutdown of 1995, and surprised again at the president's re-election. All of a sudden the Republicans seemed to have missed the big swell and were left bobbing in place, far from shore. In fact, however, the GOP congressional majority continued to exert a salutary check on the administration. But Gingrich had overplayed his hand (politics is more like poker than it is surfing) by confusing the public's disdain for Big Government with a libertarian contempt for government as such. Recall that one effect of Reagan's successful presidency was to increase the public's trust in the federal government.
David Frum observed that Bush's compassionate conservatism combined "the Left's favorite adjective with the Right's favorite noun." Too bad Bush didn't remember the writer's adage that the adjective is the enemy of the noun. The elementary point conveyed by the phrase was that it was no contradiction for conservatives to be compassionate. True enough, and useful to say, but hardly a revelation. More ambitiously, it sought to form a new combination of social and economic conservatives to replace or renew Reagan's New Republican Party.
In a time of unprecedented prosperity (1999–2000), Bush wanted to invoke a sense of national purpose loftier than material well-being, and so he tried to connect the two kinds of conservatives by asking what was prosperity's point. "The purpose of prosperity," he said many times, "is to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart. The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out…to leave no one behind." What he meant was that the American dream consisted both of making a good living and making a good life, and therefore that prosperity should be a means to the ends of good character. Although compassion was not the only quality that he recommended to his fellow "citizens of character," it was the leading element in his ideal. Compassion is a noble calling, he said—not an easy virtue.
On the campaign trail he laid out a domestic policy agenda that combined economic conservatism with what he regarded as compassionate social policy. On the one hand, he promised tax cuts and entitlement reform. On the other, he offered three broad culture-improving proposals: to usher in the "responsibility era," i.e., to challenge the self-indulgent culture of the Sixties, a task he admitted churches would be more effective at than government; to "rally the armies of compassion," that is, to encourage charitable giving and channel federal support to faith-based, private-sector welfare initiatives; and to reform education, through what would become the No Child Left Behind Act.
Even as he aspired to make his version of conservatism a middle way between libertarianism and cultural traditionalism, so he hoped that compassionate conservatism would offer a Third Way—to borrow Bill Clinton's favorite slogan—that would take the country beyond the stalemate or deadlock (symbolized by the government shutdown) to which the Left and Right had led it. Bush sought a way out of the "old, tired argument" between "those who want more government, regardless of the cost," and "those who want less government, regardless of the need. We should leave those arguments to the last century, and chart a different course," he told a joint session of Congress in 2001.
That new course would require government to "address some of society's deepest problems one person at a time, by encouraging and empowering the good hearts and good works of the American people." He would use government to strengthen civil society, and civil society to strengthen American character. A little more government now would lead to a caring, self-reliant people who could make do with less government later on. Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal put it nicely: "Conservatives have been obsessed with reducing the supply of government when instead they should reduce the demand for it…. Republicans will empower people, and the people will empower Republicans."
The Conservative Collapse
Unfortunately, the supply of government generates its own demand. This Say's Law of politics was amply demonstrated in the Bush Administration. For the effectual truth of compassionate conservatism soon proved to be "big-government conservatism." Bush pushed successfully for Medicare Part D, the first new federal entitlement program since the Great Society. This prescription drug benefit has cost less than projected, but still costs billions that the federal treasury doesn't have—it was passed without even a hint of additional revenue to fund it—and delivers a benefit to 100% of seniors that only about 2% of them actually need.
But the worst of it for conservatives was that compassionate conservatism eviscerated the GOP's reform ambitions. By abandoning even the rhetorical case for limited government, Bush's philosophy left the administration, and especially Congress, free to plunge lustily into the Washington spending whirl. When House majority leader Tom Delay—the heartless right-winger Tom Delay!—protested that Congress could not cut another cent from the federal budget because it was already cut to the bone…you knew things were bad.
At bottom, the whole notion that compassion was the virtue conservatives lacked or needed to cultivate to be respectable was highly dubious. The best that could be said was that the slogan may have conferred some marginal electoral advantages in 2000. At a deeper level, however, the prominence of compassion was in tension with Bush's avowal of the responsibility era and his pledge to bring dignity back to the presidency. Compassion is not a virtue, after all. As the name suggests, it's a form of passion, of "feeling with" others—feeling their pain, usually; a specialty of the previous administration. Like every passion, it is neither good nor bad in itself; everything depends on what its object is and its fitness to that object. In practice, our compassion often goes out to whoever is moaning the loudest. That's why the classical political virtue is justice, not compassion, for compassion is often indiscriminate and misdirected.
At any rate, compassionate conservatism's indiscipline seemed to wear down some of the tough Texas virtues Bush might have been expected to bring to the presidency. As he said in 2003, "when somebody hurts, government has got to move." That's compassion speaking, not reason and justice, and certainly not the Constitution. In the end, the spirit of misplaced compassion did serious damage to his administration. It wasn't the only reason he failed for more than six years to veto an appropriations bill, for example, but it helped to sap his administration's tone and to leave the Republican Congress, unchecked and uninspired, to its increasingly porcine ways. And the simple, or sentimental, view of human nature implied in the elevation of compassion had something to do, too, with his expectation that from the ashes of Iraqi tyranny a grassroots democracy would spring forth fairly easily.
In his 2001 Inaugural Address, Bush drew attention to what he termed "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion, and character." To these four c's he didn't trouble to add a fifth, the Constitution, despite the fact that he owed his election to one of its provisions, the Electoral College. Like most Republican leaders since the New Deal, he assumed the Constitution was basically irrelevant to his task of shaping public opinion and policy, with the significant exception of making judicial appointments, when the usual condemnations of judicial activism would be trotted out. In effect, Bush accepted the Left's view of the Constitution as a living, Darwinian document that ought not constrain very much the Congress and executive branch from experimenting with and expanding the federal government—making it more compassionate, say. But the Court should not be allowed the same leeway. On this, he parted company with post-New Deal liberals.
In other words, like most modern Republicans, he saw nothing except the most vestigial connection between the Constitution and the proper size and functions of government. Those sort of arguments, which in the ancient of days had led conservatives to attack the New Deal, not to mention Medicare and Medicaid, as unconstitutional, had no place in compassionate conservatism, or in most other forms of the prevailing conservatism. Too much water under the bridge, it was thought. And besides, as Bill Clinton had been forced to acknowledge in 1996, the era of Big Government was over. Although this didn't mean that Big Government itself was obsolete or doomed—on the contrary, it was here to stay—Clinton's concession did imply that the era of big growth in the federal establishment was now behind us. Which implied that the Right could at last let down its guard. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times Magazine, announced "the death of small-government conservatism." He explained: "Just as socialism will no longer be the guiding goal for the left, reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives, as the Republican Party is only now beginning to understand."
That was before the market meltdown, the Republican sell-off in 2006 and 2008, and the rise of Obama. Who's shorting liberalism now? Yet to the generation of American conservatives who opposed the New Deal and the Great Society, there would be nothing unfamiliar about this resurgent liberalism. What shocks today's Republicans is the Lazarus act it seems to have pulled. They thought it was dead, or dying, or at least tamed. They've forgotten what liberalism was like before Reagan.
As with the Great Depression or urban riots in the '60s, the financial crisis of 2008-09 helped to create the moment that the Obama forces are now exploiting. They were aided, to be sure, by the last act of the Bush Administration. When the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bill was first submitted, it was three pages long—a blank check to the Treasury Secretary to save our economy. In its final form it exceeded 200 pages—still a blank check to "take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary" to buy troubled assets, "the purchase of which the Secretary determines promotes financial market stability." In effect, President Bush and the Congress agreed to establish what the ancient Romans would have called a "dictator" of finance, an emergency office empowered to solve a crisis, in this case, to unfreeze credit markets and stop the financial freefall.
The Romans wisely limited the office to a term of no more than six months. In our case, the TARP authority goes on indefinitely, and the spirit of clever lawlessness, already present to some degree in the liberals' constitutional views, radiates ever further into the administration. Neither Hank Paulsen nor Timothy Geithner (so far) ever got around to purchasing those troubled, mortgage-backed assets, but somehow the government now owns 60% of General Motors and a large chunk of Chrysler, not to mention preferred shares in most of the nation's largest banks, and has poured, so far, about $100 billion into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and another $100 billion or so into AIG, and is eager to regulate the compensation packages of businessmen in and out of these ailing companies. To make the auto company deals happen, the Obama Administration had to subvert the existing laws of bankruptcy, but then once you've accepted the theory of the living Constitution it's a small matter to swallow a living bankruptcy code, too.
Not content with its acquisitions, the administration now eyes health care, the energy business, and other vast segments of the economy to tax, regulate, and control. Health care is the signal case, revealing most clearly the nature and illusions of unlimited government in the progressive State.
Here, in outline, is the liberal M.O.: Take a very good thing, like quality health care. Turn it into a right, which only centralized government can claim to provide equally and affordably and—the biggest whopper—excellently to all. Refer as little as possible to the plain logic that such a right implies a corresponding duty; that the duty to pay for this new right's provision must fall on someone; and that the rich, always defined as someone with greater income than you, cannot possibly pay for it all by themselves. Ignore even more fervently that this right, held as a social entitlement, implies a duty to accept only as much and as good health care as society (i.e., government) allows or, ideally, as can be given equally to everyone. Having advertised such care as effectively free to every user, because the duty to pay is separated as much as possible from the right to enjoy the benefit, profess amazement that usage soars, thereby multiplying costs and degrading the quality of care. Blame Republicans for insufficient funding and thus for the painful necessity to increase taxes and cut benefits in order to protect the right to universal health care, which is now a program. Run against those hard-hearted Republicans, and win.
That, at least, is the classic script of liberal governance. With a magician's indirection, it mesmerizes the public with new rights that seem almost free and unalienable, and then poof, it explains that these are positive rights pure and simple, which have to be paid for and are subject to diminution or even abolition by ordinary statute law. When FDR spoke of the second Bill of Rights, he made it sound as though they would be added to the Constitution, as the old Bill of Rights was. In fact, the new socio-economic rights were added only to the small-c constitution, i.e., the mutable structures of contemporary governance, and so are subject to change at any time. Thus an evolving constitution, and supposedly permanent new rights, may come into fatal collision. To speak candidly, the essence and appeal of the modern liberal State depend on the artful misdirection of public opinion—on half-truths that are hard to distinguish from lies, nobly told, doubtless, in the liberals' own view.
To overcome the contradictions of Big Government, liberals cheerfully offer Bigger Government. Consider the present case. Medicare and Medicaid are going broke. Doctor Obama prescribes a brand new, expensive health care program, which the Democrats cannot figure out how to fund, to cure the ills of the existing system. A third deficit-laden program to save two already verging on bankruptcy? The reality is that massive middle-class tax increases lie just over the horizon, along with draconian cuts in benefits, which will come partly disguised by long waiting lists, rationing of care, and shrinking investment in new drugs and technologies. Obama is betting that the socialist ethic of solidarity, of shared pain, can be made to prevail over democratic outrage at broken promises, shoddy services, and diminished liberty.
The Conservative Challenge
Will conservatives let him get away with it? So far their best arguments have highlighted the enormous cost of his proposals, added to the enormous and still growing costs of the stimulus bill and financial bailouts; the magnitude of the tax increases needed to fund Obama's spending; and the predictable and abysmal drop in the quality, variety, and innovativeness of American health care if the Democrats' plan passes. These are excellent arguments, which may be powerful enough to sink his health care plan and impair the rest of his domestic agenda. Then again they may not, and in either case they aren't sufficient to the larger task of reinvigorating American conservatism as a positive intellectual and political force, as the animating spirit of a New Republican Party.
To rise to this grander challenge we must rise above the conservatism of the past two decades, and in certain respects above that of the past half-century. One of the most interesting aspects of Obama is his determination to contest conservatism's grip on the American political tradition; he wants especially to recruit Abraham Lincoln and the American Founders to his side. He intends to claim the title deeds of American patriotism as Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, preparing the way for a new New Deal coalition to rule our politics for the next generation or two. Conservatives can't allow him to succeed at this cynical revisionism, which means we have to make the case for our own understanding of, and fidelity to, American principles.
Here there is vast room for improvement, and dire need for relearning. A return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution requires something like a revolution not only against modern liberalism but also within modern conservatism. Affronted by Obama's ambitions, a few conservatives here and there already have begun to clamor for their state's secession from the Union, a remedy that is about as un-Lincolnian and anti-Republican (not to mention boneheaded) as any imaginable. In the same vein, restive Republicans have started to invoke the Tenth Amendment's guarantee of reserved rights to the states. Whatever its merits, the Tenth Amendment's misuse in the defense of segregation in the 1950s and '60s has ignoble connotations that are, shall we say, particularly distracting when the amendment is to be applied against the first black president.
These misfires recall the disagreements and dead ends within the conservative movement prior to the Reagan Revolution. A tendency to defend the antebellum South and its radical view of states' rights—a view that made states' rights more fundamental than human or natural rights in the American constitutional order—cropped up on both the traditionalist and libertarian sides of the movement, and still does. Others imagined conservatism to be a defense of agrarianism, or an attempt to resurrect the medieval respublica Christiana, or the last episode of the French Revolution, in which its opponents would finally expunge all abstract doctrines of equality and revolution from our political life.
American conservatism stands or falls, however, by its allegiance to the American Revolution and Founding, even as modern liberalism really began, in the Progressive era, with a condemnation and rejection of America's revolutionary and constitutional principles.
Reagan himself seemed well aware of the innermost character of American conservatism. Despite his talk of fusing economic and social conservatives together into a new synthesis, in his most important speeches he regarded the two as already united by a patriotic attachment to founding principles. He invoked these principles brilliantly in stirring indictments of the Left's worldview. In his 1964 speech "A Time for Choosing" he said presciently:
[I]t doesn't require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people. What does it mean whether you hold the deed or the title to your business or property if the government holds the power of life or death over that business or property? …Every businessman has his own tale of harassment. Somewhere a perversion has taken place. Our natural, inalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.
And elsewhere in "The Speech," as it came to be called, he framed a fateful choice: shall we "believe in our capacity for self-government," he asked, or shall we "abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves"?
It is necessary to reground our conservatism in those revolutionary principles, but it will not be sufficient. Although conservatives cannot remedy America's problems without them, our principles need to be explained in a contemporary idiom and applied prudently to our present circumstances. That requires, for want of a more comprehensive word, statesmanship.
For the problems that face us now are the ones that Reagan helped to diagnose but did not come close to solving, particularly the deeply intractable problem of what to do about the liberal State. It has grown up among us for so long and has entwined itself so tightly around the organs of American government that it seems impossible to remove it completely without risking fatal harm to the patient. And in any case the patient's wishes must be conscientiously consulted on the matter, and he seems rather content with his present condition. Yet the spirit of unlimited government and the spirit of limited government cannot permanently endure in the same nation, either.
Bear in mind, of course, that the worst thing about Big Government is the reasons given for it, which always point to more and more programs, to government unlimited in its power and designs. Some—not all—of the agencies and departments established under its rubric may be tolerable, and a few even good. That's one reason the conservative task is so challenging. It requires not only discriminating in theory between the proper and improper functions of government, but also examining in practice the good and bad that government programs do, the second-best purposes they fulfill, the political costs and benefits of altering or abolishing them. All of these need to be elements of a long-term conservative strategy—"a program of action based on political principle"—to reform fundamentally the federal government and its programs.
Though unwinding the damage that has already been done to liberty and constitutional government will take time, we have to insist right now that no further damage, particularly the egregious sort promised by the Obama Administration, be permitted. The liberal State has always operated at the borders of constitutionality—often crossing them. But the president seeks to conquer and annex whole new provinces of unconstitutionality: to trample underfoot the rights of property, e.g., in the rush to hand control of Chrysler to his union allies; to compass the health care, housing, energy, automobile, and banking industries under close, indefinite, and highly personal political control; to so extend the tentacles of government as to grip more and more Americans in an unhealthy, unsafe, and unrelenting dependence on the federal establishment and its partisan masters.
If we were ever prone to think that after the Reagan Revolution conservatives faced only second- or third-order issues, we should by now be disabused of that comforting illusion. All of conservatism's past victories and defeats have brought us to the threshold of another epic struggle, a battle for America's soul, a battle that will determine whether free government will survive.
This essay is part of the Taube American Values Series, made possible by the Taube Family Foundation.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.