The Spectacle Blog

The Trouble With Big Government Conservatism

By on 5.16.08 | 12:27PM

Shortly before debating our publisher Al Regnery on Laura Ingraham's show yesterday, David Frum posted the following:

Here's the problem: All the data I've seen suggests that Republicans would be in even more trouble today if they had followed a more principled line. That's exactly why they strayed from principle in the first place! The bloated prescription drug benefit is popular! The expensive bits of No Child Left Behind? Popular! School choice and social security reform? Unpopular! Conservative social stances on Terri Schiavo, stem-cell research, etc.? Way unpopular!

Let's leave aside for a minute that he doesn't mention Iraq, which has done far more damage to Republicans than Social Security reform or even Terri Schiavo. Sometimes conservatives can afford to ignore the polls, I guess. Frum is right about what the polls show on the issues he does mention and why the Republicans have so frequently taken unprincipled positions, but I'm afraid that's not enough. What did the Medicare prescription drug benefit or No Child Left Behind really buy us? At most, arguably, Bush's second term. But the Democrats have already regained their traditional advantages on these issues. Republicans are already fumbling around looking for new issues with which to win elections. And the damage, both to the party and the country, of having enacted the prescription drug benefit while failing to reform Social Security has been done.

Big government conservatism has so far been like Rockefeller Republicanism: Helpful to individual politicians who espouse it in the right political conditions, unhelpful to the Republican Party as a whole. Whatever gains Bush made among seniors and parents worried about public schools in 2004, the GOP as a whole lost its brand as a fiscally responsible party while entering a bidding war with the Democrats that it cannot win. The Republicans end up getting blamed for the red ink without getting any credit for the programs they've built or expanded.

Frum is right about the need to identify conservative policies that will deal with the things the voters actually care about, like rising health care costs, middle-class income stagnation, and high energy prices. Those are different problems than the ones Ronald Reagan was elected to solve. But if conservatives do not find ways to deal with these issues on conservative terms rather than liberal terms, they will lose even if the occasional Bush or McCain wins.

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