In my column over on the main site today, I argue that big-government conservatism is a political loser for the Republican Party as a whole (even if it certain individual Republicans might be able to ride it to an election win here or there). But I’m under no illusion that activist government itself is unpopular or that there is a majority clamoring for the Constitution to be restored. Anyone who has ever spent a Sunday morning groggily fielding telephone calls from C-SPAN viewers demanding government solutions to problems of varying degrees of severity — even when calling in on the Republican line! — knows that there isn’t a very big audience for patient explanations of the limited government concept.
But I don’t think that means Republicans can simply become the more efficient welfare party. For one, the people most eager for an expansion of government services have no more patience for arguments about how to structure a Detroit bailout responsibly than they do for the idea that one shouldn’t occur at all or that the concept is unconstitutional. Second, for the past seventy years the American people have turned to one party when they want new government programs. That party is the Democrats. That’s not changing anytime soon even if we let a thousand Kristols bloom. For all his big spending and compassion, George W. Bush is still perceived as a guy who was too miserly with taxpayer dollars when it came to meeting the people’s needs. As Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind both prove, these are bidding wars the Republicans cannot win.
If conservatives can’t change the terms of the debate, it will be very difficult to elect Republican candidates. And, if they have to govern as Democrat Lite, probably almost pointless to do so.
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