No matter what ails the Republican Party, social conservatives will ultimately be held responsible. When Republicans lose elections, it is because the religious right’s extremism on abortion or same-sex marriage terrified jittery suburban moderates. When Republicans win, it is because they cynically manipulated crazed red-state fundamentalists — who will surely force the GOP to overreach and lose the next election.
So it was probably inevitable that social conservatives would be blamed for the GOP’s high-spending, big-government morass. Much of the finger-pointing has come from pundits with center-right leanings who find conservative moral issues off-putting and embarrassing at best and a throwback to pre-Enlightenment zealotry at worst. In their telling, everything was fine among the small-government Republicans until the religious right came and spoiled the party.
Consider the Economist‘s Lexington column, where social conservatism and runaway federal spending are always symptoms of the same problem. A May piece concluded with praise for Ronald Reagan because “he never allowed the Christian right to gain too much power at the expense of the Goldwater right” (Barry Goldwater himself might have disputed this observation).
Andrew Sullivan is another forceful exponent of this theory. Since the Clinton years, he has been accusing religious conservatives of discarding limited government, along with “privacy and restraint, modesty and constitutionalism,” in favor of “big-government conservatism and old-fashioned puritanism.” Under President Bush, it’s “big government moralising, big government spending and big government inefficiency.” George Will, who is hardly a moral libertine, recently wrote of the “kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people” and warned that “limited-government conservatives will disassociate from a Republican Party more congenial to overreaching social conservatives.”
Even commentators who are more sympathetic to social conservatives concede that the rise of the values voter has helped produce a more government-friendly GOP. But this new conventional wisdom confuses correlation with causation. Over the past decade, Republican politicians have become less interested in reducing state power and more interested in wielding it.
The anti-statism of Beltway Republicans peaked in 1995-96, when the Gingrich-led Congress made a serious effort to trim federal spending. But the adverse public reaction to the government shutdown and attempts to restrain Medicare expenditures curbed their enthusiasm for further belt-tightening. The late ’90s surpluses — the result of the fortuitous convergence of discretionary spending control, the peace dividend, supply-side capital-gains tax cuts and the dot-com boom — caused it to evaporate almost entirely.
Since then, the GOP majority has increasingly indulged in more traditional pork-barrel politics. But this is hardly the fault of social conservatives. Few of the 6,300 earmarks in the $286.4 billion transportation bill were designed to appeal to them. The same is true of the projects folded into the agriculture and energy bills.
In fact, there isn’t much of a social-conservative mark on any of the Republicans’ recent big-ticket spending items. The prescription-drug benefit — the largest entitlement since the Great Society — was an overture to senior citizens and centrists. Economic conservatives have always objected to its cost, but many went along with the concept on the grounds that it would make free-market Medicare reform more palatable.
Some were willing to make a similar trade-off in education policy, supporting the mandates and increased spending that No Child Left Behind and other Bush administration policies eventually entailed in order to win vouchers and school choice. Again the price was significant — the Department of Education grew by almost 70 percent between 2002 and 2004 — and again social conservatives had little to do with it.
The congressional Republicans who are the least supportive of tax and budget cuts also tend to be among the most socially liberal. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), bete noire of pro-lifers, is an example. In 2004, National Journal rated him a 58 percent liberal on social issues — and a 52 percent liberal on economics.
It isn’t a socially conservative senator who is blocking the extension of the 2003 investment tax cuts. It is pro-choice, socially liberal Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). In 2001, Congress ended up passing a smaller tax cut largely to appease Northeastern Republican moderates like Specter and Snowe, and it was still too large for socially liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) to vote for.
By contrast, culturally conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) led an unsuccessful bid to revoke millions of dollars in pork-barrel spending. An enterprising blogger at RedState.org noted that not a single senator who opposed the federal marriage amendment or cosponsored the most recent bill promoting federally funded embryonic stem-cell research — both issues being fair barometers of social conservatism — voted for the Coburn amendment.
Where, then, does the charge that social conservatives drive big-government conservatism come from? It is certainly fair to say that social issues have brought a large number of voters into the GOP who oppose abortion or favor school prayer but don’t care about balanced budgets or tax cuts. The Pew Research Center has famously designated them “Pro-Government Conservatives.” But many who vote Republican on the basis of law-and-order and national security concerns can also be so described.
It’s true that social conservatives have in recent years become more comfortable using government power (they tend, for example, to be weak federalists). But so have most other conservatives. Big-government conservatism was originally conceived to expand the appeal of ownership-society ideas, not win over the social right. If economic conservatives are willing to flirt with expanded benefits and higher spending to win free-market reforms, it is hardly surprising that social conservatives similarly adopt big-government means.
The GOP’s campaign appeals to social conservatives have also changed. In 1994, conservative candidates described government as an aggressor against traditional values and ran against the National Endowment for the Arts, federal education bureaucrats, and the pre-reform welfare system. Today, they portray government as a protector of traditional values and campaign for such policies as faith-based initiatives. But this is a symptom of the party’s big-government drift, not its cause.
Republicans would probably be more supportive of limited government if moral traditionalists hadn’t helped them win power. Yet that’s the one contribution the social conservatives’ critics on the right don’t seem to mind.
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