Alan Stang: Red From The Start…
Posted on Monday, November 30, 2009 11:48:15 PM by rabscuttle385
Many conservative politicians, radio hosts, and pundits have repeatedly stated their shared belief that the Republican Party “lost its way” prior to the 2008 election. In their minds, the entire conservative movement believed in limited government and low spending and was simply corrupted by absolute power. They may be surprised to learn that this is not the case at all. The fact that party leadership turned its back on limited government and low spending was entirely predictable. In fact, it should have been expected.
The conservative movement is not homogeneous. Rather, the movement consists of fiscal conservatives, limited government conservatives, libertarians, pro-business conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, and others. When Democrats control government, these disparate conservative groups share many common goals. They all wish to reduce the power of government and they all wish to reduce taxes and spending. As a result, they usually form a very effective alliance while out of power.
We saw this in 1993 and 1994. Conservatives rallied around core beliefs like limited government, term limits, Second Amendment rights, and low taxes. Party leadership rolled out the Contract with America to universal conservative acclaim. Conservatives all rallied around statements like, “guns don’t kill people…people kill people,” while GOP candidates gladly signed term limit pledges and Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. United, the GOP won control of the House and the Senate in 1994, and later won the presidency in 2000.
This coalition remained united in opposition to President Clinton through the remainder of the 1990s. George W. Bush’s presidential victory in 2000 gave the GOP total control of the federal government and, unfortunately, sometimes nothing ruins success like success. Far from losing their way, factions within the GOP simply asserted their own visions of conservatism.
The first casualty was any support – beyond empty rhetoric – for limited government. This should not have been surprising. Some within the conservative movement believed as a matter of principle that the federal government should be limited in power. Others, especially leaders of the social conservatives, simply wished for the federal government to be weaker when Democrats were in the majority.
Many social conservatives were unhappy with changes that occurred in America since the 1960s. Rather than relying on changing the hearts and minds of Americans within the context of a free society or advocating for a small federal government that would not harm traditional values, their national leadership instead believed the GOP-controlled federal government could and should actively bring about the changes they sought.
Moving these social conservative activist bills through Congress required compromises within the movement and with the opposition. Under these conditions, fiscal discipline was another early casualty. After all, an active government costs money. Additionally, passing bills desired by social conservatives often required some Democratic votes, and that often meant funding programs those Democrats wanted in exchange.
To keep the conservative coalition together, most Republican politicians simply kowtowed to the demands of the James Dobsons and the Pat Robertsons of the movement on the assumption that other conservatives had nowhere else to go. These politicians liked being in power, so they naturally publicly supported the entire social conservative agenda, as defined by the movement’s national leadership.
This was evident in the online poker issue. Focus on the Family’s founder and former leader Dr. James Dobson felt so strongly about stopping adults from playing poker in their own homes, on their own computers, that he insisted on having the GOP push anti-gaming legislation through Congress. He also insisted on a plank in the GOP party platform advocating a national prohibition of online poker.
The legislation Dobson advocated forced America’s banks to act as an unpaid arm of the Department of Justice. It required banks to screen transactions and to block those related to “unlawful Internet gambling,” a term the Department of Justice was not even able to define for the banks ordered to enforce the act. Needless to say, this legislation is 180 degrees from limited government conservatism.
In a classic “be careful of what you wish for, you just might get it” scenario, many Americans, particularly younger swing voters, adamantly opposed the big government, big spending programs of social conservatives. In fact, many developed a strongly negative view of the big government nanny-state instincts of the “new” GOP, as was evidenced by the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections.
In early 2008, poker players and Internet freedom supporters wrote to the GOP platform committee to oppose inclusion of the Dobson-backed plank advocating a national online poker prohibition. This should not have been a surprise, as the one million member Poker Players Alliance was loudly demanding poker rights. The draft platform committee heard the public loud and clear and removed the plank, citing the need for those votes on Election Day. The full committee, ignoring any pretense of limited government principles, responded by restoring the anti-poker plank. Then, despite the fact that 2008 was already shaping up to be a tough election year for conservatives, the Family Research Council nevertheless released a press release praising the addition of this plank that unnecessarily and gleefully taunted the plank’s many opponents.
What did national leaders of social conservatives get for their efforts? America now has a Congress more likely to pass legislation that licenses and regulates online poker, which I see as one of the few positive outcomes of the 2008 election, but we also have a Congress that is working against the interests of all conservatives. Dobson and McClusky fought for things they saw as “nice to have” rather than the “must-haves,” and they lost both. Not a well-played hand on the part of Dobson and McClusky.
Social conservatism under some of its recent leaders, often morphs into active, big government conservatism. It seeks power to change society. In its current form, it will seek to drive the conservatism movement toward big government conservatism whenever the conservative movement gains power. And, every time the conservative movement embraces big government, voters will reject it.
There is a way to break this cycle. The conservative movement must embrace a consistent set of principles. We either believe in limited government or we do not. We either believe in low taxes – and low spending – or we do not. If we stick to this, we can win elections and stay in power. Leaders of social conservatives would be wise to embrace this as well. Rather than seeking to force changes via big government, then having to fight the big government they helped to create when out of power, social conservatives would be better served with leadership that supported a smaller federal government that kept its nose far from our religious and personal liberties. After all, our values don’t come from Washington, nor do they come from our laws. It’s time to loosen the shackles on the American people and trust them to do what is right.
Alan Stang: Red From The Start…