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January 21, 2008

Why is Conservative Anti-Government Stance Losing? Because It’s Wrong


There is, we’re led to believe, something of a crisis of conscience right now for the nation’s conservatives. The future for their movement has drifted away from the influence of Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” speech toward something where government has a role – an active role – in promoting not just morality but also things like environmental protection and social justice.


Evidence for this, we’re told, comes from the surprising success of ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee this primary season. While John McCain emerges as the establishment candidate, Huckabee’s populist message has won surprising support from people engaged by his message of positive government and populist economics.


This may well be true, but perhaps the real point to be made is that the conservative movement has deluded itself for 25 years about the source of its election successes.


Two years ago, when Democrats retook control of Congress, conservative pundits had the answer for it – the Republican Congress wasn’t conservative enough. Things like scandal, disaster in Iraq and ineffective bitterly partisan squabbling on Capitol Hill weren’t responsible. It was voter outrage that the GOP had turned its back on Reagan-style small government.


There might be, among conservatives, great disenchantment over the fact that neither Congress nor the president showed much interest in ideological purity. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that the nation as a whole – or even key demographics in close contests that tipped to the Democrats – were so exorcised and outraged by the Bridge to Nowhere that they flipped control of Congress to a different party.


Reagan’s comments about government being the problem, during the 1990s, turned into the “drown government in a bathtub” movement, led by conservative activist Grover Norquist. Norquist had a nice run, and helped make it look like a lot more people were interested in dismantling government and privatizing everything than really were. Mostly, people want government that is effective and spends money wisely, rather than no government at all.


The death of the movement comes not at the hands of young conservatives buying into Mike Huckabee’s line, but because the notion of no government at all has been exposed as a just plain terrible idea. Most people understand this. Most people also think that drowning government in a bathtub is a neat slogan that shouldn’t be applied to government programs that benefit them personally or that they think are important.


There is an obvious reason for this – people understand that it is the result that matters most, and not the approach. Small government might help shape how we address, say, poverty, but most people know that if government has been shrunk in a way that takes food off their tables, then they haven’t been helped by a smaller government. And, of course, what people most want from government is to be helped when they need it.


If the conservative movement faces a cloudy future, it should look less at the people likely to drive it, and instead to the failures tied to a lax approach to government. The reason people are embracing positive government rather than no government is because everyone knows how the no-government approach unfolded along the gulf coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. In those places, right after Hurricane Katrina, Reagan’s words rang more true than ever . . . government was the problem.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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