The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism - The Objective Standard

In 1994, American voters elected Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in forty years. This ascent to power gave Newt Gingrich and his colleagues the opportunity to launch their “Republican Revolution” with its signature “Contract with America” platform. The election was said to mark the end of an era—the era of big government liberalism that had dominated American political life since the New Deal. After struggling for almost half a century to gain political power, the conservative movement finally seemed to have reached the political promised land.

In theory, the “Republican Revolution” proposed to “relimit” the powers of the federal government and to restore some of the basic principles and institutions of free-market economy. The preamble to the “Contract with America” pledged to the American people that the GOP would put an end to “government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.”1 The political goals of the Gingrich “revolutionaries” were not revolutionary in any meaningful sense, but they did promise to begin some necessary reforms. As a rule, the Gingrich Congress preferred less to more government controls.

In practice, the Republicans began to whittle away at the welfare state. Their first post-election budget proposed to eliminate three cabinet agencies (the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy) and more than 200 federal programs. Within a year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had reduced federal spending by almost $14 billion.2 Such early successes led even Bill Clinton to declare in his 1996 State of the Union address that the “era of big government is over.”3 A Republican Congress passed and Clinton signed far-reaching welfare reform legislation that promised to end “welfare as we know it.”4

By the end of the 1990s, America’s political fault line appeared to have moved considerably to the Right for the first time since the early 20th century. The advocates of limited government faced an historic opportunity to begin the process of dismantling the welfare state and deregulating the economy.

So how goes the Republican Revolution twelve years later? What is the state of the American political Right in 2006?

Judging by electoral results and political appearances, the Right is flourishing. For the first time since before the New Deal, the Republican Party controls all three branches of the federal government. There is a Republican in the White House surrounded by conservatives; Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate; and seven out of nine justices on the Supreme Court are appointees of Republican presidents. Republican grand strategist Karl Rove and several conservative pundits say that prospects look good for the GOP to become America’s “permanent majority.”

It is not just Republicans but conservative Republicans who are driving this train. As William Rusher, co-founder of the modern conservative movement, reports, the “conservative movement has come to dominate the Republican Party totally.”5 In other words, the Republican Party has finally purged itself of the moderate, non-ideological, country-club, Rockefeller Republicans that once dominated the party in the 1950s and ’60s. The conservative moment—the moment when conservative Republicans become America’s ruling class—has arrived.

For over forty years, ever since the Goldwater election debacle in 1964, conservatives have methodically pursued ideological control over the GOP. Now that they do control the Republican Party and all three branches of the federal government, what exactly have conservatives bequeathed to America? . . .


Endnotes

1 “Republican Contract with America,” http://www.house.gov/house/Contract/CONTRACT.html

2 Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Historical Tables, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 1996 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995), Table 8.2, p.126.

3 William Jefferson Clinton, State of the Union Address, 1996.

4 Remarks by President Clinton upon signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, August 22, 1996.

5 Editorial, Washington Times, June 10, 2003; Rusher quoted in Ralph Z. Hallow, “Conservative Lament,” Washington Times, August 24, 2003.

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6 The data included in this paragraph and the next two is drawn principally from: Stephen Slivinski, “The Grand Old Spending Party: How Republicans Became Big Spenders,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis, no. 543, May 3, 2005; and Brian M. Riedl, “Federal Spending—By the Numbers,” The Heritage Foundation, October 7, 2005.

7 Quoted in Eric Pfeffer, “Tax Foes Lament Later Arrival of 'Cost of Government Day,’” Washington Times, July 13, 2006.

8 Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (Shepherdsville, KY: Victor Publishing Co., 1960; reprint, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1990), p. 11 (page reference is to reprint edition).

9 Myron Magnet, “Compassionate Conservative or Cowboy Capitalist?”, City Journal, Spring 2005, emphasis added.

10 Myron Magnet, “What Is Compassionate Conservatism,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1999.

11 Ibid.

12 “A Blueprint for New Beginnings: A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities” 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/usbudget/blueprint/bud07.html.

13 Stephen Goldsmith, “What Compassionate Conservatism Is—and Is Not,” Hoover Digest, http://www.hooverdigest.org/004/goldsmith.html, adapted from a speech given at the Hoover Institution, April 30, 2000.

14 Myron Magnet, “What Is Compassionate Conservatism,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1999.

15 Michael Knox Beran, “Conservative Compassion Vs. Liberal Pity,” City Journal, Summer 2003.

16 Stephen Goldsmith, “American Conservatism: The 'Compassion’ Factor,” Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2003, and “What Compassionate Conservatism Is—and Is Not,” Hoover Digest, http://www.hooverdigest.org/004/goldsmith.html, adapted from a speech given at the Hoover Institution, April 30, 2000.

17 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourse, ed. Roger D. Masters, translated by Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), pp. 130–33; Emile or On Education, introduction, translation, and notes by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 121–131.

18 For an excellent discussion on this phenomenon, see Clifford Orwin, “Moist Eyes: Political Tears from Rousseau to Clinton,” AEI Bradley Lecture Series, April 14, 1997.

19 David Brooks, “One Nation Conservatism,” The Weekly Standard, September 13, 1999.

20 Jim Wallis, “The Death of Compassionate Conservatism,” Sojourners, November 7, 2005, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=sojomail.display&issue=051107.

21 “Remarks by President Bush in Announcement of the Faith-based Initiative,” January 29, 2001, emphasis added.

22 “President’s Remarks on Labor Day,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/09/20030901.html, September 1, 2003.

23 Stephen Goldsmith, “American Conservatism: The 'Compassion’ Factor,” Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2003.

24 President George W. Bush, December 12, 2002, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/12/20021212-3.html.

25 Quoted in Amy Sullivan, “An Initiative for the GOP Faithful,” The New Republic, April 3, 2006.

26 Senator Rick Santorum, “The Conservative Future: Compassion,” Townhall.com, Nov. 17, 2005.

27 Paul O’Neill interviewed on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” PBS, June 5, 2002. Transcript at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/jan-june02/oddcouple_6-5.html.

28 George W. Bush, March 22, 2002, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/03/ 20020322-1.html.

29 Richard Perle quoted at: http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/neocon/neoconQuotes.html; Elizabeth Drew, “The Neocons in Power,” The New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003; Howard Dean quoted in U. S. News & World Report, August 11, 2003.

30 David Brooks quoted in Sam Tannenhaus, “When Left Turns Right, It Leaves the Middle Muddled,” New York Times, September 16, 2000.

31 Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” Weekly Standard, August 25, 2003.

32 David Brooks, “The Era of Small Government Is Over,” Weekly Standard, October 2, 2000; and “How to Reinvent the GOP, The New York Times, August 29, 2004; Brooks quoted in Sheldon Richman, “Four Cheers for Capitalism,” The Future of Freedom Foundation, March 1997.

33 Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Dutton, 1963), p. 209; Theodore Roosevelt, “The New Nationalism,” p. 34; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 3, 1933.

34 Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” Weekly Standard, August 25, 2003, emphasis added.

35 Herbert Croly, Promise of American Life, p. 152.

36 Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 27, ix.

37 Irving Kristol, “Socialism: An Obituary for an Idea,” Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, (New York: Basic Books, 1983), pp. 116–117.

38 Irving Kristol, “Of Decadence and Tennis Flannels,” Two Cheers for Capitalism, pp. 237–38.

39 See Wall Street Journal, June 14, 1993.

40 Irving Kristol, “A Conservative Welfare State,” Wall Street Journal, June 14, 1993; Ben Wattenberg, “A Response to George Gilder’s 'Why I Am Not a Neo-Conservative,’” National Review, March 5, 1982, emphasis added.

41 Irving Kristol, “American Conservatism 1945–1995” The Public Interest, Fall 1995, p. 88.

42 Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 116; Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p. 119.

43 See Mark Gerson, The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture War (New York: Madison Books, 1997), p. 201.

44 Nathan Glazer, contribution to “Neoconservatism: Pro and Con,” Partisan Review, vol. 4, 1980, p. 499. The neoconservative sociologist and long-time friend of Kristol and Glazer, Daniel Bell, has described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” Quoted in Peter Steinfels, The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 165.

45 Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p. 118, emphasis added.

46 Irving Kristol, “A Conservative Welfare State,” Wall Street Journal, June 14, 1993.

47 Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p. 119, emphasis added.

48 Ibid., pp. 116–20.

49 Irving Kristol, “The End Game of the Welfare State,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1989; and “The Trouble With Republicans, Wall Street Journal, April 22, 1988.

50 Irving Kristol, “When It’s Wrong to Be Right,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 1993, emphasis added.

51 Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p. 174.

52 Ibid., pp. 2021.

53 William Kristol, “The Majority Party,” Weekly Standard, September 13, 2004.

54 Irving Kristol, “End Game of the Welfare State,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1989.

55 Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p. 222.

56 Ibid., p. 118.

57 Citizens Against Government Waste, “Pork Barrel Report,” website: http://www.cagw.org/site/PageServer?pagename=reports_porkbarrelreport. See also, Jessica Shoemaker, “The Coming Fiscal Hurricane,” Government Waste Watch, Fall/Winter 2005, and Stephen Slivinski, “The Grand Old Spending Party: How Republicans Became Big Spenders,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis, no. 543, May 3, 2005.

58 Joseph Antos and Jagadeesh Gokhale, “Medicare Prescription Drugs: Medical Necessity Meets Fiscal Insanity,” Cato Institute Briefing Paper, no. 91, February 9, 2005.

59 Robert Pear, “Medicare Debate Focuses on Merits of Private Plans,” New York Times, June 9, 2003.

60 George F. Will, “A Questionable Kind of Conservatism,” Washington Post, July 24, 2003.

61 William F. Buckley, “God Bless Godlessness,” National Review Online, January 30, 2001, emphasis added.

62 David Brooks, “The Savior of the Right,” New York Times, October 23, 2005.

63 Terry Eastland, “Mr. Compassionate Conservative,” Weekly Standard, August 7, 2006; Riley quoted in Lisa San Pascual, “The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama,” Religion in the News, 2003.

64 Fred Barnes, “'Big Government Conservatism’: George Bush Style,” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2003.

65 Patrick Chisholm, “Triumph of the Redistributionist Left,” Christian Science Monitor,†January 23, 2006.

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