Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Conservative Movement at the Crossroads

PGL from AngryBear notes that Max (of the newly and impressively redesigned MaxSpeak) linked to the Washington Post story in which I am quoted as follows:

"I'm inclined to support the Republican Party, but the question becomes, how much other stuff do I have to put up with to maintain that identification?" asked Andrew A. Samwick, a Dartmouth College economics professor who until recently was chief economist of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.
I served on the staff at CEA from July 2003 through June 2004. The story quotes me later with:

Samwick said the disenchantment of small-government conservatives has been building since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, which some saw as infringing on individual liberties, and the Medicare drug benefit, which created future government liabilities that exceed the entire projected Social Security shortfall.

"Some of these outcomes are really starting to alienate people who might be Republican because they are for limited government," Samwick said.
The story quotes me accurately. The trigger for me has been the fiscal policy, and the unfunded expansion of Medicare in particular. I don't have big problems with the Patriot Act or the faith-based programs. However, the quotes should not be construed to suggest that I wouldn't support the President's Social Security plan relative to the status quo or that I was particularly impressed with the challengers that the Democrats managed to put on the ticket the last time around.

I was interviewed about this topic on the Arnie Arnesen radio show this afternoon. Like a lot of people, neither of the two political parties line up particularly well with all of my views. That's been true for a while with the Democrats for me. It's a newer phenomenon with the Republicans--as they have stood less and less for limited government, which best summarizes my general view.

I think this issue is well captured in Newt Gingrich's recent white paper, with the same title as this post. (The Speaker visited campus as a guest of the Rockefeller Center last month and presented these ideas in a Government course.) He's been out of elected office for long enough now that he can "campaign" as an outsider. Here's what he had to say in the paper's introduction:
For almost a half century, from the early effort of William Buckley and National Review and the publication of Conscience of a Conservativeby Barry Goldwater, the conservative movement has been a dynamic, defining force in American politics and government.

Now at the very moment that members of the movement are in control of the White House, the House and Senate, and many governorships and state legislatures, conservatives find themselves at a crossroads.

Elected officials find themselves caught between explaining and defending the institutions over which they preside and the impulse to continue to criticize and change those institutions. The longer people are in office the more likely they tend to defend the very bureaucracies and the very policies which they may once have campaigned against. The impulse to force a transformation of those institutions is gradually overwhelmed by an impulse to preside. Presiding over an existing bureaucracy is not the same as forcing the creation of a new form and style of government.

Should the conservative movement be:

1. A movement at the grassroots dedicated to insisting on transformation of government into an institution capable of meeting the challenges of a rapidly changing 21st century world within the values of smaller government, lower taxes, stronger national security, greater individual freedom and strengthening American civilization as a unique “Creator endowed” system of human liberty; or,

2. A national and state capital- focused system of defending whatever today’s compromises with the old order of liberal big government requires because after all the people presiding over the system are people we support.

To state it more directly, should we be comfortable with presiding over the bureaucracies, special interests, and spending of the liberal government we have inherited or must we insist on transforming that obsolete system into a new, more dynamic, and significantly different system of governing?
You can read more about Newt's ideas in his new book, Winning the Future.A lot of the book makes a lot of sense. He would prefer that the Republican Party focus on governmental transformation and reduced spending, but he makes an appeal to the religious constituency as well. However, we can also see dissension from those in the Republican Party who wouldn't necessarily agree with Newt's proposals any more than they would with the Administration's policies. Consider Christine Todd Whitman, and her new book, It's My Party, Too.She wants more fiscal balance and almost everything else on the party's current agenda except for the "social fundamentalist" issues.

So the question becomes, "What does the Republican Party look like when it emerges from this internal contest? Which of these politicians represents the core constituency's ideas in 2008--Bush, Gingrich, or Whitman?"

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7 comments:

PGL said...

I learned something new. I did not know you were on the CEA - and I appreciate your comments here about small government conservatives. Note the Fortune interview with Greg Mankiw - where Dr. Mankiw tried to suggest the Bush Administration had a small government philosophy. Maybe some on the CEA did - but as Brad DeLong noted, not everyone in that White House agreed with your principled positions.

Bibamus said...

A whole post on the aspects of the modern Republican party that you find distasteful that only contains a passing reference to the "social fundamentalist" issues? I'm willing to give you a pass because perhaps you think it goes without saying that on social issues, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. But it still strikes me as odd. I would probably be a (moderate) Republican myself were it not for the party's position on social issues. I mean, your party's slogan for 2004 might just as well have been "Vote Republican - We Hate Gays!" Or is this something we aren't supposed to talk about in polite company?

Don't get me wrong, the fiscal policy is bad. But it ain't everything.

Andrew Samwick said...

Two quick pieces of followup:

To PGL, I was "at" CEA, working as the chief economist on the staff that supported the members (Mankiw, Rosen, Forbes) who were the Presidential appointees "on" the CEA.

To Bibamus, I was being forthright in saying that I don't have big problems with the faith-based programs. The presence of religion in the public sphere today doesn't scare me as much as the process by which religion is being driven from the public sphere today.

The big exception on the "things that characterize the national Republican party that appear to reflect some influential groups' religious beliefs," as you correctly surmised, is gay marriage. The key word is marriage, not gay, and I believe the correct conservative position on gay marriage is to support it. That means introducing it as legislation at the state level and ensuring that gay couples have the same legal rights and obligations as straight couples.

Perhaps more on these issues in later posts.

Roland Patrick said...

"The presence of religion in the public sphere today doesn't scare me as much as the process by which religion is being driven from the public sphere today. "

Yes, a verrry much underappreciated point. As well as one that allows natural coalitions between libertarian-small government-economists and evangelicals and other religiously oriented people.

Robert Schwartz said...

This is my prediction on the future of the major American Political parties. It is not based on what things are like now but on what the structural imperatives of the two party system are.

First, the existence of a two party system in the US is dictated by the single member district, winner take all nature of American legislative and Executive elections. This will not change without a major constitutional change, which will not be forthcoming.

Second, because of the complex thicket of election laws it is almost impossible to start a new party and have it succeed unless one of the old parties collapses. State election laws confer tremendous advantages on the "legacy parties." That is a major reason the Republican party did not disappear during the years between 1932 and 1980.

Third, ideas count, but the student of history knows which ones count more than others.

Some ideas just will not produce winning political parties in the United States. Socialism is one of them. It didn't have much appeal when it was a fresher idea than it is now. And it is a dead-bang looser now. A socialist party carries the upper left side of Manhattan, the the foggier reaches of the Bay Area, and Cambridge. 0.25% nationally. Forget it. In the end,in order to be a viable political party in the United States, the Democrats must abandon socialism (a/k/a liberalism, progresiveism, multiculturalism, postmoderism, etc.)

Populism is another. Put a stake through William Jennings Bryan's heart. Sexual minorities are a third. They are icky and a sure route to the basement.

What works in the US is the eternal American debate between Jefferson (small government, libertarian) and Hamilton (active pro-commercial government, communitarian). Both sides of the debate have been labeled conservative in the 20th century because both sides have opposed socialism and populism, but both sides have their traditionalist (true conservative) and revolutionary (true progressive) aspects. It is always thus in American politics.

In the last few years the Republicans have discovered that it is more fun to spend money than to be ideologically pure. Only an opposition party can be a small government/balanced budget party. Now that the Republican Party has won the 2004 election and consolidated its hold on Washington. My guess is that their native tendency will, perforce, be Hamiltonian as it will allow them to rationalize spending money and incurring debt, which is something the party in power always likes to do.

The Democrat party will adopt the attitudes of a party out of power. They will oppose budget deficits, new govt. programs, and expanded powers. To some extent they are already doing this. This being the case the Jeffersonian side is open for the Democrats. Small Government is a good slogan for an opposition party. A balanced budget will be a popular platform item. If the Democrats have a future it will be as the party of Jefferson, small government, balanced budget, states rights, isolationism, free trade, etc. It will be a somewhat difficult transition for them as they will have to abandon the New Deal, but lets face it – America is divided between those people who think that Herbert Hoover was the FBI dude and those who think that he invented the vacuum cleaner. OTOH, they will be able to argue civil liberties and states rights with a straight face.

Opposing governmental intrusion into private lives will allow them to rationalize their existing stands on issues such as abortion and drug legalization. Gay marriage -- get government out of the marriage business.

An isolationist foreign policy would seem to fit this pattern very well. It would also allow them to rationalize opposition to wars in Iraq and Vietnam on some basis other than pure anti-Americanism, which has poisoned the party so far. D's will embrace free trade but will be isolationist. R's will talk free trade, but will make deals for constituencies that D's will criticize. R's will be internationalist in the way Bush is, not like Kerry. The UN is doomed. Bushism has no use for the UN because it relies on the anglosphere and other willing allies (e.g. Japan) and the isolationist Democrats won't have anything to do with the UN either. Four blocks along the East River in NYC could be developed in to high rise condos worth hundreds of millions of Dollars.

The Democrats will adopt the slogan that government is best which governs least. They will talk about states rights. If the Democrats are willing to ditch their love affair with federal regulation, which should be no problem as they will not be running the agencies, the Libertarians will come over and provide them with an intellectual base. The Libertarians will be unhappy with the Republicans as the party in power. Libertarianism will probably displace socialism on college campuses. This means they are going to have to learn to love Murray Rothbard:-) It will be fun to watch, but it is the only way out for them.

There will be changes in the Democrats' constituency base. An permanent minority cannot be the party of government unions and trial lawyers. The Democrats will be useless to those groups, who will abandon them as rats abandon a sinking ship. Blacks, Jews and Hollywood who identify merely for the sake of identifying may stay. Hispanics, who will be trying to push ahead of Blacks on the ladder of success in American life, will probably find the Republican party more congenial. The could be a very marked Black/Hispanic split. So much for the Rainbow coalition theory.

Kenneth Almquist said...

"Republicans...have stood less and less for limited government"

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the Republicans don't stand for limited government at all? Federal spending grew at a modest rate under Clinton, and has exploded under Bush. There are non-economic measures of government, but I think Bush does poorly on these as well.

It seems to me that supporters of limited government ought to regret that Gore didn't win in 2000. Is there anything I'm missing?

Russil Wvong said...

The Economist's Lexington had an interesting column a couple weeks ago on Bill Frist. Frist was initially from the "patrician-cum-business wing" of the party, but he's now attempting to gain support from the religious right, in preparation for a presidential bid for 2008. This suggests that the religious right is in the ascendant.