April 25, 1996

April 25, 1996 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED042596f: Are Convervatives Winning or Losing?

When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, many Americans thought it was time to dance on the grave of big government. Instead, conservatives themselves bogged down in a bitter eight-year political war with dozens of special interests -- from farmers to welfare workers -- who depend on big government for their livelihoods.

When conservatives took control of Congress in 1994, many of us again thought we had scored a victory for smaller government. Wrong again. President Clinton gave as good -- or better -- than he got from the new Congress. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, over the past year big government has continued to get bigger.

It wasn't until the president's 1996 State of the Union declaration that "the era of big government is over," that I truly began to believe conservatives finally had won. After all, when an opponent is forced to mouth words he doesn't believe, words that go 180 degrees in the direction opposite his political leanings, in short, the very words his opponents have been saying, this is when he has lost the war -- at least the rhetorical war -- the war of ideas.

But conservatives will have to fight tooth and nail for every inch of territory they gain in the next few years. Liberalism has not surrendered; and we'd be naive to expect it to. After all, it's just too much fun spending other people's money.

In fact, those Americans who were really paying attention had a rude awakening following President Clinton's grand declaration about big government's demise. Untrue to his word, the president's first request to the returning Congress was for $8 billion in new spending for the current fiscal year. His fiscal year 1997 budget offered more of the same: a $358 billion increase over the levels proposed in Congress' seven-year balanced budget plan.

All these efforts will have to be strenuously opposed, and in years to come, gleefully overturned. In the meantime, conservatives will have to buckle down and think about what it means to govern. After all, the Republican Congress has encountered some rough going of late. Is this any surprise? Legislative governance -- that is, passing laws that do what you want them to do -- is not easy. It's like trying to herd cats.

Conservatives are unaccustomed to running Congress; they've been backbenchers for decades. This requires an adjustment. It requires a period of learning. There is nothing inherently disgraceful in the failure that comes from such learning -- except not learning.

Yes, the conservative agenda articulated in the House GOP's Contract with America remains largely unfulfilled. Perhaps too much was attempted. Perhaps compromise was dismissed too easily in the fervent desire for real change. Perhaps the message became too unfocused and thus susceptible to redefinition by the special interests and the media. These are understandable, forgivable mistakes. I say learn and move on.

What do conservatives need to learn? For starters, when they campaign against each other in primaries, they have to stop attacking other conservatives for espousing great conservative ideas. For example, the defining issue of the 1996 presidential campaign should have been -- and still could be -- the flat tax. One candidate, so intent upon defeating flat-tax candidate Steve Forbes that he was willing to say practically anything, called the flat tax idea "nonsense."

Tell that to Hong Kong, whose flat-tax economy has been the most consistently expanding in the world for the last 30 years!

The flat tax is one of the most marketable, most urgently needed -- by Americans of all income levels -- ideas conservatives have proposed in decades. Yet, in their pursuit of political gain, conservative candidates obscured the issue in a flurry of flying fur.

Conservatism's message has been confused in the past year, by the rough and tumble of Washington politics. But that can be remedied.

Liberalism's message, on the other hand, has become utterly irrelevant to America's aspirations and values. It is beyond redemption. That's why liberals have to cloak themselves in conservative rhetoric just to get a hearing. This bodes well for the future of America.

The principles of conservatism -- free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense -- don't change in the middle of a presidential election or a budget battle. They don't change whether Republicans are in power or Democrats are in power or whether that power is shared, as is presently the case.

I am optimistic about conservatism because what we believe is enduring. I am optimistic because liberalism is a disaster that can no longer be disguised. I am optimistic because conservative prescriptions are based on sound economic principles and a realistic understanding of human nature, not wishful thinking. And I am optimistic because people genuinely want to get this country back on the right track.

The end result will be a more conservative -- and better -- America.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Political Thought

This essay by Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is adapted from his seventh annual message on "The State of Conservatism."