March 1, 2004

March 1, 2004 | Commentary on

The State of Conservatism 2004

"Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread." -- Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.

This year may be a decisive one for the future of the Conservative Revolution. Will conservatives be able to govern while remaining true to our principles? Can we create a federal government that is smaller and less intrusive, that protects us from foreign foes while safeguarding our civil liberties, that promotes the rule of law while allowing the free market to prosper?

The answer is "yes." But it won't happen unless we make it happen.

The Washington Scene

In 2003, as the party in control of both branches of Congress and the White House, Republicans proved they have adapted well to working institutional Washington to their political benefit. But conservatives should learn a lesson from that: While the current Republican party is led by those who identify themselves as "conservative," we have discovered that we can't automatically expect them to defend conservative positions as a matter of principle. However, we must never falter in our efforts to insist that those who claim the "conservative" mantle know that we expect them to stand for freedom, prosperity and opportunity, and call them on the carpet when they let us down.

The Republican leadership in Congress and President Bush claimed a political victory last year when they greatly increased federal spending and provided a new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement that our children -- and grandchildren -- will be paying for in years to come. In so doing, these sometime courageous and principled leaders seem to have forgotten that a government that can do anything for you can do anything to you.

Since 2000, the federal budget has swollen to a size unseen since the Second World War. Unlike during that crisis, however, only about a third of recent growth has gone to fund our military and national security interests. Spending has jumped across the board -- no category has significantly lagged -- and promises to continue expanding for the foreseeable future. Of course, as the government spends more and more, it leaves less and less in the pockets of taxpayers -- the people we're counting on to build a prosperous future.

At the writing of this piece, the 2004 omnibus appropriations bill includes enough pork to feed millions of potential voters at a national political campaign barbecue, including funding for thousands of projects in which the federal government should have no role. There is $325,000 for construction of a swimming pool in Salinas, Calif., $225,000 for a theme park in Kentucky, $2 million to teach children to play golf, and millions for bike paths, traffic lights, and all manner of water and sewage systems.

Looking Ahead

This year the White House says it will become serious about reining in federal spending and slowing government growth. The President must be bold in cutting government spending. Exercising the veto power -- at last -- would be a great way to start. And it's past time for the Republican Congress to restrain its urge to overspend. In 2004, conservatives around the country must sound the clarion call that the tide must turn -- and turn now.

Conservatives won't know the administration is serious about its desire to rein in the government until we see concrete proposals to trim spending. And conservatives in Congress must prove their resolve by reforming the budgeting process in a way that enhances clarity, promotes accountability, and puts brakes on the growth of government. Imposing a real cap on total federal spending, not just the "discretionary" accounts, would provide much needed fiscal discipline.

Taxpayers deserve -- and have demanded -- no less. In 2000 -- and more strongly in 2002 -- Americans voted for a new game in Washington. Some may remember that then-Gov. Bush promised to "change the tone in Washington." That should mean more than reducing partisan rancor. It should also mean making government less expensive and less extensive.

Defense and Homeland Security

Of course, nothing good can happen unless the federal government is doing its most important job: protecting America. To our great benefit, conservative ideas are clearly winning the day here. President Bush has a clearheaded and disciplined foreign policy vision. We're all safer without Saddam Hussein in power, with Osama bin Laden on the run, and with an effective Department of Homeland Security. Overseas, a new, democratic government will take power in Afghanistan this year, and Iraq will take critical steps toward self-government.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is judiciously enforcing the Patriot Act, which took a number of laws that were already on the books and simply applied them to terrorism -- without stepping on our civil rights. As former Attorney General Ed Meese (my Heritage Foundation colleague) observed last fall: "There are now more protections, including the requirement of a judicial authority to get third-party records such as library records. This is not the ability to go into someone's home and take their private papers."

Federal prosecutors have already used the Patriot Act to detain wrongdoers. The law is working as it was supposed to by making life more difficult for terrorists without affecting the rest of us. In fact, even the ACLU had to admit last year that there hasn't been a single proven abuse of the Patriot Act.

In the face of opposition from some Democrats, the Bush administration is also moving ahead with missile defense. We'll soon have a system in place to shoot down incoming weapons, and we'll keep refining it as we develop an effective defense shield. For years, we've been completely vulnerable -- a single rogue state with a single ballistic missile could have held us hostage or destroyed an entire American city. We'll all be more secure with a system to defend against such threats.

The Conservative Mainstream

Missile defense is just one example of conservatism's move into the mainstream. Ten years ago even Bill Clinton saw the need to embrace conservative rhetoric and ideas, such as ending "welfare as we know it."

Today, it isn't enough to simply say that government should be "limited," that it "should do a few things and do them well" and "welcome market-based competition wherever possible." Members of both parties claim to believe those things. What conservatives -- and more and more voters -- are looking for are results along those lines.

For too many conservatives in power, governing seems to have become a political, rather than principled, exercise. There is a tendency for them to play ball with the special interests and kowtow to broad demographic groups with tailored programs and well-targeted handouts. We must remind them that putting process ahead of principle means putting personal gain ahead of what is best for the taxpayers and for personal freedom.

The Growing Welfare State

The numbers show that as the federal budget has grown, more and more Americans have become dependent on government to take care of them. For the first time since 1945, government spending per household topped $20,000 in 2003. More than 70 million Americans --roughly one fourth of the entire American population -- now depend on the government for all or most of their income, and this number is growing at a rate three times that of the population at large. On average, each of these 70 million dependents receives $24,000 from the government, compared to about $10,000 apiece in 1966. (All of these numbers are in constant dollars.)

Worse still, Congress, under pressure from the President, created the first new federal entitlement program in a generation this past November. The Medicare "reform" will cost several trillion dollars over the next two decades, increase government dependency among seniors, and sap the spirit of the younger generation, which will have to pay for it.

Make no mistake: The beast must be fed. If this pattern of government spending and dependency continues, our children and their children will face taxes so high that they will become the indentured servants of a system that, in attempting to provide for everyone, provides nothing of value for anyone.

Conservatives should realize that real reform on issues like Medicare, for example, is still possible and that we must continue to work to make it happen. For instance, if lawmakers make a system similar to their own health plan, the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, available to Medicare recipients, the elderly would enjoy real choices while effective market competition would hold costs down.


The Administration's Policies

Elsewhere, the Bush administration succeeded by going backward. First, the President stumbled by imposing tariffs on imported steel. That drove up costs in dozens of important domestic industries, while propping up a few large steel producers renowned for their inefficiency and mismanagement. The tariffs also harmed the smaller, more efficient steel manufacturers, cutting into their opportunity to reform a critical industry. But by the end of 2003, President Bush had lifted the tariffs.

Hopefully, the Administration will keep up the fight for free trade by putting pressure on the Senate to ratify the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement in 2004. As we've seen with NAFTA, free-trade agreements help increase jobs and boost the economy -- two outcomes that benefit all of us.

The Strength of Conservatism

Despite the many disappointments, conservatives still have plenty of reasons to be optimistic this year. Many conservatives in the House of Representatives put their careers on the line last fall and voted against the Medicare drug benefit -- despite unprecedented arm-twisting. Those with strong conservative convictions have identified themselves, and the movement will be stronger in the long run as a result.

And with Social Security, the window for real reform may finally be opening. Few younger workers expect to receive significant benefits from the Social Security system to which they contribute with every paycheck. Their apprehension isn't misplaced: The system is broken and will eventually be unable to meet its obligations. While past reform efforts have focused on cutting benefits or raising taxes, the ideas this time are different.

Over the past few months, several plans to create large personal Social Security accounts have been analyzed by the Social Security Administration's actuary. According to the actuary, it is possible to make the system solvent, lower payroll taxes for workers and employers, and increase benefits (while guaranteeing a minimum benefit), all while promoting choice and creating a new asset that retirees will be able to hand down to their children.

Applying simple market economics to a system that's gone without them for far too long is the answer. Reforming the Social Security system is an opportunity that we cannot pass up, and this year will determine the terms of the debate. Given that Social Security's unfunded liabilities overshadow even the national debt, it's critical that conservatives make this a priority issue.

Fulfilling the Vision

It's time for conservatives to win large and long-lasting victories. We must aim to refashion federal politics in constitutional terms -- and thus fulfill Ronald Reagan's vision of a smaller, less intrusive government.

Liberals oppose virtually everything the President has done in the War on Terrorism, from liberating Iraq to the Patriot Act, but they don't offer realistic alternatives. In the Senate, liberals filibuster our well-qualified judges. We've offered sensible reforms for Social Security and welfare, and all our liberal friends can say is: "No." This election year the policy debates must expose the differences between the left and the right and clarify for the voters those who truly reflect their views.

America can take a huge step forward this year toward greater freedom, more opportunity and individual prosperity, but only if we remain true to our principles and keep fighting for what we already know most Americans want: a less intrusive, less expensive, more effective federal government. If our voices are strong enough to cause Washington to step aside and allow individuals to reap and sow as they choose, then and only then -- as Jefferson believed -- will there be plenty of bread for everyone.

About the Author

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

An edited version of "The State of Conservatism" appeared in Human Events Online March 22, 2004.