David Brooks thinks he has diagnosed the problem with Mitt Romney’s “underperforming campaign.” The culprit is not Romney’s late conversion to conservatism, Brooks writes in his column today, its that entire conservative movement has lost its “balance” between “economic” conservatives on the one hand, and “traditional” conservatives on the other.
According to Brooks, economic conservatives, “upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.”
Traditional conservatives, according to Brooks, “didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”
Ronald Reagan, Brooks goes on to claim, “embodied both sides of this fusion.” But economic conservatives, he says, “have taken control” since then.
Really? Reagan “didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector”?
Is this the same Reagan who once said, “This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Or the one who said that the Founding Fathers, “knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.”
Or the one who said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
True, Reagan did also say, “it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”
But are the federal policies Brooks is calling conservatives to adopt part of the “legitimate functions” of government? Or are they closer to the central planning Reagan abhorred? Here is really the only paragraph where Brooks get specific:
There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.
Reagan is the only president since World War II to lower domestic discretionary spending. He lowered it by almost 10 percent in his first term. If a President Romney and a Paul Ryan budget archived even half that, it would be nothing short of a miracle.
Reagan did agree to several tax hikes during his two terms as president, but on net, he reduced them. His signature tax reform bill eliminated hundreds of loopholes, cut the number of tax brackets from 15 to two, and slashed the top income tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent. That is exactly what Romney and Ryan are proposing today.
And as far as using the federal government to “intervene in chaotic neighborhoods,” Reagan was skeptical of that too: “Now do they honestly expect us to believe that if we add 1 billion dollars to the 45 billion we’re spending, one more program to the 30-odd we have—and remember, this new program doesn’t replace any, it just duplicates existing programs—do they believe that poverty is suddenly going to disappear by magic?” No, real conservatives don’t believe that.
True conservatism understands that there is no difference between “economic” and “traditional” conservatism. Yes, conservative believe that “people should lead disciplined, orderly lives.” No, individuals do not have “the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God.” But that is why both traditional and economic conservatives want to keep the federal government as limited in scope as possible.
Just look at Reagan’s 1979 presidential candidacy announcement: “We have long since committed ourselves, as a people, to help those among us who cannot take care of themselves. But the federal government has proven to be the costliest and most inefficient provider of such help we could possibly have. … We must force the entire federal bureaucracy to live in the real world of reduced spending, streamlined functions and accountability to the people it serves. We must review the functions of the federal government to determine which of those are the proper province of levels of government closer to the people. … Government cannot be clergyman, teacher and parent. It is our servant, beholden to us.”
Brooks seems to have forgotten all of this.