When the Tea Party movement emerged to challenge President Obama in 2009, it also posed a counterweight to the “compassionate conservative” wing of the Republican Party, which was defined by the expansionist policies of President George W. Bush.
After years of being marginalized, compassionate conservatives – emboldened by the overreach of Tea Party conservatives during last fall’s government shutdown fight – are attempting to reassert control over the party.
In the winter 2014 issue of National Affairs, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner - two former speechwriters and advisers to Bush - propose “A Conservative Vision of Government,” in which they advance many of the arguments that were used 15 years ago to sideline small-government conservatives and lay the groundwork for the Bush-era spending binge.
Gerson and Wehner are concerned about the libertarian lurch among Republicans. Not only is this “anti-government” trend unproductive and politically suicidal, they argue, but it contradicts the vision of the nation’s founders, whose principles Tea Party leaders argue they’re out to uphold.
The U.S. Constitution, Gerson and Wehner argue, was not a “purely limiting document,” but a framework for allowing government to take positive actions.
Though it’s true that the Constitution gave power to a federal government that did not exist previously, this amounts to attacking a straw man, as limited government conservatives are not arguing for a return to the Articles of Confederation. They just wish Congress would act within the powers granted to it by the states through the Constitution, and check back with the states if federal lawmakers want to claim more powers through amendment.
Gerson and Wehner use quotes from the founders (who were arguing at a time of much smaller government) to bolster their views for a bigger role, but they ignore quotes in which founders sound much more like today’s Tea Partiers.
Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, called for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Though Gerson and Wehner note that Jefferson ended up completing the Louisiana Purchase, they neglect to mention that he originally drafted a constitutional amendment to do so, but was rejected by Congress. In 1803, Jefferson wrote with regard to the purchase that, “The general government has no powers but such as the constitution has given it; and it has not given it a power of holding foreign territory, (and) still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the Constitution seems necessary for this.”
Throughout the piece, Gerson and Wehner make arguments that are very difficult to distinguish philosophically from liberalism.
“The founders, then, provided us with a strong governing system – strong precisely because it could adapt to changing circumstances,” they write, echoing the liberal idea of a “living Constitution.”
The authors also argue for a federal government “strong enough to shape global events and to guarantee a minimal provision for the poor, ill, and elderly.”
Though Gerson and Wehner insist they believe in limited government, it’s hard to see what limiting principle they have in mind, as the definition of “minimal provision” could vary widely. Evidently, what philosophically separates them from liberals is a belief that the welfare state should be less centralized and technocratic.
Perhaps most interesting about their piece is not what they put in, but what they left out. The authors tout conservative accomplishments such as welfare reform in the 1990s and reforms implemented by Republican governors over the past four years. What’s strikingly absent is a survey – or even a mention – of the intervening period when their former boss conducted a governing experiment based on the very principles they’re advancing.
With Bush at the helm from 2001 to 2008, and compassionate conservatism on the march, federal spending soared 60 percent. Instead of being made more sustainable, the entitlement system was expanded by trillions of dollars through the Medicare prescription drug plan.
Compassionate conservatism may have been discredited, but it isn’t dead. That’s why it’s imperative for Tea Party leaders to learn to balance principles with prudence and rally around a positive governing agenda. Otherwise, big government conservatism will rise again to fill the vacuum.