The Robust 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, one that protects us from foreign foes while safeguarding our civil liberties, and 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.

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. Of course, as the government spends more, it leaves less in the pockets of taxpayers–the people we’re counting on to build a prosperous future.

This year the White House says it will become serious about reining in federal spending and slowing government growth. 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. Taxpayers deserve–and have demanded–no less.

Defense and Homeland Security

Of course, nothing good can happen unless the federal government is doing its most important job: protecting America. Conservative ideas are clearly winning the day here. We’re 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 already on the books and applied them to terrorism–without stepping on our civil rights. Even the ACLU had to admit last year that there hasn’t been a single proven abuse of the Patriot Act.

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 rogue state with a ballistic missile could have destroyed an American city. We’ll all be more secure with a system to defend ourselves.

Missile defense is just one example of conservatism’s move into the mainstream.

Still, for too many conservatives, governing seems to have become a political, rather than principled, exercise. 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. 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.

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.

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.

The Administration’s Policies

Elsewhere, the Bush Administration succeeded by lifting the tariffs on imported steel it had imposed.

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.

And with Social Security, the window for real reform may finally be opening. 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.

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.