In a News & Observer Op-Ed on Monday Marc Rotterman, senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, concludes correctly that the conservative movement is damaged goods:
“The damage to the country, the conservative movement, and the party may take years if not decades to repair.”
His reasons for reaching this conclusion, however, are wrong. And they reveal much about what is wrong with the conservative movement and the public policy think-tanks which have supported it. Mr. Rotterman contends the reason the conservatives are in trouble is that President Bush has a misguided domestic agenda. You heard me right. According to Rotterman, the problem with George Bush is that he has focused on big-government programs like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill. Rotterman says the bottom fell out when, rather than making the tax cuts permanent, Bush spent his political capital on privatizing Social Security.
Say what? Can somebody at JLF please tell the dude there’s a war on?
In his 600 word essay Mr. Rotterman could devote only 8 words, not even a full sentence, to the Iraq War (“But coupled with an unpopular and mismanaged war…”) Rotterman had nothing at all to say about president Bush’s “Global War On Terror.” Despite Mr. Rotterman’s essay, somehow I don’t think George W. Bush’s legacy is going to turn on the success or failure of No Child Left Behind.
As I outlined in this post, whether conservatives like it or not, 9/11 changed everything for their movement. How people view George Bush’s “Good vs. Evil” doctrine of endless war determines their political orientation. I assume Mr. Rotterman knows this, but would rather not acknowledge it since it no longer serves his organization’s purposes.
That Mr. Rotterman is wrong in his analysis of what is ailing the conservative movement should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention (or,even, listening to talk radio) for the past 6 years. You simply cannot ignore that the conservative movement and the Republican party are tethered to George Bush’s apocalyptic foreign policy. More than that, though, his essay reveals much about the institutional mind-set at conservative think tanks like the John Locke Foundation.
At JLF they are certain…absolutely certain…that unleashing the free-market for business promotes the common good. Their president, John Hood, has even written (“persuasively” so says his publisher) a book on this topic. I’ve not read the book and I’m no economist, but suffice to say that both sides of this theory can be debated effectively.
However, what is starkly evident in JLF’s ideal society is that government must be stripped to its bare essentials. It is imperative to maximize raw consumerism, because “individual pursuit of economic opportunity benefits all.”
Whether or not this is true in theory I have no idea. I’ll accept on good faith that the folks at JLF truly believe free markets promote the common good, rather than just a mechanism to maximize one’s personal wealth. This is not really the forum to parse the economic minutiae. But, if you are a small government free-market absolutist, consider this conclusion from the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in a report analyzing government spending over the past 40 years:
“It seems incontestable that we should conclude that the country’s purse is worse off when Republicans are in power.”
American Enterprise Institute
At any rate, it is likely that the big government/small government debate is moot. The American public has spoken. They like Social Security. And Medicare. And strong national defense. And in this regard, I believe the conservative free market think-tanks like JLF have fundamentally misread the American public. There is no outcry for less government. FEMA during Hurricane Katrina under “Brownie” is a good example of that. What people should demand of their government is competence and transparency, neither of which has been apparent in the Bush administration.
Ultimately, though, what promotes the common good is convincing our leaders to make the kinds of investments in people and institutions that allow us to address our most pressing problems. If that sounds familiar, it should. Go here to read all about it.