This is a must read essay. David Frum argues, very convincingly, that in fact the “limited government” movement, which I will call the libertarian movement (not to be confused with the Libertarian Party), is dead–at least in terms of political participation in the Republican Party. In fact, Frum points out that the slow, tortuous passing really began in 1998 when congressional Republicans decisively lost the budget battles (in the political sense) and turned their attention toward compromise and scandal.
And this change of course was ratified by the whole party in the nomination contest of 1999-2000, when George W. Bush swept to a crushing triumph by campaigning as a “compassionate conservative” opposed to budget-cutting and committed to maintaining Medicare and Medicaid in more or less their existing form. In September 1999, he condemned congressional Republican attempts to curb the Earned Income Tax Credit as “balancing their budget on the backs of the poor.” In the following general election, Bush committed himself to adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
At the time, these maneuvers looked to many Republicans like wise and necessary adjustments to political reality. And since Bush had also committed himself to broad tax cuts, free trade, and Social Security reform, many gambled that the his self-described “different kind” of conservatism would nonetheless balance out as a favorable sequel to Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich limited government conservatism.
This assessment has obviously proven wrong.
He desperately tries to salvage something resembling hope at the end of the article by pointing to the effect limited government conservatives have had, and perhaps will continue to have on public debate, despite their political marginalization.
But is this the correct interpretation of events. Have we lost a decisive battle and are we now forced to adjust to political realities and accept ‘our place’ in the political lanscape? Or might we interpret this as a failure of one particular strategy in a multi-pronged approached to reshaping the American government. Have we learned that the era of less govenment is over? Or have we learned that change won’t come from elections?
To answer these questions we first have to fess up to one reality … Ronald Reagan’s election was a fluke. It did not reflect a widespread libertarian disposition in the American public. It will never happen again, ever.
The nature of politics in our postmodern, overly-calculative society is that politicians follow, rather than lead. If you create a constituency there will be a politician willing to pander to it. The fundamental challenge is not winning political battles per se, but creating (or identifying) libertarian constituencies. Creating issues, in other words.
Add to this postmodern political reality the rapid decentralization of media and mass communications, and you have a political lanscape that is very new and very foreign. We used to decry single-issue voters as narrow-minded and shallow. But more and more, change seems to come an issue at time, rather than with broad sweeping party platforms.
Perhaps single issue voters are the future? Indeed, some liberals will argue there were only two issues in the 2004 election: terrorism and gay marriage. Look at the Dubai Ports deal and Immigration. Not so long ago, there was Kelo, a public opinion battle won decisively by libertarians.
Is clear cut winning issue like Kelo, worth an entire eight years of Bush?
Perhaps we should look upon the collapsing limited government movement inside Washington as evidence that libertarians should’ve never been in Washington in the first place. How, one might ask, did we ever think that would work? Perhaps now, all those resources that went into getting limited gov’t conservatives and libertarians elected, will slowly shift back over into efforts to get our message out and influence the public debate.
There is hope for the future, but it’s on college campuses, and in newspapers, and in podcasts, and blogs, and think tanks, and grass roots activism … and things we haven’t even heard of yet. To the extent that there is any hope in Washington, it will only be once we create the voters for our “leadership” to follow.