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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Why Conservatives Won’t Govern
First Principles: The Role of Government
Alan Wolfe
There was a time when liberals would have been pleased to see Republicans divided between those with ideas to offer and those who care only about politics and not about policy; one party generally prefers to see the other party split itself ideologically into factions. In reality, however, conservative nihilism poisons the soil that allows any set of ideas, liberal or conservative, to grow. Ryanism in power would try to roll back government. The coming nihilism, by contrast, will mean that conservative energy in the House will lack the philosophical and administrative muscle memory necessary to do anything in any direction. For the next two years, and possibly well beyond that, Republicans will have a perch that will enable them to watch the other branches of government for any sign of governance–and then quash it.
Nihilism, we will soon discover, is a politics without meaning and without fulfillment. If the result is endless deficits, Republicans will find ways to excuse them away. If nihilism instead produces dramatic cutbacks in services, they will blame them on liberals. When nothing is done, anything is possible, and any explanation will suffice. But whatever happens, the new majority will never take responsibility for its inaction. All the features that make democracy work–mandates, procedures, accountability–are absent when nihilists are put in charge. We can expect investigations aplenty; using the power of committee assignment to blame others is the one thing these conservatives know how to do well. We should just not expect any of those investigations to produce ideas about how to make things better.
America has flirted in the past with parties that would not govern–and the experience was not a happy one. Perhaps the closest parallel to the situation we find ourselves in today was the “gag rule” period between 1836 and 1844, when anti-slavery forces tried to introduce resolutions in Congress calling for the abolition of the peculiar institution. Led by Southern Democrats, Congress passed a series of rules designed to table any such petitions, thereby preventing any discussion of them. Because Congress would not settle the issue of slavery, other means had to be found, means that proved to be the bloodiest in American history. Thankfully, no Civil War is at the moment in sight, although talk of secession (the form nihilism takes among Republican governors) is all too common. The fact that we know what happens when a party refuses to govern makes it all the more remarkable that so many political leaders can contemplate the idea today.
Creating Crisis
Conservatives who cannot govern still allow for the possibility that others can. Privatization schemes, vouchers, a preference for state action over federal programs–all such traditionally conservative and libertarian notions attempt to weaken federal policy-making without necessarily abolishing policy-making completely. But a party that will not govern does not wish to replace strong government with weak and decentralized government in order to show how often the public sector fails. It instead much prefers to make it impossible for government to carry out its functions in the first place. If its political strategy is nihilistic, its ultimate outcome is anarchistic.
When Congress recessed for Memorial Day in 2002, only 13 of the nominees that had been submitted by George W. Bush had been pending for more than two days. Eight years later, when the same recess took place, 120 of Obama’s nominees had not yet been confirmed. (Those who had been were forced to wait more than 100 days on average for the honor.) No party has a monopoly on using Senate rules to slow down the appointment process. But the refusal of Republicans to allow so many nominees to assume their positions in the first two years of the Obama Administration is unprecedented. In most cases, moreover, the holds were put in place for no particular reason at all, other than to send a message that key Republican senators simply did not accept the idea that the winner of a presidential election ought to be able to try to govern the country he was elected to run.
Had Republicans won the Senate as well as the House in the 2010 midterm elections, their efforts to block appointments would have intensified to the point of trying to turn Obama into a lame-duck president only two years into his first term. Yet Democrats cannot take much comfort from the fact that their Senate majority is intact. Democrats won enough Senate seats in 2010 to make it difficult if not impossible for Republicans to recruit a Joe Lieberman or a Ben Nelson into the cause of nihilism. Nonetheless, Republicans in both houses will surely continue to claim that because of their political success in 2010, President Obama no longer has a mandate to govern, and they are justified in using their veto power over his appointments as an expression of the popular will.
This way of thinking is likely to produce a full-scale legitimacy crisis when it comes to the courts. By October 2010, fewer than 50 percent of Obama’s nominations for judgeships had been approved, by far the lowest percentage of any recent American presidential administration. There can be little doubt that conservatives will now feel emboldened to continue and even ratchet-up their policy of judicial refusal in the next two years. It is, after all, a near-perfect expression of their nihilism; the best way to stop judges from interpreting the law, as conservatives like to call decisions they happen to disfavor, is to have fewer judges. Many critics on Obama’s left felt that the President did not pay sufficient attention to these obstructionist tactics on judicial appointments. After 2010 the President may well pay more attention, but the obstacles already in place to keep U.S. courts understaffed have been raised.
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TAGS: Conservatives
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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stmichrick:
Mr Wolfe;

Your premise seems to be that the FEDERAL government is supposed to plunge into every crisis, regardless if it's proper role has already been defined. In the case of Katrina, President Bush was in contact early in the crisis with the Governor and Mayor of New Orleans. The role of the Feds(FEMA)is offer assistance to the local government and basically, write checks. He was rebuffed until things were way out of hand.
As applies to your other examples, the Republican position is to limit the role of the FEDERAL government, with the onus being on state and local governments to decide the degree of government involvement.
President Bush made his determination about involvement in Iraq based on his CONSTITUTIONAL duty to defend the American people. The imposition of Federally mandated healthcare cannot be found in that document.
Jan 21, 2011, 9:00 AM
James D:
"President Bush made his determination about involvement in Iraq based on his CONSTITUTIONAL duty to defend the American people."
Defend us ... from what? The Constitution confers a duty, sure, but with that duty comes responsibility and accountability. The Constitution does not provide cover, and it does not provide an excuse, for ignorance and malfeasance.
As for FEMA's purpose, it goes far beyond "writing checks". Start with 42 U.S.C. 5121 and read on. And FEMA was not "rebuffed" ... like good Republicans, Brownie and company had adopted a policy of waiting 72 hours before intervening in any disaster, to see if local governments could cope without that nasty, socialistic Federal intervention. Never mind that in the real (non-GOP) world, it takes less than 72 hours to drown.
Jan 27, 2011, 9:15 PM
Lex:
@stmichrick: That is, to say the least, an interesting reading of the history of our involvement in Iraq.
President Bush and his administration fed false information to Congress repeatedly until they finally ginned up a fiction about nuclear weapons to persuade Congress to pass the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. In other words, in violation of the Constitution, his oath of office, U.S. criminal fraud statutes and international law, he fraudulently obtained permission from Congress to launch an illegal military invasion of a country with which we were at peace.
They hanged people at Nuremberg for that.
Feb 25, 2011, 11:24 AM
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Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
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