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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Why Conservatives Won’t Govern
First Principles: The Role of Government
Alan Wolfe
All this suggests that Elena Kagan will be the last judge Obama gets to place on the high court. This is not because openings are unlikely to occur. It is instead because Republicans, confident that Democrats will never come close to the 60 votes necessary to stop them, will use their veto power to block any Supreme Court nominee they dislike, which amounts to anyone Obama selects. On the court, if not in Congress, conservatives believe in an active government; they need judges who will say no to every piece of legislation they want to block.
Liberals and Governance
Say this much for conservatives who will not govern: they are proud of their conduct. Speaking of the Democrats, McConnell told Carl Hulse of The New York Times in August 2010, “I am amused with their comments about obstructionism.” He added: “I wish we had been able to obstruct more. They were able to get the health-care bill through. They were able to get the stimulus through. They were able to get the financial reform through. These were all major pieces of legislation, and if I would have had enough votes to stop them, I would have.” In McConnell’s world, a party’s achievements are calculated by what it tried to prevent rather than by what it tried to accomplish. One can just imagine the pride Republicans will take in all the issues they will have the power not to address now.
There are times when it makes sense to be obstructionist; Democrats rightly opposed the Bush Administration’s plans to privatize Social Security, and Republicans can and should stand firm against policies that violate their ideological convictions. Obstruction without regard to the merits or demerits of the policy under consideration, however, is not about making the country work better so much as preventing it from working at all.
With respect to the family and other social institutions, conservatives frequently express the concern that untrammeled individualism will eventually result in nihilism. Yet when it comes to government, they are as nihilistic as Abbie Hoffman. One finds among the no-sayers who are now triumphant in the House no Burkean appreciation of experience and no Disraeli-like sense of responsibility. They are instead proposing a vast experiment in human nature: A party that refuses to govern society encourages individuals to refuse to govern themselves. No 1960s radical ever went as far as so many twenty-first century conservatives are going now. Should Americans look to these leaders for guidelines about how to act, they will come away convinced that cooperation is a sham, endless conflict a source of joy, and the end of winning always trumps the means used to do so. By any means necessary–when the Black Panthers said it, it sounded revolutionary. When conservatives practice it, it is just as radical.
Once upon a time, liberals needed to come up with more appealing policies than those proposed by conservatives. In the present political environment, the task will be to contrast a party that still believes in ideas with one that believes in nothing. The fact that liberals will be facing a far more divided government than the one that greeted them in 2010 gives them the opportunity to spend less time trying to please an opposition party that does not wish to be placated and more time reminding themselves why they became liberals in the first place. American politics being what it is these days, voters will discover soon enough that anger is no substitute for good roads, decent health care, and all the other benefits government can help provide. They will turn to leaders who can and will govern. One can only hope that the liberals will be ready.
TAGS: Conservatives
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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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
@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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