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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Why Conservatives Won’t Govern
First Principles: The Role of Government
Alan Wolfe
To read the other essays in the First Principles symposium, click here.
estifying before a Senate subcommittee in May 2001, Joe Allbaugh, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), offered a short seminar in conservative political philosophy. “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management,” he said on that occasion. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”
I cited Allbaugh’s testimony in a 2006 essay in The Washington Monthly called “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern.” To major players in the Bush Administration, I argued, the national government’s capacity to save lives and preserve order, honed by economic and natural disasters over the course of decades, had been all but forgotten. In its place could be found an intense dislike of nearly all federal programs based on the proposition that ordinary people are not occasional victims of misfortune but unworthy claimants on the public till. Allbaugh’s views served as a perfect illustration of my essay’s thesis. Because of such deep ideological distrust of government, the Katrina debacle, I pointed out, was not due to administrative malfeasance but to deliberate design. “Conservatives cannot govern well,” I wrote in the most cited sentence in the essay, “for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”
Republicans are now back in power, at least in the U. S. House of Representatives. The question of what they will do with that power is so far largely unanswered. Still, we are not without clues: There is much to be learned from the way Republicans behaved during the first two years of the Obama Administration. If that history is any indication, the problem will no longer be that conservatives cannot govern. We are instead in for an era in which conservatives will not govern. In retrospect, I was too harsh on the likes of Joe Allbaugh. A profoundly radical shift has taken place in the way conservatives in government understand power, accountability, and policy. Rather than using government badly out of a conviction that it always fails, they now refuse to allow government to do its work at all. They have, in a word, become nihilists. When Nancy Reagan urged Americans to just say no to drugs, little could she have realized that her party would soon say no to everything.
Not governing because you will not is far worse than not governing because you cannot. Those who cannot govern out of a belief in smaller government at least believe in something. John DiIulio, former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, famously described the Bush Administration as filled with Mayberry Machiavellis for whom “everything, and I mean everything, [is] being run by the political arm.” But he was not quite correct. Bush, after all, took positions on domestic policy, such as the privatization of Social Security, that were due more to conviction than calculation. Like it or not, he also stood with his decision to invade Iraq no matter how much the public had turned against the war. In fact, it was because it did believe in something that an Administration that at the start seemed capable of creating a permanent Republican majority became one of the most politically unpopular in recent times.
The new Republican majority ensconced in the House is completely different. Over the past two years, Republicans opted to pay any price or bear any burden to stand in the way of the Obama Administration’s agenda. If doing so meant the abrogation of the laissez-faire principles to which conservatives have sworn fidelity, so be it. In March, President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In an effort to control costs, the Obama plan included cuts in what the government would pay to Medicare Advantage plans, which, for an extra fee, allow private insurance companies to provide benefits not covered by basic Medicare. Although the cuts would be phased in, and even though seniors would obtain coverage for their medications through other sections of the bill, conservatives jumped in as defenders of exactly the kind of governmental program they had long opposed.
The point was not to make better public policy; Republicans offered no serious ideas of their own during the entire debate. Nor was it to improve the party’s negotiating position; Republicans had nothing to negotiate about, preferring to vote against the final bill unanimously in both houses of Congress. The point instead was either to defeat the bill or, failing that, to blame Obama for any negative effects of its passage. On the issue of health-care reform, conservatives could have governed; to the surprise of many of his supporters, Obama offered them one chance after another to do so. But because they would not govern, conservatives put aside any convictions about the evils of big government to become unreconstructed supporters of the welfare state.
Every indication we have suggests that in the wake of their midterm success, Republicans will continue on the same path of just saying no. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all but gave the game away when he announced that “the single most important thing we want to achieve” was not the recovery of the economy or passage of any particular legislation but “for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The United States now has a major political party that has dropped policy entirely in favor of politics. The consequences for the future of American democracy will be serious indeed.
The Revolt of the Nihilists
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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