On the surface, the Republican Party appears to be better poised now than at any time since Calvin Coolidge. Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress for more than a decade (interrupted briefly by Senator James Jeffords's defection in mid-2001), occupied the White House for the last five years, and held a majority of governorships since the 1994 elections. In short, the GOP has come a long way since 1968 or 1980.
So why are Republicans feeling so sour in 2006? Having now held power in Congress for over a decade, there is a sense that the corruption-fighting revolutionaries of 1994 have now become what they once opposed—a problem starkly symbolized by Duke Cunningham's boat house and Ted Stevens's bridge to nowhere. The Republican coalition, considerably bigger than it was in 1975, is now much harder to hold together. More generally, Republican discontent is driven by a growing sense of philosophical malaise—a sense that the party has become unmoored from its most basic philosophical commitments, and that elected Republicans no longer seek power to advance their principles but for its own sake. For Republicans, this transformation is potentially devastating.
As president, George W. Bush has advanced some of the sources of the Republican Party's strength. Clearly, he and Karl Rove have bolstered the GOP's ability to raise funds and turn out voters. Bush has promoted the institutionalization of conservatism using strategic grants from the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has nurtured the new media with strategies designed to increase its access and prestige. And in the wake of 9/11, Bush mobilized not only economic conservatives and social conservatives, but also the Republican coalition's crucial third leg, nationalistic foreign policy hawks.
Despite all of these gains, however, Bush has neglected the critical task—carried out by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich—of advancing a public argument that connects his otherwise disparate policy decisions to a broader philosophical framework. He has failed to articulate the philosophical argument for limited government that once defined the Republican Party. At the same time he has failed to win broad acceptance for his alternative, so-called compassionate conservatism. To a large extent, he has abandoned the systematic promotion of public philosophy altogether.
Republicans have more to lose than Democrats by failing to advance a public philosophy. Because the policies they offer usually promise concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, it is easier for Democrats to assemble a coalition on the basis of material interest without direct reliance on general principles. In addition, the institutions primarily responsible for interpreting the world and conveying ideas to the public—the educational system, the mass media, and popular culture—advance liberal ideology on the Democrats' behalf. Although Republicans now have some alternative institutions and media outlets to promote the conservative cause, much of the burden still rests on the party itself.
For four decades, the Republican electoral realignment kept rolling due in part to the party's substantial efforts to persuade the nation of conservative principles. Because Reagan made a persistent argument, today's 30-44 year-olds who came of age during his presidency are some of America's most Republican-leaning voters. There is no evidence that a similar "Bush cohort" will arise: in 2004, the youngest voters gave John Kerry his biggest margins. Reagan's oft-repeated vision of limited constitutional government played an important role in putting Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on their path to the Supreme Court. It is far from clear that Bush will inspire the next generation of conservative jurists to take their place.
Republicans must start with national security—without question the first priority of the national government. In an age of terror, the consequences of failure on this front would be catastrophic. Furthermore, the defense of the nation is one of the few tasks of the modern federal establishment that is firmly grounded in a constitutional mandate. If Americans get this issue wrong, nothing else will matter. Politically, national security is the glue that holds Republicans together, and the best single explanation for Bush's reelection and increased Republican congressional majorities since 2000. Indeed, it is one of the few areas in recent years where the public has perceived Republicans to be the stronger party.
Consequently, for both policy and political reasons, Republicans cannot afford to falter in the national security arena or to allow themselves to be outflanked by Democrats. Bush must connect his policy of democratizing the Middle East to hard American national interest; otherwise, he may lose the support of the group National Review's Richard Lowry has called the "To-Hell-With-Them Hawks." In general, however, Republicans will continue to agree on both the primacy of national security and the core content of national security policy.
It is in the realm of domestic governance that Republicans will have to come to terms with what they want to stand for. Compassionate conservatism is at the center of that debate. Long viewed with skepticism by many conservatives—for good reason—compassionate conservatism has meant, in general, de-emphasizing the rhetoric of limited government, federalism, and other constitutional principles, pressing policies designed to appeal to targeted minorities, and all the while keeping the GOP's conservative base mostly intact.
More specifically, it has meant large tax cuts without any accompanying spending restraint, colossal new education and Medicare programs, and efforts to create an "ownership society" by introducing elements of accountability and choice into existing programs. Compassionate conservatism has also included adherence to social conservatism, though its advocates are reluctant to trumpet this relationship too loudly. Indeed, the Bush team has been unwilling to highlight issues, e.g., affirmative action, that threaten to put sharp edges back on the Republican image.
Its supporters have argued that compassionate conservatism has narrowed the gender gap, pulled up the GOP vote among blacks (by a bit) and Hispanics (by more), and softened the harsh reputation associated with the "Gingrich-Dole Republicans" of the 1990s. In their view, limited government, though perhaps a sufficient doctrine for a minority party, had little to offer Republicans when they became the majority. Compassionate conservatism, however, offered a forward strategy for Republicans who, realistically, could not expect to roll back big government very far, if at all. Finally, while limited government conservatism delivered some smashing successes for Republicans at the presidential level in the 1980s and in Congress in 1994, it never could have achieved unified Republican control of government (so the administration argues) in the way compassionate conservatism did in 2002 and 2004.
Whatever the flaws of this analysis—and there are many—Republicans cannot avoid the fact that compassionate conservatism was devised as a response to real strategic dilemmas. Republicans needed, and need still, a positive agenda as a governing party, a way to appeal to women and Hispanics, and an image that is less severe than the one that had emerged from the 1990s.
But even if Republicans cannot throw compassionate conservatism overboard, they should not retain it as the focus of future strategy. Among presidential programs, compassionate conservatism most closely resembles in its strategic aims Dwight Eisenhower's "Modern Republicanism" and Bill Clinton's "New Covenant"—other presidents' attempts to enhance their party's reputation by muting principles held by a majority of its members. These earlier examples do not bode well for Bush's experiment: although Eisenhower's and Clinton's projects met short-term political exigencies, neither demonstrated staying power.
It is notable that hardly anyone has promoted compassionate conservatism as the best available policy. Hardly any of its advocates have attempted to demonstrate that limited government, from the standpoint of good policy, is no longer a preferable option. Yet the starting point of policy should always be the question of what is best for the country. Indeed, Republicans have long maintained that good policy will ultimately be good politics, even if in the short term it is not always so. Translating that precept into the terms of the current controversy, if Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, and Reagan (not to mention the framers of the Constitution) have been invalidated—if the laws of economics and the laws of human nature have changed so that centralized state power no longer threatens prosperity, liberty, or civic virtue—then by all means, the argument for limited government should be allowed to slide into disuse. If not, Republicans must find a way to make the argument for limited government more compelling.
The Republicans' move away from the conservatism of limited government has led to a number of political difficulties. For one thing, compassionate conservatism has foreclosed the use of a number of hard-edged issues (like welfare reform reauthorization) that could have given Republicans considerable traction against recalcitrant Democrats. Furthermore, if, as seems probable, most Republicans have only bought into compassionate conservatism as a tactical device, then that opportunism will bring its own punishment. Indeed, it is already doing so. Because voters are not fools, and because a rough moral justice exists even in the world of politics, no party should ever adopt an approach that it does not believe in. Now Republicans find themselves responsible for a number of policies they consider unpalatable and perhaps even indefensible, but from which it is impossible to retreat gracefully.
Whatever the political difficulties, only when Republicans have pushed the limited government argument the hardest—under Reagan in the '80s and Gingrich in the mid-'90s—has the growth of domestic government significantly slowed. Supporters of compassionate conservatism have argued, correctly, that Republicans have never succeeded in substantially cutting back government. But when Republicans have tried hard, they have at least succeeded in slowing its growth; when they have not tried at all, it has run amok, whether under Democratic or Republican administrations. In any event, though it is difficult for Republicans to cut programs that Democrats have ballooned, it is harder and more embarrassing to have to cut programs that have ballooned under the GOP's own stewardship.
Compassionate conservatism has systematically pushed Bush toward deals in which he has gotten neither enough good policy nor enough political payoff to justify what he has had to surrender. In any game of negotiation, the starting point is quite important to the outcome. To take two important cases, Bush's starting point on education and prescription drugs was itself a major concession, so the further compromises necessary to secure passage pulled the legislation even deeper into liberal territory. The promised benefits of choice and accountability, offered as realistic departures that could make liberal programs more conservative, have proven much less popular than advocates had expected and have been whittled down to a mere shadow in bill after bill. What remains is a major expansion of government. In contrast, his 2003 tax cut was a real victory, despite being cut in half by Congress, because the starting point was strongly conservative and compromises left a bill that still significantly moved policy to the right.
Altogether, it seems unlikely that compassionate conservatism can carry the political weight assigned to it, or that limited government conservatism is the political loser that compassionate conservatives claim. The Republican Congress in 1994 owed its election to the public's rejection of the big government opening act of Bill Clinton's presidency. When the chips were down, even Bush returned—at critical junctures in the 2000 GOP primaries, the fall of 2000, and the fall of 2004—to anti-big government themes. He performed better at the ballot box among Hispanics than did Reagan, but worse among women. While the gender gap narrowed in 2004 in comparison to 1996 or 2000, Bush still lost the women's vote; and in any event, the national security issue rather than compassionate conservatism explains his wider appeal. In contrast, the more limited government-oriented Reagan actually won the women's vote in 1984, as did Bush's father running as a Reagan Republican in 1988.
Since the beginning of the Republican ascendancy, no Republican presidential candidate has won without successfully appealing to social conservatives alongside economic conservatives. By deemphasizing the themes of limited government and economic freedom, compassionate conservatism arguably threatens the Republican coalition at its most basic level. Bush has upset the coalition's balance by allowing limited-government conservatism to atrophy relative to social conservatism. Well aware of his father's tale of woe, he has given great attention to cutting taxes, but he has underestimated the importance of spending control, deficit control, and limited government rhetoric to economic conservatives, as well as to self-described moderates.
In the end, Bush is no more socially conservative than Reagan, in policy or in rhetoric. Even Goldwater, later touted as something of a libertarian, ran a socially conservative campaign in 1964, during which he gave a half-hour, nationally televised address condemning the Supreme Court's decision banning prayer in public schools. Bush's social conservatism stands out more because his limited-government conservatism stands out less. Ironically, this is a version of the problem Bush's father had in 1992, when he had to appeal strongly to social conservatives because his 1990 tax increase had alienated so many economic conservatives. Both Bush's approach and its opposite—the view, widely held in the mainstream media, that the GOP would do well to cut loose the social conservatives—fail to account for an important fact: a very large number of Republican voters are both limited-government and social conservatives, perhaps more than are in either group alone.
Indeed, social conservatism can and should be defended as necessary to the maintenance of a free society. Reagan used to argue for conservative stands on family and religion by asserting the centrality of both to the moral infrastructure of limited government. This argument can be made on issues as controversial as abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research—but only if Republicans adopt a strategy of persuasion to complement their strategy of mobilization.
Despite significant differences between the older conservatism and compassionate conservatism, they have numerous policies in common. These include tax cuts, privatization and choice provisions in government programs, encouragement of voluntarism, and an alliance with social conservatism. Compassionate conservatism could be said to be limited-government conservatism minus fiscal restraint, a discourse on constitutionalism, and a disdain for politically correct shibboleths.
Thus it might be easier than many assume to attach some features of compassionate conservatism to a reinvigorated Republican message focusing on limited government. Such an approach would include:
• holding the fiscal line on both taxes and spending;
• re-energizing a public philosophy of constitutionalism and limited government;
• supporting a measured cultural traditionalism;
• incrementally introducing mechanisms for greater choice and accountability into existing public programs;
• concerted campaigning in the black and Hispanic communities on the basis of moral and religious standards, as well as entrepreneurship;
• continuing to promote the vitality of civil society.
Such a mix can serve as a program for Republicans in either the majority or minority, and would be true to the genuine convictions of most Republicans while attending to the concerns that engendered Bush's alternative. The principle of no (or few) new programs and restrained spending on old ones is essentially negative in character; application of the "ownership society" to existing big government is essentially positive.
Republicans have won a great many things in the last five years, but they have lost something precious, as well: their reputation as the constitutional party, the party that is realistic about what government can accomplish, the "adult" party. America needs an adult party. In 2008, Republicans will have to decide whether to give it one.