On the eve of the Republican National Convention, in today's NY Times Magazine, David Brooks gives us a lesson on"How to Reinvent the G.O.P.." In short: The Grand Old Party should simply become the Grand Much Older Party, and embrace the genuinely interventionist roots of Republicanism.
Brooks thinks President George W. Bush is well on his way to this romantic embrace; after all, the current President is the"guy who would create a huge new cabinet department for homeland security, who would not try to cut even a single government agency, who would be the first president in a generation to create a new entitlement program, the prescription drug benefit, projected to cost $534 billion over the next 10 years." Bush is the guy who"would spend federal dollars with an alacrity that Clinton never dreamed of, would create large deficits, would significantly increase the federal role in education, would increase farm subsidies, would pass campaign-finance reform and would temporarily impose tariffs on steel."
Brooks thinks this is"the death of small-government conservatism," buying into the cliche that Republicans have finally turned away from their"old anti-statist governing philosophy." But for all the small-government rhetoric of the Reagan years, the GOP has never been a"small-government" party. And deep down, Brooks knows this.
Drawing inspiration from David Frum, Brooks argues that it was"the death of socialism" that"transformed the Republican Party just as much as it has transformed the parties of the left." In their former attempts to curtail the growth of"Big Government," the GOP resurrected Jeffersonian rhetorical themes of decentralization."Conservatives and libertarians defeated socialism," Brooks asserts,"intellectually and then practically." But"[j]ust as socialism will no longer be the guiding goal for the left, reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives, as the Republican Party is only now beginning to understand."
And it is Bush who has helped the current GOP generation"to come up with a governing philosophy that applies to the times," one that rejects the"obsolete" and"simple government-is-the-problem philosophy of the older Republicans." Bush's" compassionate conservative" agenda advocated"effective and energetic government." But it is only in war that Bush has begun to solidify the"progressive conservative tradition," rooted in the neomercantilist politics of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. This is the politics that forged government-sponsored"internal improvements" (today, we'd call it"building infrastructure"), the government socialization of risk, government subsidies for business, government land grants for railroads, and national bank cartelization and centralization. Brooks thinks these policies facilitated trade by"open[ing] fields of enterprise," but, in reality, they have only eventuated in the 21st century"spending binge" and feeding frenzy of privilege-seeking that even Brooks sees as"a cancer on modern conservatism":
The money is appropriated in increments large and small -- a $180 billion corporate tax bill one week, a steady stream of pork projects all the rest. In 1994, there were 4,126 ''earmarks'' -- special spending provisions -- attached to the 13 annual appropriations bills. In 2004, there were around 14,000. Real federal spending on the Departments of Education, Commerce and Health and Human Services has roughly doubled since the Republicans took control of the House in 1994. This is a governing majority without shape, coherence or discipline.
Reinventing the GOP doesn't mean an end to this privilege-dispensing; it just means providing that dispensation with more"discipline." Yes, Brooks realizes,"any solution begins with culture." But genuinely"progressive conservatives understand that while culture matters most, government can alter culture." That's why we should applaud those"[g]overnment agencies [that] are now trying to design programs to encourage and strengthen marriage." That's why we should embrace"wage subsidies" and greater federal control of education to wrestle the system from"local monopolies," like unions. That's why we can use"the strong-government tradition" to improve market" competition." And finally, that's why we need"National service," to"encourage people ... to serve a cause larger than self-interest, fuse their own efforts with those from other regions and other walks of life and cultivate a spirit of citizenship."
And it doesn't end there. Brooks advocates the full internationalization of this"progressive conservative tradition" by embracing a comprehensive global nation-building enterprise."We need to strengthen nation-states," he writes."We are going to have to construct a multilateral nation-building apparatus so that each time a nation-building moment comes along, we don't have to patch one together ad hoc."
Somehow, Brooks thinks that this"progressive conservatism" will"rebuild the bonds among free-market conservatives, who dream of liberty; social conservatives, who dream of decency; middle-class suburbanites, who dream of opportunity; and foreign-policy hawks, who dream of security and democracy."
Keep dreaming, Mr. Brooks. The Bush administration's movement toward"progressive conservatism" or neoconservatism or theocratic fundamentalism or any other neologism we can coin has resulted in a near-irreparable conservative crack-up, which has fractured the uneasy consensus that once existed among these groups.
Nevertheless, I do believe that Brooks'"progressive conservatism" is more honest than the alleged"small-government conservatism" that dominated the GOP some 20 years ago. At least this time, the pretense of small-government ideology has been replaced by an ideology much more in keeping with the welfare-warfare statist reality that both Democrats and Republicans have sworn to preserve, protect, and defend. It's why there will be no fundamental difference whether Bush wins or Kerry wins.
It's also why I can agree with Brooks from a profoundly libertarian perspective:"It's time for one party or another to invent ... some new governing philosophy that will ... transform the partisan divide." How about one that is consistent in its understanding and application of the freedom-loving principles upon which this country was founded?