THE DEPTH OF Republican losses on November 7 has prompted some thoughtful reflections, but it has also caused some needless, and potentially damaging, finger-pointing and handwringing. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has broad support among both social and economic conservatives, has been welcomed to various editorial pages with the message that Congressional leaders who devoted attention to "wedge" issues like same-sex marriage not only cost the GOP its Hill majorities, but somehow betrayed the Reagan Revolution.
Curiously, Armey's long editorials have largely focused on excoriating the House and Senate GOP for abandoning Republican principles on spending restraint, including such issues as the corruption-tainted earmarking process. Armey offers not the slightest explanation of how traditional (now squared or cubed in volume) pork barreling by GOP incumbents correlates with the social conservative agenda. Indeed, most social conservative groups either formally or informally eschew government subsidies and many, like the Family Research Council, have long criticized earmarking and supported budget reformers like Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Others who want to fan the flames of dissension among economic and social conservatives point to our endorsement of faith-based initiatives as a sign of acquiescence to the federal behemoth. But there is no analysis anywhere that supports the idea that President Bush's program of leveling the playing field for religiously motivated social services has resulted in a significant expansion of those services. In truth, the data suggest that liberal social service providers, with far more experience in the arcane minutiae of the government grants process, have corralled the lion's share of new funding. For social conservatives, treating religious groups the same as secular entities in the area of government grants and contracts is about simple equity and proven efficacy.
How about the "wedge issues" Armey cites as evidence of the GOP's abandonment of its core principles of limited government and personal responsibility? Here the error seems to be more fundamental. The protection of the institution of marriage is an essential element of the preservation of the family unit. The destruction and disintegration of the family, which have proceeded with alacrity for the past 40 years, are closely tied to declines in educational achievement and increases in crime and negative health outcomes. Strong families, like the church and voluntary agencies of all kinds, are a bulwark against the expansion of state power.
Children flourish in intact families, and communities thrive when these "small platoons" of enterprise and freedom are strong. When families fail, government becomes both parent and provider, and societies veer toward socialist models out of sheer necessity. Small-government and low-tax conservatives have long understood the importance of preserving the family unit as well as vital local organizations, including churches, as the most powerful check on state power.
Did the 109th Congress spend too much time on these issues? It is inconceivable that less than one week combined of House and Senate debate on the protection of marriage over the past two years produced the distraction Armey cites. With a third of American children born out-of-wedlock every year, a strong case can be made that this Congress spent far too little time debating measures to increase the stability and longevity of marriage. In any event, it is difficult to see how debate on an issue supported by a clear majority of Americans has cost Republicans politically, and indeed poll after poll suggests that the "elephants in the room" for the GOP today are the war in Iraq and corruption, not social issues.
Election Day 2006 only confirmed this reality. The "marriage" issue was on the ballot in eight different states, and one state, Colorado, debated ballot questions on both the protection of traditional marriage and the creation of domestic partnerships as an alternative. Pro-marriage forces prevailed on eight of the nine questions, including, unexpectedly, both Colorado initiatives. The margins of victory were smaller in some cases than the previous average, but even so the 27 states that have voted on marriage initiatives to date have tallied a 69 percent majority en masse.
Which brings us to the biggest issue Armey's fulminations ignore. In any analysis of the perils of big government, it is wrong to overlook, as Armey does, the damage done to representative government by a hyper-activist judiciary. With all the harm inflicted on the U.S. economy by unnecessary pork, and on U.S. education by an evermore heavy-handed federal role, these are, at least, policy initiatives that a Congressional majority can reverse by a single vote. Not so with the extra-constitutional ideas that have been foisted on the country by judicial radicalism in such areas as abortion and the redefinition of marriage. Here, a change in course requires supermajority votes in the Congress and ratification of constitutional amendments by three-fourths of the states.
In some states, amending their constitutions requires votes in consecutive sessions of the legislature plus approval by the people. Imagine if this process were needed every time a liberal body decided to impose new taxes or create a massive spending program. Maybe then economic conservatives like Dick Armey would see the hand of big government in judicial activism.
Then again, Dick Armey, like Jack Danforth, was a social conservative when he served in Congress as an elected representative. Someone has changed, but it isn't social conservatives or the people who elected Armey and Danforth. In those days the only "lionizing" these distinguished men would have gotten in the liberal press was the kind they used to do in the Coliseum.
Chuck Donovan served in the Reagan White House and is the executive vice president of the Family Research Council in Washington, DC.