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The Governing Party

From the December 1, 2003 issue: Conservatives discover the downside of being the majority.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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We'll see about that. In the meantime, behaving as a governing majority has a cost. M. Stanton Evans, the conservative writer, used to say that our people--conservatives--cease being our people when they get in a position of power. There's an element of that here, particularly in Republicans' eagerness to compromise. You don't have to be a libertarian to believe that inventing a prescription drug entitlement clashes with the idea of limited government. The assumption by Republicans that they'll get stronger reforms, even significant privatization, of Medicare later by working with their new best friend, AARP, is dubious. AARP is a staunch defender of traditional government-run Medicare. With a drug benefit in hand, AARP may balk at further reform.

The biggest worry about a Republican governing majority is that it won't act as a conservative majority. Gingrich says the goal is to be a "Reaganite governing majority." But on Medicare, the Reaganite part was small. The promise of free-market competition under Medicare was delayed until 2010 and then limited to a trial run in six cities over six years. A lot can happen before then, including the election of a Democratic president (in 2008) bent on eliminating any tinge of privatization. If the drug benefit bill is the model of success by a governing majority, the passage of almost any sort of legislation is fine so long as conservatives get a few concessions.

The real test of the Republican majority will come next year and in 2005. White House officials insist the president will campaign for reelection on Social Security reform. Democrats will answer that he wants to privatize the entire Social Security system and jeopardize benefits. Bush didn't buckle on this issue in 2000, but he didn't win a majority of the popular vote either. Assuming Republicans retain control of the White House and Congress, will they enact the one Social Security reform that matters, allowing workers to use some of their payroll tax for private investments? If not, a governing majority is a conceit without conservative content.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.