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Will the Tea Party Usher In a More Limited View of Government?

Conservatives might govern sooner than many expected.

12:00 AM, Jul 8, 2010 • By JIM PREVOR
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When the time came to evaluate the surge in Iraq, the Bush advisers were divided, thus giving President Bush the opportunity to go with his inclinations.

Whatever one might think of President Bush’s management theories, the outcome poses some dilemma for conservatives.

On the one hand, just as the “Constitution is not a suicide pact,” there is no indication that the American people are so doctrinaire that they want government restricted to a degree that it cannot respond to emergencies or act to prevent dire outcomes – such as a new depression.

On the other hand, the conservative objection to bailouts is not solely prudential; the conservative objection is also that bailouts are wrong. That to take money from someone who has lived prudently to cushion the crash of an indulgent person is not acceptable.

Even to take actions that are designed to favor one class of people over another is, for many conservatives, simply not an appropriate use of government authority. For example, the massive efforts being exerted to help the real estate market are not really proper, because, whatever the justification, it is wrong for the government to look to favor homeowners over, say, renters, who may want to buy a home.

William Kristol has noted that conservatives may have to be ready to govern sooner than many expected: “A year and a half ago, it seemed that conservatives would have years in the wilderness to lick their wounds and gather their forces. Now, suddenly, conservatism is being called on to be intellectually robust and politically adept.” 

We simply can’t count on having principled politicians in the mode of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Typically, presidents of both parties come to the office as politicians, not ideologues. Yet it seems somewhat unsatisfying to say the difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives will only abandon their principles if something really big is at stake, whereas liberals don’t believe in the same principles at all.

Somewhere in this ambiguity is the Tea Party movement, seeking to express coherently a dissatisfaction with the policies of President Obama, but well aware that the last Republican president in office, though different in inclination, did not, when the chips were down at the time of the Bear Stearns debacle, feel either constrained in what he could do, nor hesitant in what he should do – namely, whatever it took to avoid a bad outcome.

An intellectually robust and politically adept conservatism has to come down against the kind of ad hoc machinations that characterized the end of the Bush term as it relates to the economic crisis – and continue to characterize the Obama administration.  The answer has to be that, although giving politicians occasional free rein to act might work, on balance, such freedom will lead to crony capitalism and a stratification of society as the power of government is put behind whoever is the existing interest group.

It is much like the argument for democracy itself. Sure, sometimes, a benevolent dictator might act more wisely, effectively, and quickly – but we still reject dictatorships because, over time, they will produce abusive government and bad policies. It is worth remembering that Winston Churchill gave his famous homage to democracy – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” – in 1947, after he had been thrown out of office in the election of July 1945.

It is one thing for the government’s policies coincidentally to benefit certain people or organizations, as when the government builds the interstate highway system and landholders near the highways get rich. In the end, though, it is incompatible with the American system, and with the conservative movement, for the president to believe that government has in its power to bail out Bear Stearns – even if he believes that will help the country.

This means the challenge for conservatives is to persuade the populace that, over time, we will be better off limiting government than allowing total flexibility. The Tea Party movement, not affiliated with any political party, is, in fact, ideally suited to take on this task, the task of inculcating in the American people with the kind of deep belief in limited government that is inherent in democracy.

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