“[C]onservatives make two simple claims: Most policies under debate are liberal, and Republican leaders sacrifice conservative principles when they compromise. History shows they are right on both counts.”
So argues political scientist Matt Grossman of Michigan State University in a recent Washington Post column, relying on coded data spanning all major legislation enacted since 1945. By Grossman’s count, only about 20 percent of the most significant policies in the last seven decades have been conservative victories. In contrast, over 60 percent expanded government.
Once these policies are enacted, Grossman argues, they are “self-reinforcing because they create beneficiaries who act as constituencies for their continuation and expansion. Policy debates center on what additional actions government should take, not whether to discontinue existing roles.”
Grossman’s research confirms what we’ve all experienced: rolling back successive waves of liberalism is extraordinarily difficult because, all too often, conservative “success” is defined as moderately smaller expansion of government than liberals would prefer. Conservatives will only achieve those elusive policy victories if we argue from a position of strength informed by innovative policies. Progressives have seen too many successes over the last century for us to offer a timid response.
The history of those successes is familiar to all of us.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt established the modern welfare state. Though some of its excesses, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, were ruled unconstitutional, other elements such as Social Security and the Wagner Act—used recently by the Obama Administration to sue Boeing for building a non-union plant—remain on the books to this day.
The 1960s, of course, brought the next great leap forward for proponents of big government with the Great Society. President Johnson’s health care programs—Medicare and Medicaid—represent the greatest long-term threat to the federal government’s finances, while the administrative apparatus built around his War on Poverty has demonstrated the very same self-reinforcement and resiliency posited by Grossman. The same is true of the agencies and programs—foremost among them the EPA—established by President Nixon in the 1970s. And we need not re-litigate the Bush years.
What similar successes of their own can conservatives tout? President Reagan’s two terms served to slow the expansion of the state but failed to stop or reverse it. And while concrete policy successes since his term—such as welfare reform under President Clinton—demonstrate that compromise can achieve results consistent with conservative principles, they stand out because they have been so rare.
It is in this context Grossman suggests, “a do-nothing Congress is a conservative’s best-case scenario.”
That is a premise conservatives must thoroughly reject. Conservatives have failed to achieve their priorities in either divided or unified government in large part because we have not articulated them. We have not properly defended a conservative view of transportation policy in response to the Left’s own centralized vision of infrastructure spending. We have failed to offer a clear vision of a tax code unencumbered by cronyism and rife with double-taxation and inefficiency. We’ve done too little to expose the government-created barriers to a free market in health care and higher education. And we’ve only just begun the work of articulating a vision of a society that takes care of its seniors without placing most of them on single-payer health care.
History demonstrates conservatives are right to be leery about compromises crafted behind closed doors in Washington. But if we want more than just a dreary status quo, we need to start speaking up and winning the argument with the American people. It won’t be easy, but we have no other choice.