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Who Wants to Party with David Brooks?

By Robert Robb

A while back, David Brooks wrote a column saying that Republicans wanting to return to the limited government principles of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater were, politically speaking, whistling past the graveyard. The "liberty vs. power" paradigm was so, like, yesterday.

The new paradigm, according to Brooks, is "security leads to freedom." "People with a secure base," Brooks explained, "are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world." And, of course, people are looking to government to secure their base.

The response of small-government conservatives would be: That's nice. But secure your own damn base.

Brooks is just the latest in a long line of pundits to announce that small-government conservatism is a dinosaur. I've always wondered what they expect small-government conservatives to do? Just shut up and support big-government Republicans as preferable to big-government Democrats?

Periodically, the pundit class likewise opines that Republicans make a mistake in nominating the preferences of social conservatives, making it more difficult to win general elections. That theory may be about to get a test. The major Republican presidential contenders don't offer much of an appealing choice for social conservatives: Someone who generally disagrees with them but respects them (Giuliani); someone who generally agrees with them but disrespects them (McCain); or someone who agrees or disagrees with them depending on what office he is running for (Romney).

But, again, the interesting question is just what do the pundits expect social conservatives to do? Not participate in primaries? Vote for someone other than the candidate they prefer?

America's two-party system doesn't seem to satisfy anyone. Perhaps the tents are actually too big, rather than not being big enough - the usual complaint. David Boaz of the Cato Institute has pointed out how a large segment of the American electorate holding conservative economic views and liberal social ones are not really comfortable, or even particularly welcome, in either political party. According to Boaz, that's 10 percent to 20 percent of the electorate.

Boaz has been trying to sell libertarian voters as the new swing demographic, replacing or competing with soccer moms and NASCAR Dads. But why shouldn't such a large segment of the body politic have a party of their own? (Although, with Giuliani, they might get a candidate of their own from the Republicans.)

America's two-party system may be dissatisfying, but multi-party systems around the world often seem to lead to poor, ineffective and unstable governance. Usually the party that forms a government has only received a plurality of the votes. It has to make deals with more minor parties to form a parliamentary majority, which usually involves ceding some element of public policy to a decidedly minority point of view. Such governments can rarely claim any kind of real mandate to get anything done, having mustered just a plurality, not a majority. They also tend to be unstable, since it's easy for the minor parties to take offense at something and bring down the government.

Perhaps the recent French presidential election offers some useful ideas for reforming the American party system. The first round was a robust, multi-party affair. In fact, four parties attracted more than 10 percent of the vote. The two top vote-getters in the first round, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, then squared off in a run-off. Sarkozy won the second round with 53 percent of the vote. So, a clear majority of French voters preferred him over the next practical political choice.

Such a system would seem to combine the opportunity for more comfortable, diverse and meaningful party preferences while still ensuring, at the end of the day, that the government rests upon the choice of a majority. I have no idea how political party reform gets started in the United States. Citing the French as an example probably isn't the best place to begin.

I do know this, however. People who care about principles cannot be expected to remain committed forever to a political party in which those principles don't have a chance to prevail. Brooks, I know, was making what he regards as a practical political point. This does not seem to be the season for small-government conservatism. Well, sometimes in politics, you lose. And you keep fighting. There weren't many voices in the 1970s saying, you know what, I think the era of Reagan is just around the corner. But it was.

Brooks, however, was recommending that the Republican Party pretty openly shed the principles of small-government conservatism, as embodied by Reagan and Goldwater. He apparently assumes that small-government conservatives don't matter, won't notice, won't care, or have no where else to go.

At present, at least the latter is true. Perhaps it shouldn't be.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic. He can be reached at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com. More of his work is available at robertrobb.com.

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