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Extremism in Defense of Liberty

By William Voegeli - December 14, 2012

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Those who were in any respect more bumptious were guilty of “revanchism.” New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus devoted a book, The Death of Conservatism (2009), to denouncing such retrogression as the American Right’s gravest temptation and sin. Conservative “counterrevolutionaries,” Tanenhaus argues, are “committed to…the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancien regime.” He allows that Great Society liberals, and the “New Politics” Hotspurs who condemned the Great Society for being merely ameliorative where radicalism was required, “unwittingly squeezed themselves into the stereotypes conservatives had invented.” But that was then. Any justification for what Mitt Romney might call a severe conservatism disappeared “a generation ago” when liberals reclaimed “the status of disinterested statesmen” by renouncing “the programmatic ‘New Politics’ of the left and embracing instead a broad majoritarianism.” Though the particulars of this renunciation are hazy, reciprocating it is imperative. “Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition.” The most honorable part of that tradition was, apparently, its docility.

The fight over the law passed in 2011 by Wisconsin’s Republican state legislators and Governor Scott Walker, limiting the power of labor unions representing government employees, reveals the meaning of this attack on revanchism. The Wisconsin GOP’s approach, according to Dionne, was “the most glaring example of [conservatives’] new and genuinely alarming approach to politics,” which “seeks to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power.” The Republicans “sought to undermine one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of organization.” That effort went way beyond “bargaining hard with the unions and demanding more reasonable pension agreements,” to the unacceptably maximalist goal of “trying to undercut the labor movement altogether.” The sort of Republicans who sought and sometimes wielded power in Wisconsin before the 2010 elections had been much…nicer. “They enacted conservative policies without turning the state upside down. They sought to win over their opponents rather than to inhibit their capacity to oppose.” Those extraordinary provocations rendered the extraordinary response of recalling Walker 17 months into his elected term “both justified and necessary,” according to Dionne.

The National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein is another critic of the Wisconsin law. Primarily a political reporter rather than an opinion columnist, Brownstein carries forward the late David Broder’s legacy of earnestly encouraging reasonable people to leave ideology aside in favor of pragmatically meeting governmental challenges by negotiating in good faith and the spirit of compromise. On that basis Brownstein denounced Governor Walker and Republican legislators for responding to Wisconsin’s fiscal problems with “a sharply ideological plan that targeted its pain almost entirely at Democratic constituencies.” Walker “refused to balance the cuts for union members” with “higher tax contributions from the affluent or corporations,” and “to negotiate givebacks directly with the public-employee unions (which they had signaled they would accept)” in favor of stripping “their rights to collectively bargain on those issues altogether.” Walker’s mistake, Brownstein argued, was to believe that in a polarized era “the only way to achieve effective change is to ruthlessly unify your own party, concede nothing to the other party (or its constituencies), and bulldoze forward as long as you can hold support from 50-plus-1 percent of the voters.” Brownstein compared Walker unfavorably to Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, who signed a budget in 2011 that combined spending reductions and union concessions with tax increases, thereby “demanding contributions from all segments of society” to close “an equally daunting deficit without remotely as much turmoil.”

Although it is true that Malloy’s budget plan elicited a fraction of the upheaval Walker’s did, Brownstein didn’t consider the possibility that this disparity shows only that Connecticut Republicans, who neither besieged the capitol nor sent their legislators out of state to prevent a quorum, have better civic manners than Wisconsin Democrats. Nor did he allow that Walker may have addressed a fundamental problem—public employee unions’ well-established pattern of using their power to deliver shoddy services at unaffordable costs—with a fundamental solution, while Malloy’s more timid response solved today’s problems at the price of leaving in place the structural predicates guaranteeing worse ones tomorrow. Finally, Brownstein failed to mention that Malloy’s plan was bipartisan only in the sense that all Republicans and some Democrats in the state legislature voted against it.

Engaging in politics with liberals, it appears, closely resembles conducting arms control talks with the Soviet Union. In both cases one confronts adversaries who insist that what’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is negotiable. Scott Walker sought to revise a legal regime that had been in existence barely more than 50 years, not, as Dionne implies, settled by the battle of Agincourt. No matter. Once history’s ratchet has clicked in the direction of progress, however recently, that step is irrevocable and all measures intended to reverse it, illegitimate. All such progressive changes immediately become part of “the rules,” and the rules must not be altered—even, perhaps especially, by conservatives who “use incumbency.” Journalist Mickey Kaus helpfully translated Dionne’s formulation from the foreboding into the merely descriptive: “‘Incumbency’ in this case means a law was passed by a democratically elected legislature (incumbents all) and signed by a democratically elected incumbent governor.”

Breaking the Rules

When, occasionally, history regresses in the direction of a less munificent, more constrained government, those provisional changes never become part of the rules and should always be altered at the earliest opportunity. The 1996 welfare reform law, enacted by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president, was understood at the time to have brought to a close the decades when welfare had become an entitlement, a way of life rather than a second chance, in President Bill Clinton’s phrase. President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, however, has used its powers of incumbency to issue new regulations that weaken the law’s requirements that welfare recipients work or prepare to work in order to remain eligible for benefits. If such changes stand, second chances will turn into third, fourth, and twelfth ones, and welfare will once more become a way of life. By the same token, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 culminated a series of revisions that saw a Republican president and legislators of both parties reduce the highest income tax rate from 70% to 28%. The principle that the government should never again lay claim to the majority of a legally acquired dollar also appeared to be a settled question. Liberal revanchists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Timothy Noah, however, are eagerly laying the intellectual groundwork, which will become the political foundation, for raising income tax rates back to 70% and beyond.

Taxes are indeed the central front of today’s political wars. In the eyes of the GOP’s detractors, categorical opposition to tax increases is the most flagrant, pernicious aspect of modern Republican extremism. The Ronald Reagan who in 1982 signed “the largest peacetime tax increase in American history,” according to Bruce Bartlett, would be considered a heretic by today’s Republicans. The moment that crystallized this tax-phobic fiscal irresponsibility, according to many critics, came in August 2011 at one of the GOP presidential debates. When the moderator asked about a hypothetical federal budget deal that cut $10 in spending for every $1 of tax increases, all eight candidates—from Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann and libertarian Ron Paul to Jon Huntsman, the supposed moderate in the field—raised their hands to reject it. There’s no forgiving that refusal to stand up to the “extremist base” of a party that has become, in the words of Time’s Joe Klein, “anachronistic, hateful and foolish.” When one of the 10-to-1 deal rejecters, Mitt Romney, selected Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, Geoffrey Kabaservice argued in the New Republic that moderation and even “the long-term viability of the Republican Party” were in peril. “Fiscal conservatism, if it means anything, requires that policymakers use both revenue increases and spending cuts to bring the budget into balance over the long term.” Because Ryan’s budget plans reject all tax hikes, he “sides with those for whom fiscal policy is a matter of theology rather than economics.”

Such harsh critics treat the possibility that Tea Party-influenced Republicans are taking defensible political measures to achieve legitimate policy goals as self-evidently false. It’s not. The rise of the Tea Party, and its swift incorporation into the GOP, can best be understood as a response to a dilemma that presented itself to conservatives 20 years ago. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the federal government shutdowns of 1995 and ’96, it appeared that the fight against the Evil Empire was Mission Accomplished while the fight to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment was Mission Impossible. Take away the two goals that had defined the conservative movement since the first issue of National Review, and it was unclear what conservatives were supposed to do, and what conservatism was supposed to be about. The innovations proposed to fill this lacuna included national greatness conservatism, compassionate conservatism, and George W. Bush’s call after 9/11 to “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” These missions proved to be, respectively: vague and pointless; a project of social reinvigoration to which political measures could make no more than a marginal contribution; and an extravagant ambition far exceeding America’s capacity and her citizens’ patience.

Loyal Opposition No More

These non-solutions only served to demonstrate the severity of conservatism’s problem. MoveOn.org had pushed the Democratic Party to the left after the start of the war in Iraq, which 58% of Senate Democrats voted to authorize. The Tea Party, symmetrically, emerged in 2009 to mobilize the Republican wing of the Republican Party, rejecting de facto assent to the government’s eternal growth. Its message was that the congressional Republicans of 1995 had overestimated the ease with which the federal government could be constrained, but subsequently over-interpreted their political defeat during the government shutdowns. In 2005 majority leader Tom DeLay stated that after a decade of GOP House majorities, “nobody has been able to come up with any” further spending cuts, proof that “we’ve pared [spending] down pretty good.” Federal outlays, adjusted for inflation and population growth, were 20% larger in 2005 than in 1995. Of that increase, defense spending added after 9/11 accounted for a bit less than a third. Little wonder that a demoralized Republican base stayed home in droves for the 2006 and 2008 elections.

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William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books).

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