Leviathan on the Right

Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution
Michael D. Tanner
Cato Institute, 2007
321 pp.

The Republican Party once presented itself – and was even widely thought of – as the party of limited government. Today it is something quite different. Actually, it is many different things.

It is the Party of War. Most Republicans denounced President Bill Clinton and other Democrats for their promiscuous war-making. Now the conservative movement stands for wars of choice, and particularly humanitarian warmongering. The party that once denounced social engineering at home advocates social engineering abroad. By launching a preventive war based on flawed intelligence, the Bush administration generated vigorous international opposition, even among America’s allies. By botching the ensuing occupation, the administration inflamed terrorism and weakened U.S. influence around the globe.

The GOP is the Party of Perjury. Conservatives denounced President Clinton for lying in a court proceeding. Now, backed by the neoconservative Greek Chorus – the Wall Street Journal editorial page, James Taranto’s “Best of the Web,” the Weekly Standard, Townhall.com’s leading columnists, and more – Republicans dismiss as unimportant, even unfair, perjury charges against the former chief of staff to the vice president of the United States. After all, what’s a lie to federal authorities among friends? Especially if, as seems likely, the deception was intended to protect the vice president as he orchestrated attacks on administration critics.

Republicans are the Party of Partisan Advantage. In years past, for instance, GOP legislators expressed outrage when Democratic administrations played politics with federal prosecutors – three decades ago President Jimmy Carter removed Philadelphia U.S. Attorney David Marston after he investigated Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.). Republicans were little more pleased when President Clinton fired Washington, D.C. U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens as he investigated House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D.-Ill.), even though Stephens was dumped along with the other 92 U.S. Attorneys around the nation.

Today, however, the Bush administration adopts a stance of “what, me worry?” when confronted after firing eight U.S. Attorneys. The Wall Street Journal points to the Clinton purge as justification. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard argues that President George W. Bush has been too conciliatory. Never mind that Justice Department officials deceived the public and Congress about their actions and smeared as incompetent the U.S. Attorneys who were removed; never mind that Republican legislators had criticized two of the U.S. Attorneys for not pursuing Democrats with sufficient alacrity. If a Republican does something, it must be okay.

The GOP is the Party of Misgovernment. There was much to appall in the Clinton years, and Republicans, along with virtually the entire conservative movement, was quick to denounce the slightest Clinton deception and misstep. When President Bush took office, his supporters claimed that the “adults” were back in charge. Federal management was going to reflect a renewed seriousness of purpose.

Today it’s hard to find someone who isn’t on the payroll of the Bush administration, or a neocon-dominated publication or think tank, who isn’t shocked by constant presidential blundering and deceit. The flawed intelligence and calculated misstatements used to justify the war. The generous rewards bestowed on the officials most at fault. The lies told to win support for the Medicare drug benefit. The horrific response to Hurricane Katrina. The foreign policy of arrogance which wrecked America’s international reputation. The outrageous claims and hopeless promises regularly advanced about Iraq. The bizarre policy of confronting and then appeasing North Korea. The vile demonization of administration critics.

Finally, the Republican Party is the Party of Big Government. President Ronald Reagan famously said that government was the problem, not the solution. No longer. Today the Republican Party represents a conservativism that “has more in common with Ted Kennedy than with Ronald Reagan,” observes Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, in his depressing but utterly convincing new book, Leviathan on the Right. The Bush administration, in partnership with the Republican Congress, has been so effective in growing government that last November more voters viewed the GOP than the Democrats as the party of Big Government. Of course, that judgment is a stretch, given staunch Democratic support for the welfare/warfare state (military spending is set to keep rising, despite the Democratic takeover of Congress, for instance). Nevertheless, the GOP, supported by its neocon cheerleaders, has gleefully abandoned any support for individual liberty, limited government, and fiscal responsibility. We are all statists now, to paraphrase Richard Nixon.

Leviathan on the Right is unfortunately limited in one respect. Tanner explicitly avoids the ongoing debates over foreign policy and civil liberties. Obviously, more expansive government power in those areas undercuts a general commitment to individual liberty. During the Cold War most right-leaning activists were willing accept such limits as the necessary price of containing, and ultimately defeating, the Soviet Union. Today, however, many traditionalist conservatives are uncomfortable with the neoconservative takeover of the Bush administration and Republican Party. Despite the disaster in Iraq, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and similarly-minded ivory tower activists remain ready to plunge the rest of the population into perpetual war for peace. However, many conservatives who believe in a limited, constitutional state are growing uneasy with the influence of those who joyously crusade with other people’s lives.

Nevertheless, Michael Tanner has produced a devastating, damning work. It would be one thing for true conservatives to accept a compromise in which the GOP pushed to cut domestic government power while pushing an activist foreign agenda. But Republicans today are busy expanding government everywhere, all the time. Writes Tanner:

“Bush was the first Republican since Eisenhower to run for president without calling for cutting or abolishing a single government program. Since his election, Bush has presided over the largest expansion of government spending since Lyndon Johnson initiated the Great Society. Domestic spending has increased by 27 percent during his presidency. More people now work for the federal government than at any time since the Cold War. Not a single federal program has been eliminated.”

This is conservatism?

Leviathan on the Right provides a well-organized analysis of where and why the GOP has expanded government. Although the neoconservatives have been most visible, as the leading warmongers on the right, they are not alone in promoting Big Government. Tanner also points to “national-greatness conservatives,” who believe that the state should force the pathetic masses to participate in some grand national cause. The Religious Right increasingly has shifted from fighting to be left alone to using “government power to enforce its moral vision,” Tanner writes.

Supply-siders, as they are called, may not actively promote bigger government, but often enable it, by emphasizing the revenue potential of tax cuts, thereby vitiating any need to cut spending. And “technophiles,” Tanner explains, focus on “programatic efficiency and believe the government’s role is to invest in the technologies of the future.”

Tanner looks at the role of each of these groups, noting that his discussion “is not to say that these people or movements have not raised valid issues and concerns” that have enriched the conservative movement. But big-government activists increasingly have shoved aside the traditionalist/libertarian coalition that long dominated the right. Tanner explains: “as each of these streams of conservative thought has flowed together under the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress, they have combined to move conservatism away from its traditional belief in limited government and toward an embrace of big, activist, and centralized government.”

Ironically, this shift has moved conservatism alongside liberalism, essentially turning the old linear political spectrum into a circle. Most obvious are the shared expansive programs and expensive budgets. But there’s more. Explains Tanner: “big-government conservatives share a common arrogance with contemporary liberalism. They are convinced that they know what is best for every American and because they know best, they should guide the rest of us in the proper direction.” Alas, conservatives are no better at social engineering than are liberals. As a result, “big-government conservatism will simply bring us ever more government intervention in and control over our lives, greater regulation, mounting debt that threatens the nation’s future economic health, and less freedom for every American.”

Tanner systematically reviews the flawed results of big-government conservatism. First, as conservatives tasted power, they proved “Lord Acton correct,” notes Tanner, referring to Acton’s famous aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Despite the revolutionary fervor which accompanied the GOP when it seized control of Congress in 1994, Tanner concludes, “the Republican Party became less committed to small government than it was to keeping itself in power.” The philosophy of conservative statism “gave Republicans a philosophical excuse to do those things that they wanted to do anyway,” writes Tanner.

Tanner, a specialist in social welfare policy, notes the GOP’s new love affair for the welfare state. In 1996 the Republican Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, a significant welfare reform package. Yet, observes Tanner, “many of the gains of welfare reform are being quietly undone, while the federal government is creating new programs and expanding into new areas.” Indeed, the Bush administration, he notes, has been an avid promoter of using “the power of government programs to direct or change the behavior of the poor,” as well as passing federal funds to favored groups, such as faith-based charities.

In this way, Tanner argues that the GOP has embarked on a foolish mission. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, statist Republicans “believe that somehow government is capable of devising precisely the right set of incentives and disincentives to deal with the deep-rooted social, cultural, and spiritual problems of the underclass.” In effect, these conservatives have become liberals.

The problem of health care is similar. It’s a devilishly complicated subject, since the government already pays 45 percent of the bill. Washington needs to move either towards state provision or competitive markets. The latter is by far the better alternative, but, unfortunately, Big Government conservatives seem to be moving towards the former: “Under the Bush administration, the growth in health care spending has rebounded to more than 7 percent annually. Regulation of the health care industry has increased, and the portion of health care spending paid directly by the consumer has continued to decline.” The result, he fears, is having moved “several steps down the slippery slope to national health care.”

If anything, the situation is worse on entitlements ($8 trillion in unfunded liabilities with the badly designed Medicare drug benefit) and overall federal expenditures (Republicans have been “spending like drunken Democrats,” Tanner writes). Others, like Bruce Bartlett in Imposter, also have written on these issues. But the GOP’s horrific record bears repeating. Tanner makes the additional point that this fiscal irresponsibility is more than simply the result of the corruption of power. Rather, the lavish spending, he writes, is “a direct consequence of the rise of big-government conservatism.”

Where does the federal meddling end? It doesn’t. Statist conservatives dismiss traditional conservative concerns regarding federalism. Notes Tanner:

“At a fundamental level, big-government conservatives are much more concerned with ends than means. Something as process oriented as federalism can’t be allowed to get in the way of doing things that big-government conservatives believe need to be done.”

Hence the unprecedented federal intervention in the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, in which her parents and husband were at odds over keeping her alive. There also is the GOP drive to further federalize educational policy. Indeed, Tanner points to the irony of President Bush sitting in a classroom to promote reading, an issue not traditionally within Washington’s competence, when terrorists successfully attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center, demonstrating the weakness of America’s defense, which is Washington’s principal duty.

Perhaps most maddening is how it is Republicans today who are dedicated to turning Uncle Sam into a national nanny. Steroids, online gambling, and obscenity – there is little in America which statist Republicans don’t believe to be a federal responsibility. Tanner complains: “sometimes any issue that hits the television news seems to become an issue that must be addressed by the federal government. And like busybodies everywhere, Congress can’t help peering in our windows and telling us how to live our lives.”

The GOP defeat last November already has delivered much good. No longer is the Bush administration an accountability-free zone. Today there is someone with subpoena power who can, for instance, investigate the mistreatment of wounded soldiers and deception of Congress about the firing of U.S. Attorneys.

If the Democrats get an infusion of courage they also could end the Bush administration’s unnecessary and botched adventure in Iraq. One is tempted to ask why these members run for election if they aren’t willing to take action that is both right and popular.

Moreover, last November’s election should spark a serious debate among conservatives. Tanner asks: “Will it return its traditional opposition to big government, or will it embrace this new brand of conservatism that promotes big government as a tool for the remaking of society? It must choose between the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and the conservatism of George W. Bush, Gary Bauer, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Kristol.” (Tanner seriously underestimates the importance of foreign policy as part of this debate, asserting that “politically, for all the internal disagreements, support for a strong national defense remains the glue that holds the various wings of the Republican Party together.” Alas, national defense has become one of the strongest cards played by big-government conservatives.)

Such a debate is critically important for the future of all Americans, left and right. As Tanner concludes his well-argued book: “If big-government conservatives win, if we end up with nothing in Washington more than a debate between big government and bigger government, our children will inherit an America that is less prosperous and less free.” Unless the GOP changes course, the last six years of horrid Republican malgovernance – of war, deceit, perjury, waste, incompetence, and excess – may be just a foretaste of the future.