Come back, Barry

Posted on May 12, 2005 | Type: In the News
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The Republican Party continues to abandon small-government conservatism at its peril

The Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think-tank based-where else-in Phoenix, Arizona, contains a striking photograph of the young Barry Goldwater, dressed in girlish clothes and accompanied by a tame monkey. The precise meaning of the photograph-was the monkey borrowed, or a permanent part of the maverick Arizonan's household-is lost to history. But for those with a taste for symbolism the photograph raises an intriguing question: is Goldwaterism anything more than an eccentric side-show in today's Republican Party?

Although he went down to a huge defeat in the 1964 presidential election, Goldwater did as much as anybody to launch the modern conservative movement. Yet everywhere you look, the Republican Party is abandoning his principles.

The senator's conservatism was rooted in small government. But today's Grand Old Party has morphed into the "Grand Old Spending Party", as the libertarian Cato Institute dubs it. Total government spending grew by 33% in George Bush's first term. Goldwater's hostility to big government also extended to government meddling in people's private lives. He thundered that social conservatives such as Jerry Falwell deserved "a swift kick in the ass", and insisted that the decision to have an abortion should be "up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right". For Goldwater, abortion was "not a conservative issue at all". For many Republicans today, it often seems to be the only conservative issue.

Goldwater was a famous devotee of states' rights. (His opposition to the Civil Rights Act on those grounds earned him a reputation on the left as a racist.) Mr Bush's Republicans have no qualms about trampling states' rights in the name of the greater good. In the Terri Schiavo case, they passed a law to try to take the case out of the state courts and put it in a federal court, with the president flying all the way from Texas to sign the bill.

Why has modern American conservatism turned its back on such a seminal figure? The explanation among Republicans is the war on terror. Surely you need to spend more on defence when the country is under attack? Surely you need a stronger federal government when terrorists are trying to kill you? As the Cato Institute shows, this is tripe. Even if you strip out spending on defence and homeland security, Mr Bush still wins the prize as the biggest booster of public spending for three decades. And not even the National Review has yet demonstrated the links between terrorism and the Terri Schiavo affair, or, for that matter, between terrorism and the Justice Department's attempts to crack down on assisted suicide and medical marijuana.

The real explanation is grubbier. In the 1990s, Mr Bush calculated that small-government conservatism had run its course as an election-winning strategy. So he embraced conservatism with a happy face, expanding the Department of Education, not killing it. Karl Rove summed up this philosophy at a recent meeting of conservative activists as putting "government on the side of progress and reform, modernisation and greater freedom".

This love affair with big government has been inflamed by the experience of power. Ten years ago, the champions of conservatism were anti-government radicals such as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey. Today they are patronage-wallahs like Tom DeLay. The congressional Republican Party, once a brake on spending, is now an accelerator. Congress trimmed Mr Clinton's budgets by $57 billion in 1996-2001; in Mr Bush's first term, it added an extra $91 billion of domestic spending.

Despite this, it would be a mistake to dismiss Goldwaterism as a side-show. The Arizonan would have applauded at least some of Mr Bush's policies, including his tax cuts, his strong defence of gun rights, and Social Security reform, a cause that Goldwater embraced in the 1960s. He would also have found something to like in some of Mr Bush's conservative judges-in-waiting, particularly Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown, who have both been vigorous supporters of property rights.

Goldwaterism is also flourishing at the local level, particularly in the west. Thanks in part to the Goldwater Institute, Arizona has taken bigger strides towards school choice than any other state in the union. Last year, Seattle rejected overwhelmingly a do-gooder coffee tax. Florida recently passed a "right to shoot" law, giving citizens the right to shoot people who attack them in the street.

George Bush's balancing trick

Above all, Americans are voting for Goldwaterism with their feet. In 1995-2000, the ten states with the lowest overall tax burdens (including Florida, Texas, Nevada and Colorado) enjoyed a net gain of more than 1.3m people from other states. The nine states plus the District of Columbia with the highest tax burdens suffered a total loss of more than 1.7m. Goldwater's hometown of Phoenix grew by 45% in the 1990s.

Which raises an interesting possibility: big-government conservatism may not be quite the guarantor of long-term hegemony that the Bush machine imagines. Seven out of ten Americans (and one in two evangelical Christians) disapproved of the decision to intervene in the Schiavo case. After Mr Bush, the Republican Party's main crowd-pullers are Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger (both of whom mix social liberalism with opposition to taxes) and John McCain, an Arizonan who takes a more conservative stance on matters like abortion but who shares Goldwater's taste for maverick politics.

One reason why Ronald Reagan had such an invigorating impact on his party is that he never allowed the Christian right to gain too much power at the expense of the Goldwater right. Messrs Bush and Rove may have to pay more attention to that balance if they are to realise their dream of turning the Republicans into America's permanent ruling party.

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