Things you can do/Some can’t be done
In his column today, David Brooks makes an error which I think is pretty common of conservative commentators who look to Great Britain for political inspiration. But first, Brooks:
The Conservatives have treated British voters as adults for a year now, with a string of serious economic positions. The Conservatives supported the Labour government bank bailout, even though it was against their political interest to do so. Last November, Osborne opposed a cut in the value-added taxes on the grounds that the cuts were unaffordable and would not produce growth. It is not easy for any conservative party to oppose tax cuts, but this one did it. […]
Osborne and David Cameron, the party leader, argue that Labour’s decision to centralize power has undermined personal and social responsibility. They are offering a responsibility agenda from top to bottom. Decentralize power so local elected bodies have responsibility. Structure social support to encourage responsible behavior and responsible spending.
If any Republican is looking for a way forward, start by doing what they’re doing across the Atlantic.
What Brooks doesn’t seem to get in his analysis – and what Matt Yglesias does seem to get in his – is that even with the considerable differences between the Conservative and Labour parties, there still exists a fair amount of consensus in British politics, especially regarding first-order concerns over the role of government. That is, on a foundational level, British liberals and British conservatives still agree on the basics: government can serve the better the welfare of its citizens, the state is empowered to provide a minimum level of safety and security, etc. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are usually grouped together as contemporaries, but for all of her reactionary rhetoric, Thatcher wasn’t on a crusade to undermine the welfare state.
Reagan, however, was. This might be boilerplate for most everyone here, but it’s worth reemphasizing: the Reagan Revolution didn’t just herald the end of the New Deal coalition, it also heralded the end of the New Deal consensus. Reagan’s rise and victory signalled the end of a Republican Party that was – at core – in broad agreement with the Democratic Party about the role government. With Reagan at its helm, the GOP transformed into a conservative movement dedicated to doing as much as it could to undermine and dismantle the welfare state.
Now, on some level, this was a necessary correction to the excesses of the 1970s. But, when thinking about contemporary politics, it leaves the GOP in a much different place vis a vis the Democratic Party than the Conservative Party is vis a vis Labour. Osborne and Cameron can use government to pursue conservative policy ends because the Tories never abandoned the idea that government can serve to improve the lives of its citizens. The real disagreement between British liberals and conservatives is in the extent to which government should. By contrast, Republicans have explicitly rejected the idea that government can be a force for good. Which, policy wise, leaves them in a bit of a bind: not only does it encourage an almost criminal negligence to the operation of government (see: Bush Administration), but it virtually eliminates the space for certain kinds of policymaking. For instance, Yglesias mentions that the Conservative Party fully signed on to the idea that climate and energy are issues which Britain must tackle (the same is true of center-right parties on the continent). From there, he suggests that the GOP would have a bit more success electorally if it could do the same. And I think that’s true. But when you have a near-resolute opposition to government, it’s a little difficult to tackle problems which require government intervention (I’m oversimplifying a bit, but you get the picture).
The problem with Brooks’ recommendation then isn’t that it is a bad one, because it isn’t. The Republican Party – and the country – would be better off if it adopted a pragmatic, flexible and mature approach towards governing. No, the problem with Brooks’ suggestion is that it ignores the reality of the contemporary conservative movement, its near-death grip on the Republican Party, and its absolute opposition to the idea of government. The GOP can’t build a Cameronite consensus with the Democratic Party because, at this point in time, there really isn’t much of a consensus.