Politics & Policy

Vs. David Brooks.

Strong government, weak prescriptions.

At a time when many Republicans are not quite sure what their party stands for any more, David Brooks has come along to spell out a new governing philosophy for it (although he says it’s actually its original philosophy). The Republicans, he says, cannot any longer stand for shrinking the federal government. It is an impossible task, because the public doesn’t want it. Instead, he argues, Republicans should stand for “strong government” that promotes “social mobility and national union.” This is what Lincoln stood for. And supporting strong government will give conservatives the credibility they need to cut wasteful spending.

In some respects, Brooks is playing catch-up here. He claims that the Republican delegates of 2000 “had no idea they were nominating a guy who…would not try to cut even a single government agency,” “who would be the first president in a generation to create a new entitlement program, the prescription drug benefit,” or who “would significantly increase the federal role in education.” Delegates who didn’t know those things weren’t paying attention. Bush never said he would abolish any government programs in 2000, he didn’t run as a government-cutter, and he was on record in support of a new prescription-drug entitlement and an expansion of the federal role in education. Not only that: By 2000, not even Steve Forbes was running as a government-cutter. When I asked Forbes about cutting spending during that campaign, he said that a direct assault wouldn’t work. What was needed, he said, was a market-oriented reform of Social Security and Medicare that would, over time, make it possible to cut the government. Brooks commends journalist Jonathan Rauch’s formulation that conservatives were turning from “reducing the supply of government” to “reducing the demand” for it. Rauch was describing the strategy of Grover Norquist. I think Norquist’s idea is sound. But to agree with him is not exactly to set a new direction for the Republican party.

Norquist’s idea doesn’t add up to a governing philosophy, as Brooks notes. When I asked Norquist to make the case for a second Bush term recently, he started talking about competitive contracting in federal programs. Competitive contracting may have the revolutionary long-term impact on politics that Norquist projects, but nobody is going to take to the streets (or even vote) for it. So Brooks’s project–coming up with a governing philosophy for a party that is no longer trying to shrink the government in the short run–may be a necessary one.

I agree with Brooks, also, that Republicans should stand for “strong government,” although our understanding of the phrase may differ. The federal government should be competent to achieve its legitimate aims. Brooks does not, I think, adequately consider the possibility that the government cannot be truly strong while trying to micromanage things that are not properly its concern and acting as the docile servant of millions of political constituencies seeking favors. Most of Brooks’s concrete proposals are worthy enough, and most conservatives would agree. But these proposals tend either to be already conservative orthodoxy, wildly unpopular, or poorly thought-through. Since Brooks asserts in his manifesto that his ideas would build a lasting Republican majority, that unpopularity is a problem. For example, Brooks believes that we should raise the retirement age. Fine idea. If Republicans push it, they will not build a lasting Republican majority. They will lose control of both chambers of Congress. Brooks is (unlike me) a national-service enthusiast. It is a popular idea if it’s voluntary, but it won’t become the “rite of passage” Brooks wants it to be unless it’s mandatory–which is not going to be popular.

In the poorly-thought-through category I would place Brooks’s vague call for subsidies to promote “transformational technologies” to supply energy, and his notion of federal funding for charter schools. For years, Brooks has been arguing that Republicans need to use national power to break up local school monopolies. But he has never provided any institutional or political reasons for thinking that this kind of trust-busting is more likely to be successful in Congress than in the states.

The notion that supporting strong government will build conservatives’ “credibility” so that they can then eliminate wasteful spending–Brooks mentions export subsidies and agricultural subsidies–is hard to take seriously. The reason that conservatives have not been able to get rid of farm subsidies and export subsidies is not that we lack “credibility.” (I’m not even sure what Brooks means here. I think he is saying that the public is too uncomfortable with conservatives’ anti-statist radicalism to let them cut any government programs, and wants conservatives to demonstrate that they appreciate the good that government can do before permission for reform will be granted.) We can’t get rid of those programs because nobody wants to get rid of them as badly as their beneficiaries want them. The only people who vote based on farm programs are farmers. It is nice that the editors of the New York Times are government-cutters on the farm issue, but its support does not make this a winning issue for conservatives.

Finally, there is an odd omission from Brooks’s manifesto. Social conservatism has been the great source of Republican electoral strength from 1968 onward. Brooks may not like that fact, or like it in all respects. But a Republican governing philosophy is going to have to take account of it. Brooks says almost nothing about social issues. (He does mention Bush’s marriage-counseling initiative–which may be a good idea, but, again, is not very popular.) As smart as Brooks is, he can’t quite make this new governing philosophy work. The Republicans may have to muddle along without one.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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