By David Corbin, October 8, 2010 in Outside the Classroom
As the battle lines for the mid-term congressional election are drawn and the 2012 presidential field begins to emerge, there is all the more need to present an alternative to Obamaism that is both consistent with fundamental conservative ideals and able to respond to the growing public discontent with the present administration and congressional leadership. To do this, Republican leaders and would-be leaders need only recover their political heritage and reclaim the founding principle of the party and the defining ideal of its first president: equal justice for all.
From all indications, a large portion of the American public rejects not only the specific initiatives of the Obama administration (health care reform, the stimulus bill), but what are perceived to be the overall governing principles of the administration: high spending, high debt – and, perhaps most damaging, a high tolerance for waste and “special interest” politics. While some of the administration’s unpopularity may be explained as the projection of economic frustration, much of it is rationally connected with key decisions and policies leading to unprecedented deficit spending, transgressing many traditional limits on federal power, and creating a sense that political and business insiders have the ear of the administration in a way that regular citizens do not.
As a result, we may be on the verge of another “reform” moment in American politics comparable to the post-Watergate elections of 1974/76 or the 1992/94 elections that made Bill Clinton president, Newt Gingrich speaker, and Ross Perot a party leader. The problem with “reform” as a mantra and as a movement, however, is that its primary impulse is to “throw the bums out.” Not-D (or not-R) is not a governing philosophy, and the smattering of positive proposals that are generated by such movements usually owe more to surface populism than serious principle. And yet, it would not be hard to show that the principle of equal justice is often the unspoken root of the impulse against government corruption and irresponsibility, even when ignored or misapplied by those who are the political beneficiaries of it. If, as Rahm Emanuel might put it, conservative Republicans don’t want to waste a good political crisis, they will need to present their core commitment to limited government as the key to restoring equal justice – and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do this, since, well, it’s true.
The most obvious departures from equal justice today are related to the growing power of political insiders. From President Obama’s “stakeholder” meetings to congress’ I-don’t-have-to-read-it-to-know-I’m-for-it approach to public policy, numerous opportunities for political special pleading have arisen – and there is every indication that few of these are being squandered. There is perhaps nothing more destructive to the spirit of equal justice and the morale of a republic than the belief that being well-connected to the present governing class is the surest and fastest way to prosperity and influence. Although complaints about “special interests” may be the last refuge of a demagogue or a convenient excuse for personal failure, when they are common and plausible, they point to a corruption that strikes at the heart of popular government and reaches beyond ideological divisions.
Such complaints are certainly both common and plausible today. There is no reason, however, why these must redound to the benefit of conservatives. Special interest warriors in the past have had an uneasy relationship with conservative principles. From Ross Perot to John McCain, they have generally embodied a politics heavy on personal integrity, light on ideological consistency, and filled with “common sense” reforms that leave intact the most fundamental cause of special interest politics: a bloated federal government. Thus, even on their best days, they have scorched the snake, not killed it.
If Willie Sutton were still alive, he’d have to take up a new line of work to be faithful to his apparently apocryphal quip that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” Not only are the banks a little short on cash these days, but the real easy money is found in the appropriations bill rather than the bank vault. Of course, you still need the combination to get your hands on the dough. This turns out to be the recognition that one is an administration-approved “stakeholder,” a friend of those in high places, or a person or group in line with the present political orthodoxy. While all this may seem, at least to the cynic, to be nothing more than business as usual, it is important to realize that, in the context of the present administration, there is a lot more of this business than usual.
It is as near an iron rule as there is in politics that the greater the scope and power of government, the greater the difference between the well-connected and the rest. An expansive government naturally comes to regard regulatory advantages, government contracts, tax benefits, and the like as so many favors in its gift, to be distributed among its friends and adherents according to its pleasure. And yet this is a link that is rarely made in our public debates. Somehow, the most radical members of the American left (like Ralph Nader) have managed to portray themselves as the scourge of special interests even while clamoring to grow the Leviathan that is the very oxygen that feeds the special interest fire. In the present era of 1000-page stimulus packages, 2000-page health care “reform” bills, major industry bailouts, and ever-broadening environmental regulations, the few plainly benefit from their carefully-cultivated and closely-guarded connections at the expense of the many. It does not require a phony sort of populism to point this out or find it troubling.
The conservative Republican response is obvious: connect the case for equal justice to the case for limited government. What is a point of philosophical conviction for conservatives can be a point of practical application for others. This, however, will only be plausible, especially in light of the spending record of the Bush-era Republican congresses, if it includes explicit commitments to end earmarks and related spending practices, simplify the tax code, and reduce the scope and discretion of regulators. A fuller Republican commitment to equal justice in the upcoming congressional and presidential contests would, then, not only respond to prevailing public concern, but also give the case for limited government an appeal beyond those ideologically committed to the cause.
When Nehemiah wanted to keep merchants from peddling goods in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, he closed the gates of the city. When there is no business to be had, there’s no reason to come to town. There may be no way to close the gates to Washington, but a Lincoln Republican committed to equal justice and limited government might just draw them in a bit.
David Corbin is Chairman of the Program in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at The King’s College. Matthew Parks is Assistant Provost at The King’s College. A version of this opinion editorial appeared on the First Things blog, “First Thoughts” on September 20.