In the year since they failed to unseat President Barack Obama, Republicans have been debating the future of their party. Some of the most prominent congressional Republicans, such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, have sought inspiration in the populist, anti-government ideas associated with the tea party movement.
In an important article in the current issue of National Affairs magazine, former Bush administration staffers Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner lament this “anti-government fervor” and insist that conservatives should articulate a distinctive, positive vision of government. Their essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” attempts to do just that, looking for inspiration not to Republicans in Congress but to such Republican governors as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and New Jersey’s Chris Christie.
Gerson and Wehner make a powerful case against the libertarian constitutional vision articulated by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, in their book, “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.” Being conservatives themselves, Gerson and Wehner agree with the libertarians in rejecting the Obama administration’s view that the powers of the national government are effectively unlimited.
But they also argue, correctly, that the Constitution was adopted to do more than limit the powers of government. The founders rejected the Articles of Confederation, our nation’s first constitutional charter, because the governing structures it created were too weak, leaving the new nation unable to pay its debts and too feeble to command international respect.
The Constitution, by contrast, creates a government with great but limited powers, so that the government will be able to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”
Gerson and Wehner also rightly maintain that the Constitution by itself does not provide a complete vision of government. The “general welfare” and the other broad aims of government mean different things to different people, and it is up to us as citizens to give those broad phrases specific content.
And for those who do not accept this theoretical argument, Gerson and Wehner offer a more pragmatic reason for conservatives to offer their own, positive vision of government: Being the party against government may be enough to pick up congressional seats in off-year elections, but if Republicans hope to recapture the White House, they will need to present a positively inspiring agenda to the voters.
Unfortunately, Gerson and Wehner succeed less well at articulating this conservative vision of government than they do at demonstrating the need for it.
“The purpose of the state,” they write, “is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society’s âmediating institutions’ the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable.”
This statement is unobjectionable, but there is not much in it that distinguishes it as a conservative vision of government. In embracing equality of opportunity, Gerson and Wehner mean to reject progressives’ desire for equalizing outcomes. And in calling for the protection of the mediating institutions of civil society, such as families, religious congregations and other voluntary associations, they mean to reject progressive policies that, by making individuals directly dependent on the state, undermine such groups and institutions.
Looking to the example of Republican leaders in state government, Gerson and Wehner call for an agenda of conservative reform: “If valued and valid public purposes are going unserved, or positively disserved by government, the proper response is not to dismantle government but to repair and reform it in a conservative direction.”
There is, however, nothing distinctively conservative in reform, either. In his first inaugural address, President Obama proposed a pragmatic agenda to reform government.
“The question we ask today,” Obama said, “is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
Admittedly, Obama has not yet ended any noteworthy program and seems unlikely ever to do so. But the problem with the idea of seeking a government that “works” is that it doesn’t specify clearly what a “working” government should or should not do.
Gerson and Wehner have done an important service of beginning the vital project of reasserting a positive, conservative vision, but their work is as yet incomplete.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.