While a growing plurality of the American public rejects the specific initiatives of the Obama Administration (health care reform, the stimulus bill, “too big to fail”), the President and Democratic Congress have earned their high disapproval ratings largely by ignoring the fact that a government cannot be for the people if it is not administered of and by the people. 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 regular on “Saturday Night Live.”
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. Complaints about Rs and Ds and the special interests they cater to are certainly both common and plausible today, but there is no reason why these must lead to a more limited or responsible government.
Reformers and special interest warriors in the past have had a hostile or, at least, uneasy relationship with conservative principles. From Nader and Perot to Republican “maverick” 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 sine qua non of special interest politics: a bloated federal government. Consider: how many Washington lobbyists have closed up shop since the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance “reform” bill?
What we really need is not generic “reform” (or regurgitated “Change That Matters”), but “reformation,” a reshaping of our politics according to its original moral standard. The best alternative to Obamaism is the heart of the Declaration of Independence (the founding principle of the Republican Party) and the defining ideal of its first president: equal justice for all.
The growing power of political insiders is a gross offense against this principle. The AARP, the pharmaceutical companies, and the American Medical Association were at the top of the President’s list of health care “stakeholders” with whom deals were cut on the road to Obamacare; the American people who will pay the bill and be at the mercy of the newly-minted federal bureaucracies were not. Lobbyists and staffers write bills that suit their interests and favorite constituencies which Congressmen, in turn, approve without even reading. In such a political world, opportunities for the well-connected abound — and there is every indication that few are being squandered.
It does not require a phony sort of populism to point this out or to find it troubling. There is nothing more destructive to the spirit of equal justice and the morale of a republic than the belief that cultivating close ties to the present governing class is the surest and fastest way to prosperity and influence. While all this may seem to be nothing more than business as usual, it is important to realize that, with the present administration, there is a lot more of this business than usual.
The conservative response is simple: 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 is built upon explicit promises to end earmarks and related spending practices, simplify the tax code, repeal Obamacare, and reduce the scope and discretion of regulators.
A fuller conservative commitment to equal justice in the upcoming congressional and presidential contests would not only respond to prevailing public concern, but begin to demonstrate that it is the strong, but modest, government the Founders designed, not our ever-growing Washington Leviathan that is the real friend of the people.
David Corbin is an Associate Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks is Assistant Provost and a Lecturer in Politics at The King’s College in New York City.