The Spirit of Conservative Reform

By Peter Berkowitz

American conservatism has the opportunity to become a governing majority, but  it confronts a fateful choice.

President Obama put on a brave face in his State of the Union address, but  his administration is flailing. It shows few signs of regaining control over a  domestic agenda in disarray and a foreign policy, particularly in the Middle  East, vacillating incoherently between sentimental moralism and a cynical  realism. The president’s approval ratings hover in the low 40s, which suggest  that a majority of Americans are open to an alternative.

A sober and reform-minded conservatism could very well fit the bill. It would  focus on promoting opportunity and economic growth. It would present  alternatives rooted in the free market and experimentation in the laboratories  of democracies of the state capitals, for expanding health insurance coverage  and lowering health care costs. It would reconstruct America’s massive and  debt-ridden entitlement programs.

It would repair a broken educational system. It would ensure that the  associations of civil society—family, religious institutions, and the thousands  of voluntary associations Americans form—have the breathing space they need to  serve as an expression of and training ground for freedom. And it would reground  United States foreign policy in a realistic assessment of the threats America  faces, the capabilities America can marshal, and the responsibilities—flowing  from its interests and ideals—that America should shoulder.

But if conservative commentators, candidates, and officeholders indulge their  penchant for angry bravado and self-righteous speechifying, they may consign  their movement—and the Republican Party—to the role of permanent opposition.

It is hard to see how such a choice would advance the public interest,  especially as conservatives understand it. Petulant sniping from the sidelines  at progressive majorities will do little to halt the expansion of government or  the accompanying increase in the dependency of individuals on laws and  regulations promulgated in Washington.

In a wise essay in the winter issue of National Affairs, “A  Conservative Vision of Government,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson  and Ethics and Public Policy Center Senior Fellow Peter Wehner argue that if  conservatives opt to become the party of no, they would be doing more than  committing electoral suicide. They would also be betraying their finest  principles, deepest commitments, and best historical achievements.

Gerson and Wehner appreciate the temptation, “given the provocations of the  last five years,” for many of those who vote Republican to decry the Obama  administration’s “federal power grabs” and huge run-up of the national debt. “In  many ways,” the authors write, “the populist and libertarian reactions to the  Obama presidency are understandable, helpful, and quintessentially  American.”

Yet protests against the increasing size, scope, and cost of government are  not enough, the authors maintain, and in many cases conservatives have taken  them too far. The proper conservative response to left-liberal government  overreach is not “the fierce anti-government fervor” that has marked so  much of right-wing rhetoric of late, but rather the development of a positive  governing vision based on a sound understanding of government’s proper role in  the American constitutional tradition.

The Tea Party movement, Gerson and Wehner emphasize, has performed an  immensely salutary service by insisting on the importance of returning to the  Constitution and recovering an understanding of the form of government that it  establishes and the principles it institutionalizes.

Tea Party activists, however, have also promulgated two profound  misunderstandings of the Constitution. First, while rightly insisting on the  importance to the founders of limited government, they have neglected the  significance the framers also attached to a national government supple and  strong enough to carry out its essential tasks.

Second, while contending that close attention should be paid to the original  meaning of constitutional text, Tea Party leaders have often confused original  meaning with a crude literal interpretation of that document.

To determine the original meaning of constitutional provisions it is  important to appreciate the theory of politics and government on which the  Constitution is based. For this understanding, there is no better single source  than the exposition and defense of the Constitution provided, fast on the heels  of the Philadelphia convention of 1787, by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and  James Madison in The Federalist.

For example, The Federalist teaches that the original Constitution embodied  numerous compromises—between small states and large states, between proponents  of a more powerful central government and critics of government’s centralizing  tendencies, and, most painfully, between opponents and defenders of slavery—all  while structuring government to promote compromise.

It explains how the Constitution recognizes and, to the extent possible,  seeks to ease, tensions characteristic of free societies and it illuminates the  flexibility that the founders built into the joints of government. It also  highlights the vital capacity the Constitution confers on the three branches, in  their cooperation and competition, to apply permanent principles of liberty and  self-government in novel ways to meet the exigencies arising out of  ever-changing circumstances.

Gerson and Wehner remind us that “no president revered the founders as much” as Abraham Lincoln, who combined a devotion to individual liberty with an  appreciation of government’s larger national purposes. Accordingly, Lincoln  believed that it was in keeping with the founders’ design for the federal  government to promote liberty by building the transcontinental railroad,  creating land-grant colleges, passing the National Banking Act, and imposing  temporary federal personal income taxes to finance the cost of the Civil  War.

Lincoln waged war to affirm limits on state sovereignty, establish federal  government supremacy, and preserve the Union. Our 16th president thereby  overturned the founding compromise on slavery in favor of the view that treating  human beings as property was irreconcilable with the truth expressed in  America’s other great founding document, namely that all human beings are by  nature free and equal.

Conservatives today are wary, and rightly so, about left-liberal ambitions to  use the government to advance pet Democratic Party programs. Nevertheless,  Gerson and Wehner urge conservatives not to draw the extreme conclusion that  government must maintain strict moral neutrality. While government’s role in  shaping character through law is necessarily limited in a free society, some  influence is unavoidable.

For example, laws regarding civil rights, crime and incarceration, welfare,  marriage, and religious liberty cannot help but mold citizens’ habits of heart  and mind. Responsible conservative lawmakers will take this reality into account  in designing laws that bolster, or at least avoid weakening, those  institutions—particularly the family, schools, and local community—that play so  large a part in shaping the moral habits on which free societies depend.

Conservatives, the authors maintain, justly focus on equality of opportunity  and resist the left-liberal quest to use government to bring about equality of  result. But conservatives would be wrong to suppose that equality of opportunity  implies no task for government, or merely the exercise of restraint by  government. Instead, conservatives must take to heart that level playing fields  do not occur naturally. They are made by the collaborative and deliberate  efforts of human beings, including government efforts.

In 2014, maintaining level playing fields for a diverse nation of 320 million  souls requires a variety of reforms constructed to advance individual liberty  and consistent with limited government. These include, according to Gerson and  Wehner, achieving broad access to modern health care; decreasing extreme  economic inequality while increasing social mobility; renovating the nation’s  physical infrastructure; and streamlining the tax code; modernizing immigration  laws; and fitting entitlement programs with contemporary interests and enduring  constitutional principles.

Gerson and Wehner find the spirit of conservative reform alive and well at  the state level. They laud Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s transformation of the  laws governing public sector workers; Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s job creation and  budget balancing; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s promotion of school choice; and  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s imposition of fiscal order and strengthening of  public education.

Conservatism can advance the public interest—and its own—by bringing this  spirit of reform to the national level. Conservatives should continue to lead  the way in reforming government by restraining and re-limiting it. But the aim  of reforming government is not to immobilize it, but rather to make it more  capable of enacting and executing the wide-ranging and constantly shifting  reforms necessary for the enjoyment and defense of  liberty.

Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution,  Stanford University.  His writings are posted at

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