Sunday, September 25, 2005

'Constituency conservatism'
So what went wrong with the Republicans? Without question, it's easier to plot an electoral victory than it is to maintain control once you've won. And wielding power often means spending programs that target the people who elected you. (Someone -- Dave Barry? -- once called it "bribing people with their own money.")

Beyond that, though, two factors have locked the GOP into what appears to be political invulnerability: legislative gerrymandering and the emergence of (borrowing from Mickey Kaus again) "constituency conservatism."

The absence of competition in legislative races, caused by partisan rigging of member districts, protects incumbents from serious challenges. This is a bipartisan scandal that transcends regional politics. Even in deep-blue California, none of the 153 state or federal legislative seats changed parties in the 2004 election.

But if federal legislators who once win office (or certainly who win their first re-election campaign) can count on lifetime tenure, then why didn't the Republican Revolution of 1994 result in a dramatic downsizing of the federal government -- particularly since the party has controlled both the White House and Congress since 2001?

In simplistic terms, you can blame the ascendance of Karl Rove at the expense of Grover Norquist. Norquist was the grassroots organizer who got disparate interests -- the "leave us alone coalition" of religious conservatives, property-rights groups, Second Amendment activists, homeschoolers, tax-cutters, ideological libertarians -- to work together to elect limited-government Republicans throughout the 1990s. As Norquist said when Steve Hayward and I interviewed him for Reason the day after the 1996 presidential election, "We want to remind everybody who's a single-issue voter for freedom that there are seven other reasons to support it."

Norquist has his detractors, to be sure, but he's genuinely a small-government guy. He said back then that his goal was to shrink the federal government by half within a generation ... and then to reduce it by half again. He's a policy conservative.

Bush's political architect Rove, by contrast, is a constituency conservative. His goal, as Michael Barone and others have often stated, is to make the Republican Party the dominant force in American government for decades. Barone points out that Bush has at times tried to meld leave-us-alone sentiments with his calls for national greatness. But this is a volatile mix. And Rove's goal is not to shrink the federal government, but to make sure it's big enough to parcel out goodies to every interest group in the GOP coalition.

The prescription drug benefit for Medicare is the best example of this. The leave-us-alone approach would try to stop making every American who turns 65 a ward of the state. If it's not possible or even desirable to phase out Medicare, then at least you could means-test the program, so that the 20-year-old checker at Safeway isn't subdizing Warren Buffett's Rx plan.

Instead, the constituency-conservative approach has plopped a budget-busting add-on to an already backbreaking entitlement program. Sure, the drug benefit offers some meager elements of choice. This has allowed supporters to claim that this is the only alternative to federal price controls or some other non-stealthy takeover of the pharmaceutical industry. But it's clearly a new tax-financed goodie for seniors, and makes a growing proportion of the population more dependent on Uncle Sam.

And it's not the only approach Bush has taken along these lines. Take No Child Left Behind, the faith-based welfare scheme, the farm bill of 2002 (so long, freedom-to-farm), his tax cuts (a less-technocratic approach than Clinton's, but still one that targets specific audiences rather than provide across-the-board relief). The idea is to ensure that Washington has stuff it can give and stuff it can take away.

This is why the absence of intellectual seriousness within the Democratic Party should alarm anyone who values freedom and individual responsibility. When the GOP's offering big government and the Democrats' alternative is even bigger government, better keep your powder dry.