Tuesday, May 17, 2005

It's Not Just Losing Parties That Need to Know What They Stand For

Two articles in the latest issue of The Economist have particularly interested me. Their diverse topics bear some relationship to one another.

The first, a piece triggered by the Labour Party's victory in the May 5 British elections, addresses the future of the Conservative Party--the Tories--there. One intriguing paragraph:
The best thing that can be said for this near-disaster [the party's declining ability to connect with the electorate because of its barrenness of ideas] is that the Tories are beginning to talk seriously about ideas. There has long been, lurking below the surface, an ideological split within the party; and now that it is visible, it has become the battleground for the fight over the soul of the Tory party.
Parties that are out of power must, of course, do some soul-searching and often, poll-searching, to determine what they stand for and how to best present themselves. This is the very process many Democrats in this country are recommending be pursued in their party.

But do parties in power need to undertake a similar process? Another fascinating article in The Economist deals with the legacy--or lack thereof at the national level--of Barry Goldwater, godfather of Republican conservatism, an advocate of small government, who disdained what he regarded as government intrusions into people's lives, including saying or doing anything about abortion. (In fact, looking at Democrats and Republicans historically, pro-life would seem more natural as a position for Democrats to take and pro-choice more naturally at home with Republican history. Pro-life Democrats and women's movement leaders who are opposed to abortion often make this same argument.)

I came under some criticism when writing a few months ago that the legislation that Congress passed and the President signed relative to the Terri Schaivo case that, however laudable its intent, represented a final, firm departure from traditional American conservatism by this President and this Congress.

But the facts pointed out in The Economist article show how far big-government conservatism has traveled from the conservatism of Barry Goldwater, the founding father of modern conservatism. A sampling:
[The current Republican Party's] love affair with big government has been inflamed by the experience of power...The congressional Republican Party, once a brake on spending, is now an accelerator. Congress trimmed Mr Clinton's budgets by $57 billion in 1996-2001; in Mr Bush's first term, it added an extra $91 billion of domestic spending...

Even if you strip out spending on defence and homeland security [in the wake of 9/11], Mr Bush still wins the prize as the biggest booster of public spending for three decades.
What all this suggests is that America's conservatives need to do some soul-searching as well. Do today's Republicans embrace Goldwater's legacy or not? Does it believe in keeping government spending under control or not? And who exactly do we think that the godfather of conservatism would support in the 2008 election: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, John Hagel, or...Sam Brownback?

With no clear successor to President Bush looming on the political horizon, the British Tories and US Democrats won't be the only political parties needing to figure out what they really stand for over the next several years.

No comments: