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Imperial Conservatism’s Last Gasp

It was not so long ago that George W. Bush seemed to embody the future of conservatism. He had entered office amid doubts about his rightful place there, but pressed ahead nonetheless with grand ambitions, conducting an ideologically potent foreign war while also promising much at home. Which led some to wonder: Was this lavish spender really a conservative? Bush’s champions rushed in to explain. The president, Fred Barnes wrote approvingly in The Wall Street Journal in August 2003, was a “big government conservative.” He believed, that is, in “using what would normally be seen as liberal means—activist government—for conservative ends.”

Bush, influenced by neoconservatives inside his administration and beyond, practiced a conservatism that placed almost all its faith in the muscular powers of the executive—particularly in its aggressive prosecution of the war on terrorism. Even at the end of his presidency, as Republicans began to distance themselves from Bush, some continued to defend his style of conservatism. William Kristol, in a column published a month after Barack Obama’s victory, pleaded with conservatives to “think twice before charging into battle against Obama under the banner of ‘small-government conservatism’” when “in the real world of Republican governance, there aren’t a whole lot of small-government Republicans.”

How quaint this seems today. Like so many others, Kristol has since scampered over to the small-government side; he recently nursed dreams of a Paul Ryan-Mario Rubio ticket in 2012 and joined the starve-the-government crusade of his onetime adversary, Grover Norquist. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is desperately fleeing the health care reform he engineered in Massachusetts, even as a once-marginal figure like Michele Bachmann now commands a loyal national following.

Today, Bush’s presidency appears to have been an anomaly. In fact it was the terminus of a completed phase—call it imperial conservatism—in which every Republican president was a big-government conservative, in action if not in words. Just as the cold war gave Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon cover for their big-government schemes, so did the war on terrorism protect Bush as he enlarged the federal bureaucracy and increased federal spending. But, as the immediacy of 9/11 recedes, an older conservative ideology—one that was eclipsed for much of the imperial age—has found new life.

THE MODERN RIGHT can be understood as a conflict between two different species of conservatism: presidential and legislative. While a Democratic president like Woodrow Wilson sought to expand the reach of his office, his Republican successors (Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) sought to restrain it. The grand projects of Franklin Roosevelt, meant to combat the Great Depression, alarmed many on the right. To them, the growth of the executive at the expense of Congress implied the loss of America’s town-hall virtues, its ideal of a self-governing citizenry. “Subservience in legislative halls is the spot where liberty commits suicide,” Herbert Hoover declared in a speech denouncing Roosevelt’s impending third term. In those years, and even at the outset of the cold war, the dominant Republican politicians were not presidential nominees like Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, but legislators like Robert Taft and Joseph McCarthy, tribunes of the party’s Midwestern “Old Guard.”

But, once the United States established itself as the world’s dominant military and economic power, the notion of an “imperial presidency” emerged, creating a quandary for conservative intellectuals who wrestled with a new question: Just how “statist” must America become in order to defeat the more menacing statists abroad? In 1954, when he was preparing to launch National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote an essay explaining the differences between conservatives who wanted to strengthen government in order to defeat the ussr and those who feared the consequences at home. “It is a pity,” he wrote, “that yet one more difference will divide the waning conservative movement in the United States. But the issue is there, and ultimately it will separate us.”

Buckley’s mission was to keep the movement intact. He and his colleagues at National Review tried to split the difference. They supported a strong central government, but also insisted on the primacy of the legislative branch. In his book Congress and the American Tradition, James Burnham, one of the magazine’s founding editors, argued that conservative doctrine included “a tendency to favor the relative power of Congress within the diffused power equilibrium. ... [A]s a practical political matter, the prerogatives of Congress should be defended and restored, and its powers strengthened [and] the executive should be curbed.”

One of Burnham’s principal targets was Dwight Eisenhower. This seems curious today, when Eisenhower is remembered as a reined-in “chairman of the board”-style president, distrustful of bold programs or policies. But, in his time, he was accused by the right of incarnating imperial tendencies; to Burnham, he embodied presidential “Caesarism.” Eisenhower’s strongest opposition came not from congressional Democrats, but from the right wing of his own party: senators like Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, William Jenner, William Knowland, and John Bricker, author of a constitutional amendment—it came within a single vote of being passed by the Senate-that would have drastically diminished the “presidential prerogative” in foreign policy and given control to Congress and even state legislatures. The idea was to check Eisenhower’s suspect (liberal) internationalism.

But, as the cold war intensified, and the exigencies of managing the superpower struggle overshadowed other considerations, conservative opposition to “executive supremacy” weakened. In the 1960s, there was a new complication. Conservative formulations of Congress as the vehicle for curbing the size of the government were upended, as a more liberal Congress, allied with a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, who had himself been an accomplished legislator, approved major government programs such as Medicare. In the 1970s, conservatives soured on the “imperial” Congress, especially after Democratic legislators brought down Richard Nixon and limited the powers of his successor, Gerald Ford.

Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 in part thanks to his history of attacks on “encroaching Federal control” in all its forms; in fact, he entered politics as an acolyte of Goldwater and, like him, criticized Social Security, Medicare, and the progressive income tax. But, once in office, Reagan, like the preceding cold war Republican presidents, championed executive power, vowing to “take actions to assist the campaign for democracy” throughout the world. His vision of a strong executive was embraced by conservative intellectuals—including Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz—and also by conservatives in Congress such as Dick Cheney, who led the opposition to the Iran-Contra investigation and its hampering of presidential authority. The conservative conversion to a doctrine of activist government was complete.


AFTER THE COLD WAR ended, and the Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president, legislative conservatism regained strength, this time under Newt Gingrich, the ringmaster of a radical parliamentary version of legislative supremacy. His argument was that Clinton, though elected with the same plurality as Nixon in 1968, had been denied a majority and along with it a legitimate mandate. Gingrich and his lieutenants advocated a sweeping small-government agenda in the Contract with America, a pledge that helped the GOP win control of the House in 1994. One of its signature items was a balanced-budget amendment, meant to curtail the president’s control over spending.

The following spring, Gingrich easily guided the measure through the House, with the support of 72 Democrats. And it came within one vote of the two-thirds majority required for Senate passage, falling short only because six Senate Democrats who a year before had supported a version of the measure changed their votes in response to the government shutdown orchestrated by Gingrich.

In this period, the House speaker appeared to be the nation’s most powerful political figure. But he soon overreached. When Clinton rejected a demand to raise Medicare premiums, Gingrich threatened to default on the government’s debt. Clinton called his bluff, and won. The last surge of legislative might came with Clinton’s impeachment, a spectacle deeply unpopular with the public; eventually it cost Gingrich his position. The lesson seemed clear: Insurgent Republicans had gone too far.

When George W. Bush came into office, he did so as a right-leaning heir to Clinton, expounding a “compassionate conservatism” that would include using government to improve education standards. But Bush also advocated major tax cuts and a scaled-back foreign policy. “Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power,” Bush said in one of his debates with Al Gore, “and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”

After 9/11, everything changed. The calamity felt utterly new, but not to conservatives in Bush’s administration, who viewed it through the lens of the cold war (whose successful prosecution had been recast, by conservatives, as an almost wholly Republican triumph). Thus the revival of cold war idioms. “Islamofacism” became the new “global communism.” The doctrine of the “unitary executive” justified the temporary crimping of liberties at home as the price of a greater freedom, the same bargain conservatives had made during the cold war. Conservative journalists endorsed it all, including the hoary premise of fifth-column “enemies” or “subversives” lurking within. Norman Podhoretz’s term “World War IV”—with its equal stress on the dangers posed by jihadists and by liberal appeasers—came directly out of the 1950s, when rollback “liberationists” on the right referred to the cold war as “the third world war.” Conservative ideology post 9/11 was essentially nostalgic.

Not that it was universally shared. Conservative heirs to the pre-cold-war tradition questioned the Bush presidency, only to be denounced as cranks. But, eventually, their critique of both Bush and imperial conservatism gathered momentum. The massive expansion of Medicare in 2003, for instance, was vehemently opposed by deficit hawks, including Jim DeMint, then a House Republican and today a senator adored by Tea Partiers. Reelected by a whisker in 2004, Bush promptly proposed a bold and humane overhaul of immigration policy (calculated to secure the growing Latino vote), an initiative which met resistance in Congress. The fiercest critics were, increasingly, Republicans. Bruce Bartlett, an early supply-sider and official in the administrations of Reagan and the first President Bush, labeled the second Bush an “impostor,” whose policies betrayed every true conservative impulse. “Bush’s instincts for activist government were evident in his No Child Left Behind bill, his steel tariffs, and his vigorous spending increases,” Bartlett wrote in 2006. “In light of Bush’s big-spending ways, Bill Clinton now looks almost like another Calvin Coolidge.” In 2008, it was House Republicans who initially blocked Bush’s emergency tarp bill, which squeaked through only after arm-twisting by John Boehner.

BY THIS TIME, 9/11 and its aftermath had given way to a new crisis, the Wall Street implosion and its economic costs. Today’s Republican legislators, and the Tea Party faction that drives them, are indifferent as a group to foreign policy and distrustful of any and all presidential initiatives. That a Democrat now occupies the White House, and initially urged major reforms, has only hardened opposition on the right to a powerful executive. Even the specter of Reagan has receded. It is instead Goldwater’s dogma that resonates, his declaration (in 1960) that “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. ... My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”

Like the Gingrich-bloc Republicans in the 1990s, today’s Tea Party conservatives reject every aspect of imperial conservatism and seek to restore an older pre-cold-war ideal. Their precepts include a balanced budget, “constitutional conservatism,” and states’ rights, and they exhibit isolationist tendencies directly traceable to Taft, McCarthy, and Bricker. There is one crucial difference: They are even more willing to wield parliamentary weapons to get their way—the filibuster, delayed appointments, withheld funding, and, most brazenly, a contrived crisis over the routine matter of the debt ceiling.

These tactics come with great risk. Legislators who put the interests of ideology over the broad national will—which opposes them on most of these matters—can appear small-minded and selfish and alienate a public that otherwise shares their general frustrations with government. Still, the current dynamics of the GOP presidential race suggest that legislative conservatism won’t fade anytime soon. Of all the candidates in the race, it is the antitax, anti-statist Bachmann who has inspired the most enthusiasm. Imperial conservatism, it appears, did not merely wither under Bush; it was extinguished by him, at least in its familiar outlines. It had already lost both meaning and urgency with the end of the cold war. Only September 11, which fostered the almost universal belief that American strength was being freshly tested, gave it a brief resurrection.

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.