David Strom

It was bound to come, sooner rather than later.

November’s defeats at the polls for Republicans could not but spark a war between advocates of differing visions of conservatism and the best avenue for a rebirth of the Republican Party.

Michael Gerson, a former advisor to and speechwriter for President Bush, the "big government" or "compassionate" conservative, has helped to define one of the opposing sides in the coming battle.

Writing in the December 25 issue of Newsweek (the mainstream media always sees farther than the rest of us, apparently), Gerson argues that the intellectual "small government"/"think tank" wing of the conservative movement is a version of fundamentalism. By this, I take it, he means that we "movement" conservatives are not so much reality-based as ideological, tending to ignore the facts in favor of a dangerously simplified version of reality. Our preference for markets, for instance, is "reflexive" and not thoughtful.

Gerson, one of the architects of big government compassionate conservatism, is clearly worried that the recent elections will be seen (rightly) as a decisive rejection not just Bush’s inarticulate and often difficult to divine war policies, but also his rather unconservative big spending/big government Republicanism.

Gerson is right to be worried, but not because he is right that limited government conservatives are simply longing for a world that never has been or never could or should be. Gerson should be worried precisely because he is one of the primary advocates for taking the Republican Party down a political and ideological Cul-de-Sac.

So where does Gerson go wrong? Obviously you should read his article yourself, and it can be found at MSNBC, but I can summarize the problem with his analysis in one sentence: Gerson characterizes limited government conservatism as "antigovernment conservatism." This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn't.

Small government or limited government conservatives are not antigovernment. And failing to see that fact is at the root of both the liberal illusions about conservatives, and the big government “conservatives’” misunderstandings about the real roots of the conservative movement.

The essential foundation upon which limited government conservatism is built is the recognition that government, while a very powerful tool to achieve goals, is both a pretty blunt instrument and is always in tension with other important goods, such as the preservation and expansion of human liberty, and the promotion of strong and vibrant civil society.

David Strom

David Strom is the President of the Minnesota Free Market Institute. He hosts a weekly radio show on AM-1280 "The Patriot" in Minneapolis-St. Paul, available on podcast at Townhall.com.

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