Has the American conservative movement reached a dead end? That is the impression you might have gotten if you attended the panel discussions sponsored by the James Madison program at Princeton University earlier this month.
Speakers hailed past beginnings and triumphs -- the founding of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr. 50 years ago, the Goldwater candidacy of 1964, the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the rise of religious conservatives and the vindication of market economics over the last 25 years.
But speakers were much gloomier about the present. Voters have installed Republican majorities in Congress and a Republican president widely regarded as a conservative. Yet federal spending has risen sharply, and a new federal entitlement, for prescription drugs, has been added.
Our borders are not secure, and the venturesome, allegedly neoconservative foreign policy of the administration is under harsh attack at home and abroad. Mainstream media are more shamelessly liberal than ever in their orientation and bias. Moreover, the Bush administration seems to have run out of new ideas. It has been successful on some of the issues Bush raised in 2000 and 2004 -- tax cuts and education -- and seems to have been checkmated on others, notably Social Security.
Part of the problem, speakers suggested, is that conservatives have allowed their movement to converge too much with Bush and his Republican Party. Bush, after all, did not promise to govern as a small government conservative. He recognized that Ronald Reagan, who called government the problem, not the solution, was not able to cut back government much, and he promised instead to promote policies that increase choice, competition and accountability -- which he has mostly done. But it's not immediately obvious what other federal policies can advance those goals further. Hence, the feeling of a dead end.
But government, as conservatives should know better than others, exists only as part of a larger society. And the trend in the larger society, contrary to what Buckley expected in 1955 and in line with his wishes, has been to more choice, competition and accountability. Big monopolistic firms have been overtaken by what were small start-ups. General Motors has been replaced as our biggest employer by Wal-Mart. Big labor unions, except in the public sector, have grown vastly smaller. The draft military, which performed poorly in Vietnam, has been replaced by a voluntary military, which has performed superbly wherever it goes.