Defining conservatism down

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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Ever since Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989 with the Departments of Energy and Education still intact, limited-government conservatives have become accustomed to disappointment. The struggle against the colossus is by its nature a losing one, and conservatives have learned to live with low expectations.

But do they have to like it so much?

As The Daily Caller’s Jeff Poor notes, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer laid down a celebrated defense of conservative principles Wednesday during a TV appearance with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. (Related: Charles Krauthammer squares off against Jon Stewart on the merits of conservatism)

While Fox News, where Krauthammer is a regular contributor, gave this one the headline “Krauthammer SCHOOLS Jon Stewart,” it’s hard to find anything in his peroration that would not please America’s clown prince of the earnest smirk. Krauthammer’s defense of conservatism avoided any hint of principle or ideology, instead relying on strictly technocratic measures: Liberal proponents of ever-expanding government deserve censure, Krauthammer argued, not because they’re wrong but because they fail to keep up with demographic and technological changes — by, for example, not revising Social Security age requirements fast enough to keep up with longer life spans.

“There’s no question of accepting the great achievements of liberalism, the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare,” Krauthammer announced. Then he took a swipe at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before praising Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as a Republican who “has offered an alternative.”

This is no offense to Krauthammer, who is one of the few reasons to read the Post. But what exactly is Paul Ryan the alternative to? In his rise from congressional backbencher to eminently electable vice presidential candidate (like all candidates who get praised by the party for their “electability,” he lost), the pasty Wisconsinite has racked up the following conservative record:

Voted for President Bush’s $9.4 trillion Medicare Part D expansion in 2003.

Voted for the $287 billion highway bill of 2005, the pork-stuffed behemoth that briefly made “Bridge to Nowhere” a household term.

Voted for — and was a key supporter of — the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008.

Voted for — was in fact one of only 32 Republicans to vote for — Bush’s December 2008 automotive bailout package, which later failed in the Senate. (Don’t worry, America. President Obama later grabbed money from the TARP to keep the UAW in business.)

Voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

Voted for the USA PATRIOT act in 2001.

Variously voted for Head Start authorization, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the invasion of Iraq, and assorted flag-burning resolutions.

While it’s true that having a far-left Democratic president in office has put a drop of mercury into Ryan’s spine, you need to look high and low to find any expansion of the size, scope, cost and intrusiveness of government that he has consistently opposed. What is wrongly said of the tea party — that they were fine with big government until Obama came along — could be more accurately said of Ryan.

Now, Ryan seems like a nice enough fellow — a trait that probably didn’t help him in 2012, when he debated a goofy, giggling Joe Biden and still managed to lose. And he’s probably preferable to whatever Democratic candidate Cheeseheads might choose to represent the Badger State’s first congressional district.

In fact, the problem isn’t Ryan himself so much as the fact that he is anybody’s idea of a rock-ribbed conservative. Never was this more apparent than when Ryan introduced his balanced-budget plan in 2011. The proposal was praised — by Obama among others — for its sober seriousness. It was also attacked by radical leftists — again including Obama — who were appalled at Ryan’s cruelty in jeopardizing cowboy poetry, regulation of craft beer labels, and other vital federal functions.

So when would Ryan’s radically conservative plan have balanced the budget? In the year … 2063. Just to put that into a perspective we can all understand: In the “Star Trek” universe, that’s the year Earth makes first contact with Vulcan.

This is defining rightwing extremism down. Speaking with Krauthammer, Stewart criticized Cruz for quoting “Ronald Reagan’s Medicare speech in 1960 [sic].” Give the Gipper a listen:

When Reagan made these comments in 1961, Medicare was not an American institution hallowed by time and sanctified by the waters of sorrow that had passed over it. Medicare did not even exist yet. Would Krauthammer have us scoff, from our place of 21st century enlightenment, at Reagan’s quaint opposition to what has apparently become a plank of true conservatism?

It’s not incidental that Cruz, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and other Republican hard-liners drew their line over the implementation of Obamacare. The moderate consensus would have us believe that the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare exchanges will doom the program. Some even criticize the tea party and the government shutdown for “distracting” Americans from that failure, and making the repeal of Obamacare harder.

So here’s a fair question: How many times have you seen a government program canceled just because it didn’t work? Has that ever happened?

The most powerful bias in government is existence bias: Once a thing exists; you won’t get rid of it. If Obamacare goes forward it will be forever.

If Ronald Reagan were alive, you could ask him about that. When he took office, the Department of Energy had been in existence for a little more than three years. The Department of Education was all of 10 months old. Both were jokes then as they are now. Yet the lion of conservatism was not able to eliminate either of them. And that’s how it works with brand new programs. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are as ancient as Hinduism by comparison. They will never go away, but that doesn’t mean they are any good.

This is the reality of fiscal conservatism. Conservatives lose, just about every time. Pretending a lukewarm legislator like Paul Ryan can make a difference won’t change that. If you’re going to lose, at least lose with dignity.

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