Obama Is Making the Case for Conservatism Better Than Mitt Romney Ever Did

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 14 2013 7:19 PM

Justifiable Cause

The Obama administration is making the case for conservatism better than Mitt Romney ever did.

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he responds to a question during a news conference with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron in the East Room at the White House in Washington, May 13, 2013.
Mistakes by Obama's administration have made smaller government seem more appealing.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It must get confusing in the IT department at the Associated Press: Are you talking about the hackers who hacked our Twitter account or the Justice Department hackers who hacked our phones? Monday, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had secretly obtained two months of records of phone conversations by its reporters. Meanwhile, the Washington Post revealed that the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups was more widespread than first reported. Someone at the IRS also leaked information about conservative groups to ProPublica. The Environmental Protection Agency may also have made it easier for environmental groups to file Freedom of Information Act requests than conservative organizations.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did. Showing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government. 

First let's get our terms straight. Conservatives are not the same as Republicans. The former believe in a philosophy which stays roughly fixed and the latter belong to a party that occasionally embraces the philosophy but deviates when necessary to win elections, pass legislation, and follow the selfish aims of those who are in office and want to remain there. Conservatives argue against the expansion of government, whereas Republicans sometimes enlarge it to please their constituents or themselves. Republicans also sometimes botch foreign policy operations and spin themselves silly in their aftermath, which is why the Benghazi revelations are left out of this grand unification theory.

Though some of these scandals will allow Republicans to score points in the daily tally of who is ahead and who is behind, there is a larger benefit to conservatives that goes beyond the fall in the president's approval ratings or the boost Republican Senate candidates may get in 2014. Those outcomes rely on further adjudication of these issues. It may turn out that President Obama had nothing to do with any of them. It could simply be rogues in various agencies. Or, maybe President Obama orchestrated the whole kaleidoscope of wrongdoing on the White House whiteboard. You don’t have to embrace either of those theories to see that it's much easier to agree with the conservative notion that government is a mess. We have enough evidence of that already. 

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Conservatives argue that the more government you have, the more opportunities you will have for it to grow out of control. That is why my frequent correspondent Charles Flemming cheers every story I write about Washington gridlock. He wants less government, so he's fine if it does nothing.

Another conservative correspondent points to economist James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work studying economic incentives in government. His argument was that politicians are not benevolent agents of the common good but humans acting in their own self-interest or for a special interest. "If there is value to be gained through politics," Buchanan wrote, "persons will invest resources in efforts to capture this value." Since Democrats and Republicans alike are sinful, each side will find ways to work that is self-interested, rapacious, and boundary breaking. Keep the government small to limit the damage. 

Whether these scandals are the result of base motives or a desire to act for the greater good, the eventual result is the destruction of individual liberties. Your IRS comes down on you because you have the wrong ideology or, in the name of protecting the citizenry, the Justice Department starts listening to your phone calls.

The confluence of these moments of government overreach may not swell the ranks of conservative clubs, but it could have an effect on policy. As Sen. Lamar Alexander has long argued, conservatives believe not only in limited government, but limitations to sweeping acts by government. Large comprehensive bills like the proposed immigration reform and the Obama health care plan lead to too many unintended consequences. Alexander quotes Irving Kristol, who called himself a "policy skeptic." His skepticism is rooted in what appears to have happened at the Justice Department, IRS, and EPA: Big sprawling government inevitably gets out of hand. Seventy-three percent of the public already says they distrust the government, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

A general distrust of government most immediately threatens comprehensive immigration reform. House Republicans prefer a step-by-step approach, which is gaining support. Supporters of a comprehensive approach must convince skeptics that the government will enforce the strict limits on illegal immigration that are part of the deal. This government? Obamacare is already the law of the land, but as Republicans try to dismantle it they will be assisted by front-page stories about government incompetence and overreach as the program starts getting implemented this fall.

This moment may allow some insight into the views of those who opposed gun control legislation. During the debate over background checks, three Republicans senators who ultimately voted against the Manchin–Toomney compromise talked about "paranoia" among some gun owners about a national gun registry. The government would never go that far, these GOP senators believed, but their constituents did. Liberals pointed out that the Manchin–Toomey legislation had provisions that would have increased penalties for any kind of gun registry. They argue that rules were in place to discourage excessive behavior. Conservatives saw it a different way: The excessive behavior is inherent, so no rules will discourage it. 

Not every conservative saw nightmares of a national gun registry, but if you are already skeptical of government solutions and Manchin–Toomey would have done nothing to prevent the massacre that gave birth to it—as its authors admitted—your inherent distrust of government would make you unlikely to support it. A law that is out of sync with the problem that gave rise to its creation will undoubtedly get out of joint in its implementation. 

If these scandals are indeed affecting the ideological landscape, this is bad news for liberals. It’s not just that the opposite ideology is getting some help from government bunglers, but the media is exacerbating the problem. Liberals believe that there is a role for government to play in mediating market failures, and there are plenty of stories of areas where the safety net is thinning as a result of sequestration—from cancer treatments to Head Start to Meals-on-Wheels—where government should step in. But those stories get lost in the scandal coverage of an administration, making it look like conservatives fundamentally understand something that liberals do not.  

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