The end of Big Government Conservatism?

Following John McCain’s loss, conservatives and pundits will start looking to offer an explanation. To keep it simple, let me say this: The financial bailout killed whatever chance McCain’s had. McCain’s lead in the polls evaporated when the bailout became the lead story.

McCain flubbed on the bailout. As a candidate he insisted that he represented real leadership, opposed wasteful spending, and would shake up Washington. In the bailout debate, he offered no solutions, supported a bill that includes billions in wasteful spending, and took a half-hearted stance in support simply to go along with the flow.

If McCain had stood with Sen. DeMint for free-market reforms, put the blame on government intervention, and challenged the Bush administration, we might be calling him Mr. President. (Note: I wrote this sentence before I read this from Sen. DeMint: “If McCain loses the election, he will have lost it because of the bailout.”)

McCain’s calling Obama a socialist for his views on spreading the wealth would have been far more effective had he not supported socialist plans himself – and his mortgage plan was every bit as socialist as Obama’s tax proposals.

McCain’s loss can largely be blamed on Bush’s failure. McCain should have quickly listing how he is different than Bush – not a pawn of Wall Street, voted against pork repeatedly, no on Medicare part D, no on transportation bill, no on farm bill, no on torture, fire Rumsfeld, et. al. – and blasting Bush but he didn’t (not wanting to upset the GOP consulting industry and the CPAC conservatives) until it was far too late. Consider this:

“We both disagree with President Bush on economic policies,” McCain said. “My approach is to get spending under control. The difference between us is he thinks taxes have been too low, and I think that spending has been too high.”

That sounds great, but it would have sounded better if it had come before McCain voted for a $700 billion bailout.

It is hardly worth noting that Bush was no limited-government conservative, except that is exactly what the mainstream media and Obama – and even some Big Government Conservatives and those calling for “reform” in the Republican party – want you to believe. Thus, the mortgage crisis and bailout represent a failure of free market capitalism, rather than government intervention and Bush’s corporatism. And the Bush administration only added to these narrative (and adding to McCain’s woes), by going around saying another “great depression is looming” unless there is a massive expansion of government. Bush’s big government agenda is one thing, but the fear-mongering demagoguery used to support their agenda, eroded any credibility a Republican could have had – at lease one that supported the bailout while claiming to be a limited-government conservative.

But I am not disappointed by the election results. Two candidates who mistrust free markets and want an expanded powers for government competed, and one of them won. Conservatives lost nothing, as Peter Wehner wrote before the election:

But it is a mistake to assume that significant GOP losses, should they occur, are a referendum on conservatism.

In part, the GOP’s problems stem from being seen as having become less conservative and less principled (think “Bridge to Nowhere”). …

A Fox News poll taken at the start of October found that 76 percent of respondents believe lower taxes and smaller government are preferable to higher taxes and larger government.

And an Obama victory would not signal an ideological pivot.

So what now for conservatives? I will start with Tom Delay’s piece, arguing that conservatives need to worker harder to build “infrastructure”, he also argues that America remains a center-right nation. I agree on both counts. However, I disagree that we need to work harder to win elections. The problem with the Conservative movement is that too much focus is on winning elections, not on championing ideas. We spent too much time and money on politics, and even if McCain (and some Congressional Republicans won, or even in the state house in PA), it wouldn’t translate into conservative policies being enacted.

Jeff Flake’s op-ed, on the other hand, is a masterpiece, pointing to the need to return to principles, and celebrating the end of Bush’s Big Government Conservatism as the marching orders for the GOP.

The Conservative Movement should forget about simply trying to help Republicans beat Democrats, and thinking that winning elections is our end game, but championing  the principles of Conservatism and convincing both Republicans and Democrats to be Conservatives. As I wrote in my pre-election commentary – ideas are what provide real change.