Why Conservatism Failed

Bureaucrats are natural liberals.

The deed is done.  The parades and balls are over, the oaths have been sworn after a few false starts, and the debris is rotting unswept in the gutters.

Liberal Democrats hold total sway over all the levers of our federal government.  With scant exceptions, the offices are held legitimately, by right of free and fair election victories.  The Voice of the People has been heard, and it firmly and loudly declared that Republicans shall be swept from power forthwith and cast into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for a minimum of two years and probably much longer.

In a very real way, this is not simply a political failure of the Republican party, it is a failure of conservatism itself.

Now, a great many rightist pundits would respond, "Bush was no conservative!  He did this, and that, and the other thing totally contrary to our principles!"

True, but they are whistling down the wind.  As far as the American public is concerned, George W. Bush embodies both Mr. Conservative and, at best, Mr. Incompetent Loser.


Obviously, the relentless partisanship of the media did not help, and Mr. Bush's strange reluctance to forcefully explain and defend his positions didn't help either.

But media bias can't bear all the blame.  While the media has great control over which facts are presented and how, there's only so much they can do.  If the trains are running on time, the media can say otherwise all they like and yet the people will know they're being lied to.

We see this in Iraq, where the media's recent news blackout from that country speaks more eloquently than mere words of Bush's true successes there and America's impending victory.  Victory in Iraq is indeed at hand, but that's small consolation for our economic problems, regulatory and administrative failures, and the defenestration of what once was a Republican reputation for effective management.

As long as we have been observing politics and society, the nightly prayer of conservatives has been that we might have a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and a Republican Senate.  For half a century this seemed an impossible dream.  Good laws would be proposed, then squelched by a Democratic House.

A good president can exercise his powers of the Executive Order and the veto, but that only goes so far.  It takes Congress to truly slash a budget; Congress to eliminate executive departments; Congress to strike down "rights" wrongly created by the Supreme Court from whole cloth.

And then, finally, in 2000 we had it all: Republican hegemony at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  What could now stand in our way?

A lot, it would appear.  We had six years to end abortion, destroy the monopoly of the teachers unions, eliminate the Departments of Education, HUD, National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and sundry other extra-constitutional liberal-promoting extravagances using your tax dollars.

How'd that work out, eh?  As President George W. Bush heads home to Texas, what is his legacy from the conservative point of view?

He kept us safe from another 9-11.  That is no small achievement, one of which he should be justly proud, and which we hope history will give him the full credit the media has so arrogantly denied him.  But as Obama's shockingly continuous appointments have demonstrated - keeping practically the whole Bush staff at the Pentagon? - his actions are surely not that far different from what any president would have done who wished to be re-elected.

He made two fantastic appointments to the Supreme Court.  In John Roberts and Samuel Alito we have something of a bulwark against oppressive socialism who will, knock on wood, be at their posts for decades to come.

And otherwise?  Well, pretty much those two justices will be the only thing holding back the tide of liberalism.  Other than them, Bush and his supposedly conservative Congress accomplished nothing worth doing in six years of total power.

No programs killed; no liberal oxen gored; no corrupt unions destroyed or political machines broken.  The entire leftist federal bureaucracy has survived intact, emerging with full and undiminished force behind the flag of their newly anointed Leader.

The Economist, in complimenting President Obama for his smooth transition, inadvertently sheds a bright light on the fundamental cause of the failure of a conservative administration to effectively accomplish anything while in power.

Mr Bush was also quick to pick his top people, but slower to make his second-tier appointments, notes Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. His health secretary, for example, was confirmed quickly but had no deputy to carry out his orders. Mr Bush struggled in part because he feared, with some justification, that the permanent bureaucracy in Washington would be hostile to a Republican agenda. He searched long and hard for loyal Republicans for nearly every post, sometimes sacrificing talent in the process. Mr Obama does not have this problem. Nearly everyone in Washington voted for him. So he worries less about loyalty and more about ability.  [emphasis added]

For the vast majority of Americans whose direct experience with government is as rare and brief as possible, it's easy to fall into the trap of Big Man-ism.  We need merely elect the right Big Man to the top chair, and everything will magically go right thereafter.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Leader Is Not Enough

Are we expecting the President, himself, personally, to examine every line of every law?  To himself, personally, fire bureaucrats and close down government offices?  Under current law, our president does not have this power; in those few areas where legally he does, as with U.S. attorneys, remember the ruckus raised when he had the temerity to attempt to put attorneys in place who would actually obey his orders?

Mr. Bush's fears of obstructionism in his own branch of government were well founded.  The eight years of his administration were a never-ending litany of his own government departments undercutting everything he tried to do, from the State Department's strategic leaks of debates over war policy through the CIA's many public embarrassments to the EPA's flat-out refusal to follow the President's policies.

There can be no question that, just as the Economist pointed out, the permanent bureaucracy is far left to a man (well, more accurately, to a woman) and thus was openly hostile to any Republican push or any conservative policy.

Which leads us to a major structural weakness of conservatism and Republicanism in equal shares: You cannot exercise power in a vacuum.  The Leader, no matter how exalted and wise, must have minions who are willing to do his bidding.

A leader without willing minions is no leader at all.  And the federal bureaucracy is full of minions, thousands and thousands of them - but, to a Republican president, decidedly not willing ones.

For the Democrats, filling the slots all throughout government is no problem - the applications for Obama's transition team all but overwhelmed their servers.  They can find loyal troops on every university campus, in any union hall, and on practically any bar association membership list.

Where must Republicans seek workers?  Private business, and occasionally the military.  This is a dreadful and devastating disadvantage, for two reasons.

Hothouses for Fresh Liberals

First, the natural homes of Democrats need not answer for productivity and are positively friendly to government.  Where is the college who will not gladly grant a professor a four-year leave of absence to serve in the Obama administration?  The union hall preserves seniority for government servants and a lawyer can slide back into a practice as easily as he left.

Government service positively enhances credentials in these industries: the college can promote its faculty as being honored in the halls of power, and experience in regulatory bureaucracy is most helpful to a lawyer when arguing over the meaning of those regulations.

On the other hand, what business would for a moment consider offering a leave of absence to an employee for them to go serve in government?  You'd be laughed out the door for even asking!  No - quit your job here, then go to work somewhere else, and when that job ends, go to the back of the line with your resume and application in hand.  Except at the highest levels, a government job is no advantage in the private sector; if anything, it's a strong reason not to hire you.

Which brings us to the second grave disadvantage conservatives have in staffing administrations - the experience of private business is precisely the opposite from what works in our government bureaucracy as it's currently constituted.

Command and Control vs. Connive and Cajole

Most Americans have had the experience of employment in private industry.  The way an ordinary job works can be summed up in the classic coffee-mug slogan:

Rule #1: The boss is always right.

Rule #2: If the boss is wrong, see Rule #1.

The fundamental principle of private employment is that your employer is paying your salary with his money because he believes that your work is more valuable to him than the money you're paid.

This is obvious with tiny sole proprietorships, where the owner may go without pay so he can pay his staff in hard times.  It's just as true in giant corporations where the board and executives represent the interests of the owners (who may also be themselves).  If the managers don't perform, they get sacked - in fact, where the leaders of failing companies aren't sacked as with some of the recent bailouts, America looks on in disgust, and rightly so!

The job of a company president is to make money; the job of everybody under him is to help make money.  If you aren't contributing, you have no right to be there, and in a well-run company you won't be for long.

A government bureaucracy is totally different.  Thanks to the Civil Service Act, bureaucrats cannot be fired unless they are convicted of a crime, and sometimes not even then.  Thanks to public-sector unions, objective performance is only vaguely related to promotion; as with all unions, seniority and political connections are far more profitable than actually getting the job done, if you could rationally define what the job even is.

The most successful and effective business leaders are authoritarian and direct, whereas bureaucrats tend to be smooth and subtle.  The classic BBC comedy series "Yes, Minister" illustrates how government bureaucracies all over the world work: the high-level bureaucrat is the master of a lifetime's practice of saying Yes while meaning, and doing, a very firm No.  As the IMDB plot summary puts it:

James Hacker is the British Minister for Administrative Affairs. He tries to do something and cut government waste, but he is continually held back by the smart and wily Permanent Secretary of the Department, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Private secretary Bernard Woolley is caught in the middle, between his political master, and his civil service boss.

After years in opposition a new party is in power. The new Minister thinks he is the government. Sir Humphrey Appleby, Permanent Secretary, knows that it is he and his civil service colleagues who run the country. An inexperienced and gullible Minister puts forward plans in English, and is frustrated by his chief civil servant, who speaks Red Tape. With help from Bernard Woolley, stuck between his political boss and the master of his career, the Minister gradually learns to master the situation ... or does he?  [emphasis added]

Do we wonder why what we thought were conservative politicians "grow" in office?  Politics, as it's said, is the art of the possible - and since almost everything that actually gets done on the ground is done by bureaucrats, they control what is possible and what is not no matter what the nominal President, Secretary, or whomever might happen to want.  What are they going to do, punch the bureaucrats in the face?  They'd just bounce right back up again, unchanged.

No sane business would allow such behavior; those that do, like General Motors, eventually fall prey to better-managed competitors.  In our government, alas, we have arranged our system to make it impossible for conservatives to be effective in the administration of government.

Notice the one single area of our government where conservative rule actually has a visible effect: the military.  Our military, thankfully, is far more like a private business than any bureaucracy.

If anything, it's more authoritative than an ordinary business could ever be: your military superior has the power to throw you in prison if you disobey, and under some circumstances he can shoot you where you stand.  Every effective military must needs have a strong ethos of obedience to any lawful order, otherwise it simply won't work at all.

When the Commander-in-Chief is a Reagan or a Bush, we see the military doing very different things from when the one giving orders is a Carter or a Clinton - and, given that the President is chosen by free choice of the people, that's exactly as it should be.  The world's finest military is a key part of the international scene, so the President has a fair degree of influence over foreign affairs.

But the successful military leader, by his very skills and experience, is going to have a tough time also being a successful President.  When the General gives an order, Things Happen.  When the President gives an order, other than to his military... well, nothing happens right away and oftentimes nothing ever does change.

The president must wheedle and cajole people into doing his bidding; the Oval Office, as mighty as it is, does not in its own right grant the power to force civilians to do things they don't want to do.  That's good for the freedoms of the citizenry; but when a president has not the power over what is, nominally, his own government, something is badly wrong.

What To Do When A Tree Can't Be Pruned

Why, therefore, has conservatism failed?  Ever since the loss of Congress in 2006, many opinion leaders would have you believe that Republicans overreached - they tried to do too much, and the nation revolted.  Anyone making this argument is either deluded or truly on the side of the left.

Americans voted against Republicans because they weren't behaving like Republicans.  They spent like drunken sailors, larded up bills with Bridges to Nowhere, ran the presses night and day producing more onerous regulations, shagged anything that moves - in short, just what we expect and receive from Democrats.  Democrat-lite never works at the polls; the public would rather have a Democrat who's honest about what he stands for than a Republican phony.

In those few areas where Bush attempted to tweak things in a conservative direction, he got tangled in the brambles with his pruning shears stuck out of reach of the branch he was trying to find.  Anyone who has cleared underbrush - as Bush himself has, repeatedly, on his own ranch - ought to know that's not the way you do it.  You don't clear a thicket one branch a time.  You go straight to the root and cut off the entire bramble all at once, with power equipment if possible.

It is not possible to shrink the federal bureaucracy by making the individual branches more efficient or response.  Every incentive of bureaucracy fights against it, and conservatives have not the manpower, skills, or experience to do combat in the bureaucratic trenches, the home turf of the left.

The only way our government can ever be "shrunk" is by destroying whole sections of it at one fell swoop - by closing down an entire department or branch, laying off everyone employed there, and declaring that whatever it did is not something that government ought to be doing at all.

We had a chance to do this, or at least to try.  We didn't even try.

Will we get another chance?  Last time we spent a half-century in the cold.

Will we wait so long this time?  It depends on whether we learn the lesson of why we failed, and clearly articulate what we're going to do different next time.

If we don't, it won't matter much whether there is a next time - any more than, in the grand scheme of things, the "Gingrich Revolution" and Bush presidency made much difference here at home.

When our domestic government today is not one iota smaller, cheaper, more effective, or in any substantive way one whit more conservative than it was eight years ago when we entered upon a so-called "conservative hegemony", it's time to go back to first principles, and carefully consider why we bother at all.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments
"Americans voted against Republicans because they weren't behaving like Republicans. They spent like drunken sailors, larded up bills with Bridges to Nowhere, ran the presses night and day producing more onerous regulations, shagged anything that moves - in short, just what we expect and receive from Democrats. Democrat-lite never works at the polls; the public would rather have a Democrat who's honest about what he stands for than a Republican phony."

It was not Conservatism that failed, we elected people that weren't conservatives and let the media re-define what Conservatism really is. Bush, as much as the media really wants to classify him as a Conservative, was not a Conservative. Just because someone states openly their belief in God and cuts taxes, doesn't mean that they're a Conservative.
April 10, 2009 12:32 PM
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