The eternal recurrence of Bush conservatism: can "conservatarians" save the GOP from itself?

Author:Welch, Matt
Position:From the Top

ON PAGE 31 of his popular The Conservatarian Manifesto, Charles C.W. Cooke makes a statement so satisfyingly true that I have ripped it off a half-dozen times on television.

"When was the last time you heard an aspiring conservative politician say, 'As George Bush said.' or 'I'm a George W. Bush conservative'?" asks Cooke, a witty political writer for National Review. "The mere thought is preposterous."

As Cooke notes, "During the Bush administration's turbulent eight years, the Republican Party steadily ruined its reputation, damaging the public conception of conservatism in the process. Republicans spent too much, subsidized too much, spied too much, and controlled too much." And yet here we are in spring 2015 and the top of the GOP presidential polls is haunted yet again by the most persistent four-letter word in American politics.

The noble aim of The Conservatarian Manifesto is to replace the big-government, interventionist, tax-cut-and-spend philosophy of Bush conservatism with something that leans more libertarian, particularly on spending (including on defense), drugs, nation building, and crony capitalism. So far, so great.

But political manifestos with catchy names tend to imply calls for group action and team spirit. If libertarians are going to attach themselves to a group of constitutional conservatives who reliably caucus Republican, those of us who are GOP skeptics must wonder: How can we trust that this bloc won't yet again yield to the temptations of Bushism?

I put that question to Cooke at a book talk he gave in March, and his answer was atypically unsatisfying: Basically, we have a two-party system, and Republican electoral politics are never going to be designed to please cranky libertarians. Sorry! In a Reason TV interview with Nick Gillespie the next week (see "Conservatarians Rising?," page 13), Cooke gave a more positive and generational answer to a similar question, suggesting that the new injection of libertarian energy on the broad right is significant enough to outlast the opportunism of the political moment.

It would be pretty to think so, and there are some reasons for optimism on that score. A majority of self-identified Republican supporters under the age of 50 are in favor of legalizing marijuana, for example, and more than half of those under 45 are also in favor of gay marriage. Regardless of age, the political right in the age of Obama has produced the most interesting major-party push for limited government in a generation, coughing up entire categories of politicians--Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rep.Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), among others-that just didn't exist prior to the Tea Party wave election of 2010.

Three of the upper-tier candidates for the...

To continue reading