With New Year’s on the horizon, millions of people will be making resolutions for 2018, including national leaders in Washington. For some of them, the new year will be a time to fulfill campaign promises made on issues such as immigration and healthcare. Those in the minority will likely resolve to use whatever tactics necessary to hobble the Trump administration and flip power in Congress during the midterm elections. Others may simply wish for a year with lesser drama and more governing (though it should be noted here that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February).
Fiscal conservatives are one of many political groups who have had a difficult relationship with President Trump. Of the "three pillars" that make up the modern conservative movement, fiscal conservatives typically prioritize economic growth and personal freedom through small government and low taxation over a strong national defense and traditional social values. Though they do their best to harmonize these three issues, it is not always a natural fit and such intra-party conflicts have publicly erupted in recent years.
Many fiscal conservatives today routinely weigh the options of allying with the president in an attempt to influence better policy outcomes, or distancing themselves and opposing costly initiatives to preserve their ideological integrity. Since a high priority when governing is to demonstrate effectiveness, fiscal principles are often compromised in order to achieve a broader consensus. While this might be politically expedient in the short term, it comes back to haunt conservatives when they establish a track record of supporting increases to the size and scope of the federal government. Movements like the Tea Party challenged those who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk on their fiscal principles.
Perhaps the most egregious example of fiscal conservatives compromising their integrity for the sake of party cohesion is the rubber-stamping of defense spending increases and activities championed by national security hawks.
Recent reports indicate that congressional leaders will attempt to get members to accept a $200 billion budget increase in the coming weeks to avoid a dreaded government shutdown by appealing to defense hawks.
While it is true that defense spending is not the primary driver of the federal deficit and that other, more costly entitlement programs are less constitutionally grounded, it is time for fiscal conservatives to stand their ground on spending increases across the government and fight for their principles as staunchly as other political groups fight for theirs.
This begins with correcting what has long been a misunderstanding about the meaning of a strong national security within conservative circles. Most politicians are shrewd enough to distance themselves from the term "global policeman," but that is effectively what anyone committing the United States to protect the "liberal international order" or safeguard democratic institutions actually means. Not only are such platitudes fiscally unsound, but at their ideological core are far from principled conservatism, having been introduced into the political bloodstream by progressive idealists like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet for a vast majority of conservatives, this liberal internationalist foreign policy has become as sacred as the party’s stance on taxes and gun rights.
Somewhere along the way—likely having to do with the Cold War’s domino theory of communist expansion and containment—having a strong national defense became measured by the number of troops deployed abroad, how many countries were under our umbrella of protection, and how often the military arrived on the scene of a foreign conflict like a benevolent superhero.
Fiscal conservatives have the power and political leverage to reform this outdated way of thinking, but for years have been cowered by accusations that voting against defense increases or speaking in opposition to the use of military force was a weakness, or worse, an insult to the troops. These are the type of assertions that conservatives can no longer afford to accept; they are flatly disingenuous and needlessly put American lives and dollars at risk. The United States can maintain an unrivaled military force in a cost-effective and sustainable manner; but such goals cannot harmonize if we continue employing that force in activities such as nation-building and humanitarian interventions that are outside the scope of our national security and economic interests.
This New Year’s, fiscal conservatives would be wise to realize the true costs of going along with these schemes, both to the country and their own political effectiveness. Congressional leadership is poised to once again cobble together a de-facto governing coalition of defense hawks and those supporting increases to domestic spending, and will force fiscal conservatives to choose between their principles and a vote to shut down the government. If these conservatives are tired of getting the short end of the stick, they should resolve to write a new definition of national defense, or rediscover old ones, that are consistent with their priorities and conservatism writ large, and go to the mat for it with the intensity that our service members and the public deserve.
Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities.
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