If the goals of limited-government conservatives could be distilled into three simple demands for Republicans, they would be as follows:
– When possible, eliminate existing government programs.
– When impossible to eliminate government programs, make them more efficient, with more flexibility granted to states and individuals.
– Failing this, at least block the creation of new government programs.
Understanding the many nuances beyond these simple questions is necessary to understanding the conflict between conservatives and elected Republicans, as well as among conservatives themselves.
Over the past several decades, Republicans have mostly failed on all three counts. Since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981 pledging to shrink government, no major federal programs have been eliminated and there hasn't been much progress toward returning the role of the federal government to one of limited powers as spelled out in the Constitution.
Though Republicans have at times prevented the most ambitious goals of Democrats from becoming reality, the overall size and scope of government has continued to expand, including during Republican administrations. Most notably, President George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress created a new Medicare prescription drug entitlement and augmented the federal role in education.
There has been limited progress in reforming existing government programs (such as welfare reform in 1996), but such examples remain few and far between. Meanwhile, the nation's major entitlements of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have remained largely untouched.
The Tea Party movement, though it came of age during the Obama era, had its genesis in these failures of the Republican Party.
There are those who are trying to revive the ideology of “compassionate conservatism” that dominated the thinking of the Bush era. Compassionate conservatives don’t do much talking about scrapping or seriously cutting existing government programs. Instead, they tend to defend the principle of a social welfare state and argue for ways to make it more efficient and market-oriented. In some cases, they even support the creation of new government programs.
On the other side, there are those who believe Republicans should use every lever and tactic possible to shrink the size and scope of government, regardless of the chances of success or possible consequences. This is the spirit that fueled last fall's effort to make the funding of government contingent on getting President Obama to defund his health care law.
Yet there are also those who are somewhat in between. They agree philosophically with the idea of opposing the social welfare state, but, practically, question how much of it can be scrapped.
So among the various strains of conservatism, there’s likely to be the least disagreement among conservatives about the need for Republicans — should they regain power — to avoid creating new government programs.
There’s likely to be the most disagreement over how realistic it is to talk in terms of scrapping — or severely cutting — major government programs with built-in constituencies.
Most of the policy debate on the Right, thus, is likely to surround the issue of reforming existing government programs. Limited-government advocates would likely disagree with American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, who declared, “The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society.” But they may still reach the conclusion — practically — that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security won’t be repealed.
Thus, the common ground that’s likely to emerge on the Right involves rallying together to prevent the creation of new government programs while reforming existing ones.