Right now its fashionable to bash the right as too anti-statist and downright Randian. Francis Fukuyama hops on the bandwagon in a recent Financial Times op-ed* calling for a more Hamiltonian, Theodore-Rooseveltian Republican Party. But isn’t that just what George W. Bush gave us?
Compassionate conservatism. Faith-based initiatives. Medicare Part D. No Child Left Behind. Bush tried to help the middle class and blue-collar Americans by using government to ensure they could all own homes and invest in the stock market — the “ownership society.” If you wanted a Republican who had made its peace with the welfare state and promised to be a uniter, not a divider, the last occupant of the Oval Office was just that.
On foreign policy, Fukuyama seems to counsel the GOP to adopt a different course from the one it’s lately followed. But not really. He wants “continuing investments in US military power” — i.e., high levels of defense spending — “and engagement in the world to maintain a balance of power” but not “costly wars.” Note the adverb: “costly.” As if cheap wars — drones, assassinations, cruise missiles? — are really just “engagement.” This too is not in fact so different from what George W. Bush promised in 2000, a “humble foreign policy” that in practice meant maintaining the Cold War military-industrial complex and at the earliest opportunity morphed into quite costly wars indeed.
Fukuyama’s a smart guy, he knows that when a state possesses overwhelming hegemony its threshold for military intervention is lowered. As Madeleine Albright famously asked Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” It looks to me as if even a politician who may sincerely want a humbler foreign policy is going to face irresistible temptation to wage cheap, proxy wars, which often lead — directly or indirectly — to blowback and “costly wars.”
I don’t think Fukuyama really pines for the GOP of the last decade, which is in truth the same GOP as today, despite all the noise about uncompromising, gubmint-hating Ayn Rand disciples. Note that Republican budget guru Paul Ryan cast his vote for Bush’s Medicare expansion. What the Republicans have hated all along is Democratic government; Republican government is something they embrace every time their man is in the White House. Just look at the party’s present nominee to check whether the GOP is actually so anti-statist. It’s anti-Democrat; that’s all.
Whatever the harm of Republican obstructionism — and the country certainly did look ridiculous during the debt-ceiling impasse — it pales next to the GOP’s inability to exercise restraint whenever it wields power. Fiscal restraint, military restraint, or ideological restraint: in every dimension, GOP government under Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes has been marked by massive spending and vast projects of socioeconomic and cultural engineering. That’s not to detract from Nixon’s accomplishments in diplomacy with China and Reagan’s with Russia, or even Bush I’s good sense in letting the USSR disintegrate without U.S. meddling. Nor is it to say that the Democrats have not been equally ambitious. But the abiding problem with the Republican Party is not its mythical anti-statism but its own reckless uses of government power when in office. If we want to blame anti-government ideology for anything, blame it for masking the real nature of Republican activity.
*If you can’t access the FT version, you can read Fukuyama’s piece in slightly different form at the American Interest.