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Small-Government Conservative Self-Sabotage

Dan McCarthy lays out why current Republican tactics are harmful to the cause of small-government conservatism:

If small-government Republicans, however many of them there are, are undercutting the chances of getting a president who could actually achieve their major goals by today fighting unpopular battles over continuing resolutions and the debt ceiling, are they really serious small-government politicians after all? At the very least, they would be short-sighted and ineffective small-government politicians; at worst, they would be mere actors, mouthing the lines and even performing small-government actions, but actions of no long-term substance.

It would be bad enough if small-government Republicans were merely being short-sighted and committed to a losing strategy, but what makes these tactics more harmful to the cause of small-government conservatism is that they reflect no sense of prudence or consideration of unintended consequences. This is not just a question of making the right political calculation. It is also a question of matching means to ends, and making a correct assessment of the risks and costs involved. If this is how they approach the most basic responsibilities of governing, why are voters going to trust them to implement their larger policy agenda?

Take the recent claims from many conservatives in Congress that there won’t be a default if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Even if it were technically possible to prioritize payments in the way that they claim, it would still raise borrowing costs, undermine the dollar, and probably induce a recession, and all the while the size and cost of the government would not have been permanently reduced one bit. Toying around with default threatens to impose greater costs on American taxpayers rather than reduce them. It is the perfect example of striking a symbolic blow against fiscal irresponsibility while adding to the country’s fiscal problems. If one seriously wants to control and reduce government debt, raising the debt ceiling ought to be the last thing that one worries about, since refusing to raise it simply makes paying off the debt that has already been incurred more expensive. Making useless “stands” of this kind not only make small-government conservative ideas unappealing to many other Americans and provoke backlashes against them, but they make even those that agree with many of those ideas conclude that their representatives are ill-suited to governing.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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