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Conservatives Are Stuck in a Covid-19 Stew (Washington Examiner) May 5, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

is easier to make an appealing liberal case on social and domestic issues than a conservative one. Liberals essentially feel your pain and design government solutions and spending to address them. I love the story of President Lyndon Johnson, who, in his 1964 presidential campaign, demanded a brief unscheduled stop of his limo, grabbed a bullhorn and said, “We’re for a lot of things and against mighty few.” That should still be the liberal mantra today, more than 50 years later.

Conservatives, on the other hand, mostly play defense against big government solutions and spending. Conservative godfather William Buckley famously said that conservatives “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” Unlike Johnson, conservatives are not at all certain what they are for, but they have generally known what they are against, namely more government, especially more federal government.

When we the people have a serious problem such as a pandemic, the liberal message comes through loud and clear. We need the government to do more, to take over our lives, to rescue us. We need to be regulated. And while you’re at it, pass a few government spending bills to tide us over, the more, the better. As an Italian policy scholar said to me during the 2008 recession, one big advantage you have in the United States is that, unlike those of us in the European Union, you can still print money. At each point, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposed a spending bill, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were right there saying “more.”

Liberals are already celebrating the big advances they might make from the crisis. To prevent the spread of the disease, we are letting people out of jails and reducing bail, long a liberal cause. Government is taking greater responsibility for the housing and homelessness crises, another plank in the liberal platform. Government spending is growing like Topsy the elephant, along with a burgeoning regulatory state. Soon enough, liberals will be asking whether much of this shouldn’t be the new normal in this complex and problematic world.

So what, then, has been the conservative message during the COVID-19 crisis? Unfortunately, it is as muddled as a stew and generally negative, as usual. Many conservatives have asked why are we allowing scientific experts to run the country? Why are we allowing the government to take away people’s freedom to attend worship or go to the beach? Conservatives do like the greater exercise of federalism in the crisis, allowing state and local leaders to step forward instead of federalizing everything. But then they want to criticize liberal governors, such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who use their power in ways they don’t like. Even Trump has found it easier to stand on the sideline and criticize than to take the lead on the reopening.

My suggestion is that conservatives should be willing to accept that a crisis requires an increase in government power and spending. That’s why the founders allowed for a larger government role in a crisis; it’s why the government can declare a national or state emergency. Quibbling over whether the government should go faster or slower in an emergency is not a great look for conservatives.

No, instead, conservatives should be taking their stand on what President Warren Harding and other Republican presidents of the 1920s called for: A return to normalcy. The key is whether and how quickly government gives back its emergency powers and spending when the crisis has abated. With Harding, especially Calvin Coolidge, and then Herbert Hoover in charge in the 1920s, government power and spending from World War I was effectively dialed back. Unfortunately, President Franklin Roosevelt (successfully) intended that the increase in government power and spending following the Great Depression and World War II should become the new normal.

That must be the conservative message in this decisive moment: Can they lead a return to normalcy following the COVID-19 crisis?

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:


David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

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