jump to navigation

A Simple Conservative Goal: Return to Normal Government (Washington Examiner) May 13, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

After only a few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, we are all eager to return to normal. There is pent-up demand everywhere for a meal out at a restaurant, fully stocked shelves at the grocery store, an evening with friends, and a regular paycheck. All that will come in due time — we the people will insist on it.

What is not likely to come, at least not without a lot of intentional effort, is returning our government to normal. There is a bad history in our country of government taking on extra powers, increasing regulation, and spending more money in a time of crisis, but never allowing things to return to normal. Instead, the emergency powers and war footing too readily become the new normal for government.

Two periods in our history illustrate the choice. When Warren Harding ran for president in 1920, his slogan following a flu pandemic and World War I was “a return to normalcy.” But it took three conservative presidents most of the decade of the 1920s to bring government to heel after the war. President Calvin Coolidge, especially, inherited a major budget deficit from World War I when he became president in 1923. Amity Shlaes, in her wonderful book Coolidge, describes how he met nearly every week with his budget director to hammer things back to pre-war levels. He vetoed bills and slashed budgets to return government to some sense of normalcy in spending and size.

The contrasting period is Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency during and after the Great Depression and amid World War II. Government size and spending boomed throughout the New Deal and World War II but, unfortunately, were never downsized. A chart of government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product will show peaks during war, but the spike of the Roosevelt administration set the stage for a new normal. Even a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, did not pare back New Deal programs, instead building the interstate highway system, expanding Social Security, increasing the minimum wage, and developing a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Eisenhower called it “new Republicanism,” but it was really just a continuation of the New Deal.

Another cautionary tale is the unwillingness of Washington to cancel national emergencies and its expanded government powers. Most people are not aware that we currently live under some 30 states of national emergency, the oldest one declared by President Jimmy Carter 40 years ago. Although national emergencies may come and go, the emergency powers remain. Will President Trump’s executive order about the coronavirus crisis be revoked, as both the president and Congress have the power to do, or will it continue to be a blank check for increased government control over healthcare and spending?

Regrettably, conservatives have been caught up playing small ball during the COVID-19 crisis. They argue over pandemic estimates and death rates, often without any qualifications for doing so; they argue for more or less emergency spending; they advocate for opening businesses sooner rather than later. Challenging how government responds during a global pandemic is not going to make or break the conservative cause.

What will define the future of conservatism, and the country, is just around the corner: Will government return to normalcy? Will this be a Calvin Coolidge moment or another Franklin Roosevelt era? Democrats are already lining up to try to regularize many of the emergency programs: releasing more prisoners, increasing government spending on homelessness and healthcare. This is the real battle between liberals and conservatives and one that will define the field of political and policy play for decades.

A return to normalcy is not just about whether you can dine out again. It is about whether government will use this crisis to grow government regulation, control, and spending to unprecedented heights. This will be conservatism’s most important test of our lifetimes.

To read 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 and a visiting scholar with the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War.

%d bloggers like this: