It has been almost 60 years since the birth of the modern American conservative movement.
Conservatives have won some electoral victories over those years: two Reagan landslides, the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, and the Tea Party victories last election.
Yet, in terms of lasting policy changes, what have conservatives accomplished? What do we have to show for so many years of effort?
The answer is, unfortunately, not much.
The primary objective of conservatism has been to limit the size and scope of the government. By this standard, the movement is a near complete failure.
Since Reagan’s election in 1981–the first time conservatives arguably controlled the reins of power–the federal government has continued to grow and grow and grow some more. Federal outlays have more than doubled in constant dollars and Congress—often with Republicans in the majority—has run up over $15 trillion in debt.
Attempts to shrink the federal government have gone nowhere. President Reagan proposed closing the Education and Energy departments. Speaker Gingrich advocated shutting down those departments plus one or two more. Not one federal department has ever been eliminated. Instead, two new departments have been created over the past 25 years: Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.
Other conservative policy goals have come and gone with little progress made: private Social Security accounts, limiting access to abortions, a balanced budget amendment, securing the borders, term limits, tort reform, and so on.
New entitlements programs – often with the support of conservatives – have been enacted (such as Medicare Part D and SCHIP) whereas no one has been able to reform or restrain the growth of old entitlements.
The failure of the conservative movement also pertains to the courts. As Ricochet’s own John Yoo has recently written:
The conservative revolution in constitutional law has fizzled. The court has reaffirmed the right to abortion, intervened in wartime military decisions, upheld distortions of the separation of powers such as the independent counsel statute, and barely nibbled at the outer reaches of the New Deal expansion of federal power over the states.
And this was before Chief Justice John Roberts pulled the rug out from under his conservative brethren with his Obamacare decision.
The conservative movement has certainly had some successes. President Reagan dramatically cut marginal tax rates and indexed those rates to inflation, leading to 20 years of almost uninterrupted economic growth in the United States.
Welfare reform as enacted by the Gingrich-led House was also a big policy victory, cutting welfare caseloads nearly in half.
These two achievements are showing signs of wear, however. Without congressional action, tax rates are set to rise again in 2013. Moreover, it was only last week that President Obama gutted welfare reform by eliminating federal work requirements.
Sixty years of policy battles have left conservatives with little to show for it. Perhaps the leviathan that is the federal government cannot be tamed. Growth in government size and power may be inevitable, with conservatives able to mount nothing more than a rearguard action.
Signs of hope exist, such as the efforts of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Chris Christie in New Jersey, and Paul Ryan in the House. However, who is to say that the successes of these politicians will be any more enduring than those of their conservative predecessors? Remember, a Republican Congress balanced the federal budget for four straight years in the late 1990s and early 2000s yet we are now running more than a trillion-dollar deficit for the fourth straight year.
After more than a half-century, conservatives must re-evaluate everything, from short-term and long-term policy goals to electoral strategies and tactics. We cannot waste another 60 years without significant and permanent policy achievements. The country cannot afford it.