Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Conservatives Get Things Wrong, Too

As painful as it is to admit, conservatives sometimes take the wrong positions on policy. (I’m not going to write a column on the faulty policy positions taken by liberals because I don’t have enough space — although I guess I could serialize it.) Here I specifically mean stances that are at odds with core conservative values, demonstrate a poor grasp of the facts, or lack internal consistency and use faulty logic. These are my three favorite current examples:

• The Constitution and judicial power. Motivated by the thinking of many in the Tea Party, the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives altered the body’s rules in January 2011 to require that each bill introduced state explicitly the powers in the Constitution that would permit Congress to enact it. This regulation appropriately places our founding document at the center of American public life.

But it constitutes a profound change in the way conservatives have viewed the Constitution over the past 50 years. We have believed it protects the enumerated rights of individuals but allows the state and federal governments, as the expressions of the views of majorities, to make policy so long as these specified rights are not violated. The benefit of the doubt is given to legislatures.

Tea Party philosophy wants Congress to receive permission before it acts. Although House members enforce their own rules, the logical extension of this requirement would be to secure judicial assent prior to legislating — at any level, federal, state, or local. This is a clear invitation for judicial activism and the subjection of legislative power to the rule of the courts. Chief Justice Earl Warren surely would have approved.

• Obamacare must be repealed, period. Many conservatives were upset that in June the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, but in many ways Chief Justice John Roberts demonstrated judicial restraint, a quality we traditionally have supported. All along the Republican strategy has been to eradicate the law. Some state attorneys general have brought court cases and the House has voted twice to repeal it.

The argument is based largely on undermining the president personally and politically. It calls on activist judges to reinstate the proven failure that was health care before 2010.

Conservatives should be making a much stronger argument that Obamacare is just bad policy and there is a better, alternative future for this country. If the sector were made more transparent and subject to market forces, costs would come down and coverage would go up. Obamacare, by extending the reach of government, will do little to bring down expenses and improve treatment.

The legislation does not have to be repealed, it should be replaced. This episode portrays Republicans as the party of little imagination — a description generally more suited to the Democrats and their reflexive defense of the New Deal. It makes conservatives seem primarily motivated by the politics of personal retribution rather than heeding the advice of economists and policy analysts.

• The 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes believe “the government has a responsibility to care for them.” I know Gov. Mitt Romney sensibly has disavowed this sentiment, but it remains one that is shared by some conservatives.

The problem with the statement is that it obfuscates something that many people believe is true. I think there is general agreement that most Americans are pushing us forward and some are just along for the ride.

But defining this difference in the way Romney did is inaccurate. Many who don’t pay federal income taxes have Social Security and Medicare taxes deducted from their paychecks. Some who are subject to federal income tax pay less in what they get back in direct government benefits and are therefore what we might call net “takers.”

The great shame with what Romney said, however, is that it disavows a tremendous achievement of several Republican presidents over the past 40 years. The earned-income tax credit, initially passed under President Ford’s leadership and expanded greatly by President Reagan, allows hard-working people in low-paying jobs to keep more of their wages. By taking people like this off the federal tax rolls, Ford and Reagan (along with the two Bushes and, to be fair, Clinton) encouraged work and productive behavior at the expense of sitting at home collecting benefits.

These individuals deserve our support. The EITC is something to be proud of, not avoided.

As I have written before, conservatism is intellectual, not emotional. It is thoughtful and contemplative, consistent and steady. It places adherence to principles and policies over loyalty to personalities and parties. Conservatives should do likewise.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.