These have been confusing intellectual times for conservatives on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
What conservatives of various stripes have promised, they have not delivered and, it would appear, they do not know how to deliver because their ideology conflicts with economic and political realities.
That ideology has three parts: smaller government, lower taxes and balanced budgets. The trilogy is what all the conservative think tanks preach, what all the conservative media outlets demand, and what Conservatives here and Republicans there insist they desire.
Except that between desire and reality, a yawning performance gap usually arises.
In the U.S., Republicans controlled the White House for 20 years under president Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes. They had congressional majorities for several of those years. But they delivered only one part of the trilogy – lower taxes. Government spending rose in defiance of conservative ideology. And deficits arose, despite the ideological assertion that deficits would disappear once taxes were cut, thereby leading, it was argued, to much higher revenues.
The repeated failure of conservatives to do what their ideology commanded led, among other factors, to the conservative counterattack in the form of the Tea Party. Their very conservative views are as much directed against other conservatives as against U.S. liberals who, after all, don’t want a small state. Conservatives nominally do desire that outcome, but the repeated failure of Republican administrations to deliver has made Tea Party conservatives frustrated and angry.
In the Republican primaries today, nobody breathes the name George W. Bush. His eight years in the White House have been airbrushed from Republicans’ memory, in part because he embodied conservative confusion. Mr. Bush cut taxes all right, but he also approved new spending entitlement programs, let the size of government grow and bequeathed the nation enormous deficits. (The size of government and deficits grew under Ronald Reagan, but those inconvenient facts are forgotten in the hazy, glorious memories of his time in office.)
The new U.S. conservative heroes are Republican governors who have taken the knife to government spending. But they had no choice (Democratic governors have done likewise) because their states’ constitutions mandated balanced budgets. Had they been in national politics, as senators or congressmen (or president), they likely would have acted as conservatives have for many decades, saying one thing but doing another.
Which brings us to Canada’s conservatives, many of who gathered last weekend in Ottawa at the Manning Centre’s annual shindig.
There, the most remarkable utterance came from Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who insisted that Ottawa needs a new culture of restraint. This culture should inform the civil service, he said, and the politicians. That this message came from someone who distributed such largesse around his Muskoka riding before the G8 summit provided a mixture of mirth and pathos because the gap was so wide between deliverer and message.
Like so many other North American conservatives, the Harper party preached the gospel but forgot most of the chapters. They cut taxes all right, but they squandered the surplus they inherited, ran up big deficits and let the size of government grow, including the number of civil servants. They cut a few small programs, but unleashed a bunch of new ones in the form of programs or tax expenditures.
Spending went up fast before the recession and skyrocketed during it. Conservative MPs relished the spending and the photo-ops, ministerial visits, even prime ministerial visits, that accompanied these announcements. They were politicos just like the others, spending and spreading money and using taxpayers’ money to advertise the spending to create a favourable impression for the Conservative Party.
Now, as they finalize the March 29 budget, the Conservatives are planning spending cuts. But they have exempted all transfers to provinces and individuals, so they are left only with federal programs to cut, something they have not done in six years.
They have been sending all sorts of mixed messages about the severity of what is to come, which in turn reflects the confusion of conservatives so evident for so long throughout North America.
Editor's note: The Democrats had majorities in the House Representatives for 14 years of the 20 years of the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; the Republicans had majorities in the Senate for 10 out of those years. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper edition and an earlier online version of this column.