Questioning the modern welfare state’s wisdom or solvency is the most effective way to irritate those of a liberal political orientation. Raising doubts about its constitutionality at the federal level is something no Democratic candidate or loyal rank and file voter would ever be caught engaging in. The identity of the modern American left is distinctly defined by a no-questions-asked embrace of federal money for allegedly charitable purposes.
Most conservatives are excellent at outlining the ways our system for helping the needy is gamed and taken advantage of. They are also accurate when stressing the role of churches and individuals in helping the downtrodden; generosity is more honorable when done voluntarily and not due to an implicit threat from the IRS. But what frequently goes unasked is whether conservatives have become equally uncritical when it comes to the parts of government they hold no aversion toward.
Newly elected Tea Party Senator Rand Paul recently stated that “Many Republicans treat war like Democrats treat welfare,” shedding light on a glaring deficiency in conservative critique of the states’ growth. While they are spot on in analyzing federal welfare’s potential to erode social mores, this suspicion is absent when it comes to the claims government makes about war and foreign policy.
Conservatives once prided themselves on jealously guarding America’s sovereignty and stressing only judicious overseas intervention. When Ronald Reagan was faced with the 1983 killing of 241 Marines in Beirut, he decided to pull the troops out instead of further enmeshing his nation in difficult to comprehend Arab internal politics. No fear-tinged lectures were given about “Surrender” or “Cowardice”; Republican stalwarts like Reagan instinctively understood the distinction between protecting America and wasting taxpayer dollars in a part of the world we share little in common with.
But many of those who embrace the neoconservative philosophy heap outright scorn on Republicans who would exhibit these characteristics today. When John McCain derided as “isolationist” anyone who opposes the Libyan bombing campaign, he was using logic that flew in the face of the Republican tradition of foreign policy realism alive as recently as the George H. W. Bush years. But fortunately the Arizona senator is becoming a minority in his own party.
Most Republicans readily acknowledge domestic government intervention causes unintended consequences such as unemployment and inflation. But frequently overlooked is that American overseas intervention, no matter how noble it sounds in the abstract, often holds the same potential for unforeseeable outcomes. Conservatives like Robert Taft and Reagan understood this, backing use of the military that was reserved for constitutionally prescribed national defense purposes only.
This traditional Republican foreign policy is slowly coming back into style. Nation building and democracy spreading experiments no longer elicit enthusiasm among conservatives; trillion dollar deficits and an ultra-hawkish left wing president have helped reignite a desire to see a small government footprint at home and abroad. Any conservative hoping to establish their debt-shrinking prowess must now put Pentagon spending on the table next to the litany of federal handouts.
Any Republican who questioned overseas expenditures was sure to be banished to the conservative ghetto during the all war, all the time Rumsfeld/McCain era of GOP dominance. Today, with a debt-concerned and war weary public, asking these same questions might just mean a seat in the Oval Office.