The new conservative message: "We're from the government. Trust us."
Not so very long ago, conventional wisdom held that the federal government was on its way out as a force in society. In January 2000, Government Executive published a special issue marking the turn of the millennium, featuring a cover tag line reading, "Bureaucracy is dead. Now what?"
In that issue, James Pinkerton, a White House staffer in the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush, offered some advice to future civil servants. "To be sure," he wrote, "the Reaganites didn't win all of their fights against 'Big Gummint,' or even most of them. But they did win the biggest fight of all. . . . [The] shift from public sector to private sector is the fundamental and enduring reality that will shape your careers, at least for the next few decades."
But Pinkerton did throw in a few caveats about areas in which government could rebound. "One of these days," he predicted, "a 'peacekeeping' mission is going to suffer a bad blow-back, in terms of terrorism, nuclear weapons or both. That would be a tragedy for America, but it would be good news for the military-industrial complex."
As it turned out, the tragedy didn't come in the context of a peacekeeping mission, but it did come, on Sept. 11, 2001. And now Pinkerton's vision of the future of government has shifted 180 degrees. In a January column in Newsday, he presented an apocalyptic vision in which technological advances put ever more deadly weapons in the hands of terrorists. "What will 'give,' almost certainly, is freedom," Pinkerton wrote. "After a sufficient number of tragedies and catastrophes, the survival instinct will assert itself, and the source of the problem will be eliminated, or we will die trying. . . . Thus, the human prospect here on Earth: an all-knowing and all-powerful government."
Pinkerton lamented that "we are nowhere close to fulfilling our potential destiny" to deal with this dilemma: emigration to outer space.
Oddly, though, many conservatives not only don't share Pinkerton's vision of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, but are quite comfortable with the growth of Uncle Sam's power and authority. Just a little more than a decade ago, Republicans jump-started their efforts to wrest control of the House of Representatives by issuing a Contract with America in which they promised "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public's money."
But in December, after The New York Times reported that President Bush had authorized warrantless wiretapping of American citizens in an effort to root out information about potential terrorist attacks, prominent Republicans dismissed concerns about government intrusiveness and executive overreach as irrelevant in a post-9/11 world. "I don't agree with the libertarians," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "I want my security first. I'll deal with all the details after that."
In an online chat on Washingtonpost.com, prominent conservative jurist Richard Posner, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, argued that "effective counterterrorism does entail some reduction in privacy. I don't think most people would mind the government's scrutinizing their conversations for information of potential intelligence value if they trusted the government not to misuse the information."
Vice President Dick Cheney forcefully stated the Bush administration's position: "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think the world we live in demands it." The administration's quest to exercise such authority predates the 9/11 attacks and extends beyond the war on terror. In 2004, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told National Journal that as far back as Bush's 2001 transition, "there was a recognition, and I think it was kind of a sad recognition, that the previous administration allowed for the erosion of some executive authority. . . . The president wanted to restore, not just accept . . . the executive authority that presidents had traditionally been able to exercise."
President Clinton gamely tried to declare the end of the era of big government in 1996 precisely because Republicans had succeeded in convincing voters that government couldn't be trusted to handle the nation's problems. What a very short road it turned out to be from there to a world in which conservatives assert: "We're from the government. Trust us."